Harry Redknapp can remember being afraid to put Gareth Bale's name on the team sheet. This time last year the Welshman had played 24 Premier League games for Tottenham Hotspur without ever finishing on the winning side. He was weighed down by the statistic and he was not the only one. "It was a burden for me," Redknapp said after watching Bale's latest master class. "Sir Alex Ferguson said to me: 'How can you pick him? I couldn't pick him.' I'm superstitious, so it was difficult."
How times have changed. Redknapp now talks about Bale not only being a key member of the Spurs side but also one of the most sought-after players in his position in the world.
"I can't think of a better left-sided player [in Britain], really," the Tottenham manager said. "That left foot of his is amazing, he can run all day and he can head it – he's 6ft 2in. He's got everything. You couldn't even put a value on him. Almost any club in the world would want to buy him – in fact, I know they would."
There would certainly be no shortage of takers after watching his second goal. With the ball close to shoulder height, Bale cocked his left leg and executed a sumptuous volley to spear the ball into the top corner. It was a goal that said everything about the confidence Bale is playing with. As he wheeled away to celebrate, there was even a ripple of applause from the Stoke supporters. "It was unbelievable technique," Redknapp said.
It was also redemption for Bale. A little under two years ago he gave away a penalty here and was sent off in a chastening defeat that left Tottenham bottom of the table and hastened Juande Ramos's departure as manager. Redknapp took over a week later and set about rejuvenating Spurs, although it was a good while longer before he started to get the best out of Bale, and for a period it looked as though the 21-year-old might be sold.
Redknapp claims he would never have allowed Bale to leave because "you knew there was a player in there", but he also needed the youngster to mature. "I think he's toughened up," Redknapp said. "When I first came, he was still a baby and every time he got a knock, he'd limp off, and then be all right again in five minutes. He realised he had to be tougher mentally if he was going to make it in the Premier League, and I think he's done that.
"His confidence is sky high – he's become an amazing player. I think he will be [as good as Ashley Cole]. Ashley is fantastic. He started as a left-winger at Arsenal and he's ended up at left-back, and this kid's the same. If he's going to be the best anywhere, I think it'll be from left-back. I've got Benoît [Assou-Ekotto], who does well for me there. But in the long term, it's all in front of [Bale at left-back]."
Bale's first brace in the Premier League, which owed much to the vision of Aaron Lennon, could not have been better timed given the paucity of Tottenham's attacking options. Spurs, who yesterday confirmed that William Gallas has signed a one-year contract, were missing three of their frontline strikers, although Redknapp believes Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko could return for Wednesday's Champions League play-off second leg against Swiss side Young Boys. "It's a big game but so was this," Redknapp said. "You don't want your league position to start suffering early on."
That is exactly Tony Pulis's concern. Stoke City's manager has seen his side lose their opening two matches, and next up in the league is a trip to Chelsea, where they were hammered 7-0 in April. Poor in the first half, Stoke improved after the break and the substitute Tuncay Sanli should have grabbed an equaliser before the late skirmish that saw Robert Huth impede Heurelho Gomes and Jon Walters bundle the ball over the line. The referee, Chris Foy, was perfectly positioned but inexplicably gave neither a foul nor a goal.
"We are just desperately disappointed," said Pulis, who will be without Mamady Sidibé for 12 months after the substitute snapped his Achilles tendon. "We said it last year – we didn't have enough clinical finishers, people who will score goals. We brought Tunny on when the game had turned and we were in the ascendancy, and that's where Tunny's at his best.
"You'd expect someone of that quality to actually take those chances. Unfortunately he didn't."
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.