THE bottle of bubbly representing one of Gareth Bale’s many outstanding Saints displays still takes pride of place at his parents’ Cardiff home.
It was on November 11, 2006 that Bale capped a magnificent performance at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light with a last-minute equaliser for George Burley’s side.
So good was he that afternoon that Sunderland broke with tradition and named an opposition player as man-of-the-match.
Bale’s parents, Frank and Debbie, remember the day well.
“Niall Quinn [then Sunderland chairman] asked Gareth to go to the hospitality area for their man-of-the-match presentation and then explained they were making an exception because he had played so well!” recalls his proud mum.
“We’ve never opened the champagne, it's kept in our living room and still has the Sunderland AFC sticker on it.”
There were many brilliant Bale performances in 2006-07, his one full season in a Saints shirt and one in which he became a man when he was barely 17.
His rampaging runs from left-back were a feature of a campaign that ended with a play-off semi-final defeat, on penalties, at Derby County.
That was a game Bale missed due to injury, before his £7m move to Spurs. He had started the season in explosive fashion at Pride Park and did not take his foot off the accelerator.
His parents recall his first two goals – exquisite free kicks in the first two games – as though they were yesterday.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t get to the first game against Derby, but it was on TV so we managed to see his free kick,” says Debbie.
“We were with family and friends and all cheered when that went in!
“But at the same time we were devastated we weren’t there so he told us he would have to do it again when he played his next game against Coventry [at St Mary’s three days later]. Of course, he did!”
It is hard to believe now Bale is one of the Premier League’s most formidable athletes, but it has been well documented in these pages that Saints nearly released him as a 15- year-old, due to his relatively late physical development.
A confident performance for the under-18s away to Norwich ensured he stayed on. “It was debatable whether they would sign him but we put across our view that Gareth was improving all the time and they gave him one more game,” says Debbie.
“He did really well, setting Theo [Walcott] up for two goals. A week later, we got the call to say he was being kept on.
“Not long after that Southampton’s sports scientists predicted he would be 6ft 1in when he finished growing – and they were right.”
Bale is now being discussed in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. His talents were first spotted by Rod Ruddick, the club’s former Bath satellite academy manager, at the age of seven.
Debbie takes up the story and is occasionally prompted by Frank, a former school caretaker who now works for his son.
“Gareth was playing in an under-nines five-a- side tournament in Newport. Rod was pouring himself a coffee from his flask when Gareth caught his eye, running with the ball and beating his man in a way he had never seen before from a seven-year-old.
“Rod never got to drink his coffee! He went straight to Frank and asked if he could bring Gareth to the Bath academy the following week. They normally gave lads a six-week trial but had seen enough of Gareth after three.
“We couldn’t believe it, especially as Southampton were still a Premier League club at the time.”
There were early hints of Bale’s incredible athletic prowess.
“He learnt to ride his bike without stabilisers, swam without lessons and he helped win the Welsh Schools Cup when he played a bit of hockey,” continues Debbie.
Bale was also a talented 800m and 1,500m runner at Whitchurch High School, where Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton was a contemporary.
“They’re still in touch, Sam’s a huge Spurs fan,” laughs Debbie.
Bale’s PE teacher, Gwyn Morris, struggled to accommodate him on the football field.
“We had to make up special rules for him,” Morris once told the Sports Pink. “In a normal game we had to limit him to one touch and he was never allowed to use his left foot! It was the only way we could have an even game.”
Bale soon flew the family nest, a month before his 16th birthday.
“His school was superb,” says Debbie, an operations manager for a solicitors firm.
“When Gareth was 14, he would go there on the Monday, travel to Southampton for training in the evening, play a game on the Tuesday and then come back on the Tuesday night.
“But his studies didn’t suffer and he came out with six GCSE’s, including an A.
“He went to Southampton full-time at 15 the Saturday.”
Bale’s parents had no doubt Southampton was the right club. The academy’s holistic approach played a crucial role in his development.
Debbie is effusive when I mention The Lodge, what used to be the academy boys’ second home on Hill Lane, a goal-kick away from what was The Dell.
“We loved the set up and the staff, they nurtured him all the way through. Jules and Mike, who has sadly since passed away, were fabulous for them.
“They looked after them like they were their own children. It was a superb environment, not regimented and the boys always came first.
“There were 12 of them in there, which prevented him from getting lonely. Gareth was treated as a person and allowed to express himself.
I don’t know if he’d have got that at a bigger club.
“Saying goodbye to friends who were released was the hardest part, but that stood him in good stead. It was part of growing up.
“I know he looks back on his time at Southampton with great fondness and so do we.”
Bale became Saints’ second-youngest player, aged just 16 and 275 days (five months younger than the record set by Walcott, his roommate, less than a year earlier), when he played the full 90 minutes in a 2-0 win against MiIlwall on April 17, 2006.
He made 43 appearances the following season, scoring five goals and displaying remarkable stamina for a 17-year-old.
“George Burley was a good manager for him but we dealt more with the first-team coach, Glynn Snodin, who was a great influence,”
“They gave him confidence and let him express himself. The club was also very helpful.
The Lodge was closed that Christmas so they let us stay in a flat.
“It only had a settee and a couple of beds but it was enough for us. We didn’t have any cooking equipment so the four of us, including Gareth’s sister Vicky, went for Christmas dinner at a pub in Eastleigh!”
After his move to Spurs the following summer – it was an easy choice over Arsenal and Manchester United as he was assured he would play games – Bale was the subject of an unwanted record, failing to finish on the winning side in his first 24 appearances.
“It was just a stupid statistic blown out of all proportion,”
says Debbie. “But Gareth didn’t let that get him down.
“He knew things would come good if he kept working hard. In half those games he was man of the match!”
Bale’s parents ensured they were at the San Siro the night their boy made Europe sit up and take notice, two years ago.
A month later he inspired a 3-1 win against Inter Milan in the return game at White Hart Lane.
But it was Bale's second-half Champions League hat-trick away to the Italians that first brought him to the attention of a wider audience.
It was not enough to overturn Spurs’ 4-0 half-time deficit, but life has not been the same since.
His mum and dad still laugh about the previous day’s happenings at the Hotel Milano.
“We were very excited to be in Milan at such a nice hotel so we sent Gareth a text saying how lovely it was – then saw the cardboard cockerel in the reception ready to welcome the Spurs players!" smiles Debbie.
“It was very funny, Gareth came to our room for a chat and then scored the hat-trick.
“We keep thinking he can’t achieve anymore and then two months later.... gee whizz!
“Every year there seems to be more from him. We still have to pinch ourselves and I don’t think he’s aware of how good he is, even now.
“Lots of people would tell you he’s no different and we still live in the same house and have the same lifestyle.
“Luckily the paparazzi certainly don’t follow him around and that’s helped him.
“I think it’s because he’s Welsh – the English players get a lot more attention.”
Bale’s return to St Mary’s will be his first game for Spurs since arguably the greatest night of his career.
It is only a fortnight since his two late goals against Scotland, including an 89th-minute screamer, gave Wales victory in a dramatic World Cup qualifier at the Millennium Stadium.
Like his career, it was the stuff of Boy’s Own comic books.
“It’s hard not being up there with the other nations but Gareth loves being part of the Welsh team; in the same year he became Wales’ youngest player and youngest goalscorer he also played for the U17, U19 and U21 teams,” concludes Debbie. “Both of us are immensely proud."