The telltale signs were there, even as Gareth Bale drifted further into the shadows.
Even as the skies darkened during his Real Madrid career, a reminder that the fire was still burning.
Last summer, as Spanish football came out of standstill, Zinedine Zidane tested the speed of his players, their strength, their ability to secure La Liga glory.
Gareth Bale could make his long-awaited Tottenham return to West Ham on Sunday
The 31-year-old returns to training after recovering from a knee injury and getting back into shape
Bale, they say, finished at the top of the class. And yet, in Real’s last 12 games, Zidane has only used the 31-year-old once.
It was the surest sign of burnt bridges, but also proof that Bale’s guns were still firing. This weekend against West Ham, Bale can prove how much gunpowder remains.
His second coming for Tottenham comes more than seven years since his last Premier League appearance and nearly a decade to the day since a night in Milan catapulted Bale to stardom.
Against Inter in 2010, a superb hat-trick put him on the right track for the Bernabeu.
But amid all the nostalgia, questions remain: does Gareth Bale still exist? Or, at age 31, has his threat diminished with his golf handicap?
In recent days, Tottenham has provided the strange teaser.
Bale worked to get games crisp following knee issues and social media saw flashes of those pumping legs and left foot.
He proved his guns are still fired after passing Real Madrid’s fitness tests after lockdown
Some things never change – even during training in his early days at Tottenham, Bale gave a glimpse of what to expect.
“There were things he did… where Luka Modric would turn and (be) like, ‘Wow, did we just see that? “Former assistant coach Clive Allen told Sportsmail.
“They quickly realized that he could do things that no one else could.
For a while, they were only “glimpses”. And then Tottenham found themselves on their way to a Champions League at San Siro – four goals and a man at halftime.
“It took a phenomenal effort to get out of there without really being embarrassed,” says Allen. “Harry (Redknapp) spoke to the group and that was the message: we basically had to save face, really… and, pwoarh, Gareth just came to life.
In the 52nd minute, Bale broke free from inside his own half before scoring from a tight angle. In the downtime, another pause, another arrival of the rocket. A minute later, his third came with a nice first shot. The pace, power and precision of the finishes were frightening.
“It was the night he came of age,” Allen recalls.
The Spurs left empty-handed but Bale’s star had set sail. He tortured Maicon again in the second leg as hours of hidden transplant finally paid off.
The Wales captain came of age in a scintillating performance against Inter Milan in 2010
“He became a phenomenal athlete… he put in a lot of work and it took a long time to take effect,” says Allen.
Sportsmail columnist Micah Richards remembers ‘eating Bale for lunch’ during his days in Southampton, only for Bale to ‘destroy’ him a few seasons later.
“He (became) a different person, a different form, a totally different athlete,” recalls former Liverpool defender Glen Johnson.
And with confidence came consistency. In two seasons before Los Blancos called, Bale had 30 goals and 14 assists, with Andre Villas-Boas saying his decision to transfer Bale to a free role also ‘unlocked’ his potential and helped his career ‘explode “.
Then, after Madrid paid him a world record fee in 2013, Bale was generally deployed to the right of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Fifteen major trophies followed but his face is never quite in good shape.
He failed to convince the fans or the Spanish press.
“They expect the Galacticos to do everything – me being me and not wanting to do these things, maybe that’s why they didn’t love me so much,” Bale recently admitted.
Neither he nor David Beckham spoke much Spanish. But the point is that Becks played the game, befriending Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. Bale lived more on the outskirts – and on the golf course.
“I am very calm,” he says. “(I) stay away from the cameras.
But it became more difficult as relations with Zidane grew strained.
It is claimed that the real boss thinks all players should be equal; Bale wanted different (if not special) treatment.
Bale has won 15 major trophies at Real Madrid but has been criticized for staying in the shadows
An example: after so many injuries, the winger has a reliable recovery process but Zidane preferred that the team recover together.
Their disagreements never escalated and didn’t stop Bale from becoming a superstar.
In 2017-18, the final season of Zidane’s debut spell, Bale’s Kiev kick capped an incredible campaign.
Analysis from Analytics FC shows that he was one of the most dangerous attackers in the world: even though his explosive pace had started to decline, his powers had changed. Beyond Bale’s 21 goals, there were few better for finding space or delivering killer balls. He was particularly devastating in a forward two, or entering the box from the right flank.
Having Ronaldo on the opposite wing has proven to be a blessing and a curse. Bale had the perfect foil, but he was no longer his team’s talisman.
Even after his departure, Ronaldo’s shadow loomed large. Bale came under fire for not filling the void and Los Blancos remained unbalanced, channeling attacks to the left.
The result? By the time he returned to Spurs, Bale was scoring less, creating less chances, dribbling less often and with less success.
Statistics only tell half the story, however. How many players shine when their playing time is so limited, their future so uncertain?
The forward is an ideal fit for Tottenham’s right side alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min
“When you’re not happy it’s tough to play at your top level,” Bale recently told Sky. Now, back at Spurs, the “buzz” is back.
“I feel full of energy again,” he added. “This always leads to good performance normally. “
More crucial still? As Bale passed his 30s, he adapted.
“I’m not the 20-year-old who sprints 90 yards across the touchline every two seconds,” he said.
“When we get older, we realize that we have to manage ourselves a little more and choose the right moments.
Admittedly, Analytics FC found Bale still competing with Kylian Mbappe as a common threat. Only now he is more savvy with his positioning and shooting.
Some in Spain, meanwhile, feel that Bale’s game intelligence has not been appreciated.
Even at the start of last season, Zidane tended to pick the Welshman for tough away games due, he said, to his defensive discipline.
“When you’re younger you just want to impress, go 100% all the time,” Bale said. “When you get older, you have the experience to manage yourself, to manage the game.”
Johnson agrees. “No one is the same player at 30,” he said. “(Bale) developed… it’s almost like what (Ryan) Giggs did. Giggs played for another two or three years and passed no one, but he did play a slightly deeper fantasy role.
Then there are the inevitable payoffs of spending seven years alongside the best in the world.
Spurs haven’t won any silverware since Bale left and Mourinho will need winners to end it
All of this begs the question, what will Bale 2.0 deliver in lilywhite?
Hugo Lloris is the lone survivor of his last Premier League appearance, but they still look like a good game.
Alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, the 31-year-old appears to be an ideal fit for Mourinho’s right side – minus the career winger, plus a powerful threat from inside the box.
Data from Analytics FC suggests that Kane’s recent overabundance of assists is no fluke – the Spurs captain is one of Europe’s most threatening playmakers.
Now it’s up to Mourinho to shape a Liverpool-like frontline – wide, swift forwards knitted together by a creative No.9.
Bale’s greatest weapon, however, is perhaps his craftsmanship. Spurs haven’t picked up any silverware since leaving and Mourinho will need winners to end this drought.
Injury will be his biggest concern – Bale has already missed 33 games since the start of 2018-19. But if he stays in shape, statistics and common sense suggest the 31-year-old can still terrorize the defenses. The San Siro ball has become a more measured, versatile and mature talent – hardened by age and experience.
“I still believe that I have a lot to offer,” he recently insisted. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise… time will tell.”