By John Percy
By the end, the only bond between Gareth Bale and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid was one of mutual contempt. The pair had always had a fractious relationship, but when Bale and Zidane could not even bring themselves to exchange a cursory "Good morning" at Real's training complex, it was clear to all parties that the Welshman's time at the club was over.
It was about the same time that Tottenham Hotspur sensed an opportunity to bring Bale back to the Premier League. For nearly two years, the signing was a personal project for Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, and having finally realised it last month, Bale is now in line to make his second "debut" for the club on Sunday against West Ham.
For Bale, the move represents a liberation from the stifling atmosphere of Madrid, where his relationship with Zidane and sections of the Real fan base had grown toxic. Bale was worn down by all the politics, the PR spin and hysterical headlines which accompanied his every move. They were repeated so often as to become cliched: he was more interested in playing golf than football, he had not bothered to learn the language, he was despised by many of his teammates.
When he donated €500,000 ($910,000) to hospitals in Madrid, as the city first became gripped by the pandemic, it barely merited a mention and the supposed golf fixation became almost an in-joke, a point underlined by the "Wales, Golf, Madrid. In that order" flag with which he danced around the pitch when Wales secured their spot at Euro 2020.
The perceived failure to speak Spanish was rather more difficult to take. It was briefed to influential members of the Madrid press that Bale would not learn the language, yet it was simply untrue. By the time he left, he spoke the language fluently.
Bale's impasse with club and manager deepened after the collapse of his move to China in July 2019. The proposed transfer to Jiangsu Suning had been agreed, only for the Real board to call it off.
Bale's representative in Madrid, Joshua Barnett, landed in China, only to be given the news that the deal was dead in the water. It was hastily leaked to a few sources that Bale's family had blocked it, claims dismissed at the time as "outrageous".
This only reinforced Bale's desire to leave, with Zidane equally frustrated at the club's failure to offload a player he had no intention of making a mainstay of his team. Relations between the pair had been sour ever since the Frenchman's first spell in charge at Real, when they are understood to have disagreed over Zidane's training methods. Bale was picking up niggly injuries, something he felt was due to how he was being used in training. While he reported for duty every day, it was then that the deep-freeze treatment began.
The numbers from the past 12 months or so are startling. Though Bale has lifted four Champions Leagues and two La Liga titles, and is the all-time top-scoring British player in Spain's top division, he has not started more than two games in a row since the start of September 2019, when he scored twice against Villarreal before being sent off. He has not scored since January 22.
For the final eight games of last season he was not involved at all. Bale was so dispirited that he asked not to travel for Real's Champions League game at Manchester City, in June, reasoning there was no point in him travelling hundreds of miles from his family when he was just going to be sitting in the stands.
There then appeared to be an unspoken understanding that he would never play for the club again, and Bale needed a change, while Zidane was certainly not going anywhere, given he was just about to win the club's first La Liga title in three years.
Progress began to be made on the Spurs deal, yet Levy had competition. Manchester United had been interested for some time but never got remotely close to meaningful negotiations. Bayern Munich also inquired over a deal but simply could not afford it.
With Real agreeing to pay more than 50 per cent of his £600,000-a-week salary to facilitate a move, the sums finally added up for Levy. Bale's return happened relatively quickly, as he signed on loan until June next year. There is no option to extend it to next season - which will be the final year of his contract in Madrid - but Bale and his camp are open-minded if this year goes well.
Suddenly Bale is smiling again. His agent, Jonathan Barnett, admitted Bale "loves" Spurs and that affection has remained undiminished since moving for £85 million in September 2013. There is a feelgood factor under Jose Mourinho after the 6-1 dismantling of United at Old Trafford, and they face West Ham with momentum behind them.
Bale knows he will need time. He sustained a knee injury on duty with Wales and has not appeared in a club shirt since June 24. He may not be the turbocharged Bale he once was, but he is only 31 and is now fuelled by having a point to prove.
Zidane, for one, may yet rue the day he allowed his relationship with Real's most expensive signing to turn so sour.