By Liam Twomey
Everyone had an opinion. Pundits, ex-pros, journalists – this one included – all gave their two cents. In the end, though, the only views that counted belong to the men we watch every week at football grounds or on television, and the consensus they formed was resounding: Gareth Bale is both the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year.
There will be those who disagree, though perhaps less in number than when Bale won the senior award for the first time two years ago, on the back of what seemed like a handful of outstanding performances. This time Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and Juan Mata all enjoyed significant support and staked excellent claims. On pure footballing merit, any would have been worthy winners.
But so, emphatically, is Bale. If the last two years served to give us a series of tantalising glimpses of a phenomenal talent waiting to blossom, this season has proved our eyes were not mistaken.
|BALE'S SEASON SO FAR
Now his position defies easy characterisation. It is somewhere between the midfield and attacking lines, frequently drifting wide on either flank in search of pockets of space and the ball. ‘Game-changer’ is perhaps the term which fits best, and it is no overstatement.
Andre Villas-Boas must be given credit for recognising the potential of Bale and giving him the conditions in which to flourish, but the 23-year-old has been the primary architect of his own astonishing rise. He has honed himself into a fearsome weapon capable of scoring spectacularly from almost any range or angle, finding a cute pass or ripping through a defence with blistering pace.
His current tally of 29 goals in 48 matches for club and country in all competitions – almost double his previous best – is the most tangible evidence of his lightning progression. Tottenham are often criticised for their repeated failure to sign a top-class striker. Bale is the reason they haven’t needed one.
Many of those strikes have been memorable, too: The surging runs and unerring finishes against Manchester United and Norwich, that stupendous 30-yard screamer in the last minute against West Ham, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it control and finish against Swansea, that classy dink over Joe Hart against Manchester City, and many more. It is a highlight reel to match any other.
This, of course, is the very reason why some argue the choice of Bale for these awards is a cop-out. They insist those who voted for him were lured away from more deserving candidates by spectacular strikes and, in particular, an incredible run of 11 goals in nine games from the end of January to mid-March which, happily, coincided with the bulk of the voting process.
Others would suggest that the lack of defensive players on the PFA shortlist proves footballers are just as biased towards the sport’s more glamourous positions as the rest of us, although the PFA Team of the Year rewarded the stellar performances of David De Gea, Pablo Zabaleta, Rio Ferdinand, Jan Vertonghen and Leighton Baines.
But to make such criticisms is to miss the point. Votes of this kind are inescapably subjective, and it is actually heartening to know that footballers are just as readily charmed by a peer who captures the imagination with their brilliance, or who provokes instinctive feelings of awe or admiration.
It is also about fine margins. Van Persie and Mata have both enjoyed sensational individual campaigns, while Suarez has been undone only by his seemingly insatiable appetite for controversy. Eden Hazard, too, must fancy his chances for next year, having made both shortlists in his debut season in English football.
Bale, however, is the one who has produced the most thrilling, defining and decisive moments, and it is this to which his team-mates and many tormented opponents have responded. He may yet be similarly endorsed by the Football Writers’ Association next month, although one suspects Van Persie’s title-winning heroics and compelling media narrative will make him a formidable rival.
For now though, Bale can take the time to revel in his status as the golden boy of the Premier League. With distinguished continental heads turning by the dozen, even those who begrudge him such a status can only hope he remains on these shores to enjoy it for years to come.
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