Not a week has gone by without an opinion on Gareth Bale. The Welshman has been under the spotlight more than ever this season with accusations that he is selfish, reports linking him with a move back to the Premier League and most recently his agent defending him by saying his team-mates need to pass to him more.
Whistles have rained down on him from his own supporters, frustrations have been taken out on corner flags and opinion polls over whether he should be included in Real Madrid’s starting eleven have been more frequent than Cristiano Ronaldo goals this season.
Bale has been a figure of controversy in the Spanish capital this season after his final heroics of a only a year ago but for his country he is the man putting Wales on course for a first major tournament since in half a century. He is the talisman for Wales and has escaped the trials and tribulations that he comes under with the European champions.
We caught up with proud Wales fan Andy Morgan to get his thoughts on the treatment of his country’s star man, the differences in his international and club roles and what he expects from Bale in the future.
1) How is Gareth Bale looked upon by the Wales fans?
He’s undoubtedly our main man and I don’t think he could do any wrong in the eyes of Welsh fans, myself included. As a nation we’ve produced some good players over the years like Ian Rush and obviously Ryan Giggs but I don’t think any of them have had the impact that Bale has on this current Welsh team. He’s the focal point of the team and whenever he is playing you go into any game thinking we’ve got a chance of getting something from it. He’s something really, really special and will most likely go on to be considered one of our greatest players.
2) What kind of role does he play with the national side?
In the most recent game against Israel he seemed to have a bit of a license to roam but there have been a few occasions where we’ve had no choice but to play him through the middle as a centre forward as that’s an area where we are seriously lacking. His great strength is obviously running with the ball so playing as a central front man like he was forced to do against Cyprus didn’t really suit him but he still managed to create one of our two goals and his pace always provides a threat and an out ball if you’re under a bit of pressure. When you’ve got a player like him at your disposal then you build a team around him to allow him to do what he does best and Chris Coleman seems to be getting that balance right.
3) Do you think he can lead you to Euro 2016?
Given we’ve never qualified for a tournament in my lifetime (and a few decades before that!) I’m cautious about saying this in case I jinx it, but yes, I do. He’s a talisman for us and I think he thrives on the responsibility of being looked at as the man to win us games. We’ve got a few genuine quality players around him in Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ashley Williams who we’d miss if they were to get injured or suspended but the team is rightly built around Bale. If he’s fit for all of our remaining qualifiers then I think we’ll qualify.
4) Have you noticed a difference in Bale for Wales before and after his move to Madrid?
Yeah, and not necessarily in his performance levels because he’s always performed for Wales and not really had a dip that I can recall. The big thing for me is that he seems to really be embracing the responsibility of being looked to as the man that needs to win us games and he wants to be a senior player. Ashley Williams is the captain but Bale is the next biggest influence on the team as I see it – he really leads by example.
The quality in the Welsh squad isn’t a patch on that at Real but he doesn’t shirk the dirty work of pressing the ball or throw his hands in the air if the ball to him isn’t the greatest like some other superstars might do. That certainly seems to be inspiring the players around him to reach a level that a lot of them probably don’t reach with their own clubs.
5) How do you feel Bale has been treated by Madrid fans and press recently?
I’ve not seen enough Madrid games to say whether he’s deserved the criticism he’s been getting but in the games I have seen it does seem to have knocked his confidence a bit. He’s been on an upward curve for the last three or four years that pretty much peaked last season with the Champions League win so to be getting this level of flak is going to have an impact on him.
He set the bar pretty high for himself last year so as a pundit or Madrid fan you probably would ask yourself why he’s not done the same this season. But he’s in a team with some of the best players in the world so a dip in form is going to be exaggerated so to me it does seem that he’s become a bit of an easy target.
6) Do you think he’s capable of taking over from Cristiano Ronaldo as the main man at the Bernabeu?
Given how I’ve said he’s thrived on the responsibility of being the main man for Wales then I’d have to say he can. Ronaldo’s a bit of a footballing freak so whether he can score 40 or 50 goals in a season is a different matter but he’s got a lot of the attributes Ronaldo has with pace, power, aerial ability and he can take a pretty handy set-piece. He’s still only 25 and learning from someone like Ronaldo and how he dedicates himself to his game is only going to help him go to the next level.
There was a time at Spurs where he got a lot of stick because he didn’t win a game with them for a ridiculously long time and he turned himself into the player that he is now. If he can come away from this criticism and have a similar response then as a Welsh fan it’s exciting to think just how good he could become.
7) One of the accusations levelled at him in Madrid is that he can be ‘selfish’ – do you agree?
No more than I’d say Ronaldo is selfish or someone like Ibrahimovic is selfish. I think he’s at his best when he’s direct and backs himself to beat a player and from what I’ve seen of him in a Madrid shirt this season he’s lost that a little bit, possibly because of those accusations. I think he’s played with a bit more freedom to do that with Wales this season because instead of Cristiano Ronaldo to pass to he’s got David Cotterill who doesn’t quite have the same ability to create something from nothing.
8) …there are also accusations thrown at him that he does not track back defensively? Does he do so with Wales?
As I mentioned earlier, he leads from the front in terms of his pressing and because of his pace and our lack of striking options he’s quite often the man furthest forward so you wouldn’t want him tracking back as there’d be nobody up front. He’s our main threat, unlike at Madrid when you’ve got them all over the pitch so it’s not the best use of his energy to have him chasing back really. But when it’s needed and if he has played out wide then he works really hard, we’re not a team that can afford to carry anyone who’s slacking and he buys into that. Ironically, when I’ve seen him for Madrid recently he seems pretty diligent into getting back into the defensive shape, often at the expense of not being up there when they break forward.
9) How does he compare with the great Ryan Giggs? Has he, or can he, surpass him as a player and as a Wales legend?
In my opinion, he’s already surpassed Giggs in a Welsh shirt. Giggs was a great player who should have had won so many more Welsh caps but I think the decision to join up with the squad was often taken out of his hands by a certain Scotsman. His longevity is something Bale will probably not equal but in terms of performance in a Welsh shirt, Bale is better for me. You anticipate something happening when Giggs or Bale has the ball at their feet but Bale has made more significant, match-winning contributions than I can remember Giggs making for us.
He’s already scored more international goals than Giggs and will probably have more caps than him in a couple of years time. Giggs will always be a football legend that we’re proud to say is Welsh and played for Wales, but Bale is well on track to being a legend in a Welsh shirt, especially if we get to Euro 2016.
10) Can you see Bale staying at Madrid and proving his doubters wrong or do you sense he will look for a move back to the Premier League?
I really hope he stays at Madrid. The Premier League can be an exciting league to watch but European results over the last few years show that it’s just not got the quality that the Spanish, German or Italian leagues have at the moment so is the lure there for him other than the fact he’d be coming back to the UK?
At the moment you can’t see who he would win a European title with in the Premier League. He proved his doubters wrong at Spurs and I think he can do it again at Madrid. I’d certainly expect him to be at a Madrid for another season and hopefully a few more after that.