While there was a lot to admire about Tottenham's Double-winning team in the early 60s their manager, Bill Nicholson, was not much given to praising individual players in public. That was just his way.

But he did enthuse about the sort of footballers who prompted an expectant buzz in the crowd whenever they had the ball. And just as White Hart Lane used to catch its breath as Cliff Jones prepared to run at defenders on the left, aware that a spectacular goal might be in the offing, so Sunday's crowd will murmur in anticipation when a fellow Welshman, Gareth Bale, gains possession almost anywhere within range of the Arsenal net.

Bale is in the form of his young life. His winning goal for Spurs in the 90th minute at West Ham on Monday, a left-footed rising drive from 30 yards struck with barely a hint of backlift, was his eighth in six matches and his 19th of the season. Hard to believe that three seasons ago Bale set a bizarre record by playing in 24 Premier League games for Tottenham without being on the winning side.

A Spurs footballer aptly summed up what Bale is about. "Everything he does is automatic. When he moves into position for a goal chance it is instinctive. Watch me and you'll see I am seconds late, but all my thinking has to be done in my head. My feet do not do my thinking for me as they do for him."

Actually that was Danny Blanchflower talking about yet another of Bale's compatriots, John Charles. In terms of style and build Bale and Charles have little in common yet both began their careers as defenders.

Leeds United signed Charles as a 17-year-old and he originally played as a centre-half. There he stayed for three seasons before switching to centre-forward where he made an immediate impact, scoring 11 goals in six matches. During his nine-year stay at Elland Road he found the net 150 times in the league, setting a club record of 42 goals in 39 appearances in 1953-54. In five seasons with Juventus he scored 93 goals.

When Tottenham signed Bale from Southampton in the summer of 2007 they assumed they were getting a left-back with strong attacking tendencies and a nice habit of scoring from free-kicks. Once Bale had recovered from a serious knee injury Harry Redknapp saw that his ability to outpace opponents and still retain control of the ball at top speed demanded he be played further forward. So Bale became a left-sided midfielder with an old-fashioned goalscoring winger's tendencies; Cliff Jones with a touch of Tom Finney.

Under André Villas-Boas his game has broadened to the extent that he is liable to pop up anywhere, left, right or centre. The moment he moves into space with the ball on his left foot opposing defenders, not to mention goalkeepers, are in trouble.

After seeing his side beaten by Bale's second goal of the night on Monday Sam Allardyce pointed out the problems faced by opponents when the Spurs player is in this sort of mood. Bale, said Allardyce, has the skill and acceleration to outmanoeuvre those who try to close him down yet if they stand off him he will produce a long-range shot that almost invariably finds the target. And as Mark Lawrenson has observed: "He is one of the quickest players I've ever seen, but he has another gear and the ability to find that extra pace within the next stride."

Bale epitomises the athleticism and versatility of the modern footballer. There may not be a queue of young defenders with similar qualities begging to be revealed further up the pitch but the game is naturally imitative and Bale's success may encourage more coaches and managers to check again on what may be lurking in their squads.

Bobby Robson managed Fulham for a mere nine months in 1968 but during that time he signed a promising 17-year-old left-back from Tonbridge for £1,000. "I saw at once that he had the potential to be an outstanding goalscorer," Robson recalled. "He was very quick and had a thunderbolt of a shot in his left foot. In most of his early games he peppered the boards to the side of goal but I knew it was only a matter of time before he started getting them on target."

Robson was not wrong. The youngster was Malcolm Macdonald.