Martin Cloake, journalist and author of 61: The Spurs Double; The Glory Glory Nights and The Boys from White Hart Lane gives his thoughts on the Gareth Bale transfer and how Daniel Levy used it as an opportunity to build a new team. His latest ebook, Sound of the crowd, has just been released.
Gareth Bale’s transfer was always going to be about signals as much as anything. The need for all parties to take action that sent signals means we won’t know for some time – if ever – exactly how a deal that would make a cracking thriller plot really did pan out. And what we do think we know about it should be taken with a pinch of salt. But, as an extraordinary transfer window for Spurs draws to a close, some signals that are easier to read.
What is perhaps most remarkable is the signal Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has sent out about the depth of his pragmatism. Because, make no mistake, this summer’s activity is a radical change in approach. The signing of Roberto Soldado was the first signal that something different was happening – and not just because he was the striker the club has needed for so long. With Soldado came none of the sell-on value Levy has insisted on since he and ENIC arrived – this was a big signing on big wages for the here and now, someone to deliver the goals to make Spurs contenders rather than just a prospect.
Along with many other Spurs fans I was delighted with the signing. But it was at about this time that I begin to wonder if the Bale sale tales were true. I argued at the start of the summer that selling the Welsh wonder would be a mistake. My reasoning came down to those signals again – I said a sale would signal that Spurs could not hold on to its best players, and would therefore indicate an embrace of second best. I also doubted whether Real Madrid had the money that would be needed to do the deal – especially as they still owed us a chunk of the Modric money.
All summer long, my friend Norman Giller has been telling me the Bale deal has been done pretty much since the end of last season. When someone with Giller’s experience and contacts says something is true, you don’t easily dismiss it. But I still had my doubts. I couldn’t see where the money was coming from and I couldn’t see the sense in the deal for Spurs. But Giller was right – although his intelligence that the deal was “done” seems to refer to agreement in principle rather than one on financial detail. So it seems that Levy knew early on that Gareth was bent on the Bernabau. And this gave him a choice.
He could take the position Spurs didn’t need to sell, Bale was under contract and, come September 2nd, if he was still on the books he’d need to play. Glenn Hoddle said a few days ago that Levy genuinely wanted to keep Bale, believing the team could push on with him in it. Levy must have been very conscious of sending the signal that Spurs can’t hold on to its players – after all, Wayne Rooney apparently does not want to play for Manchester United, nor Luis Suarez for Liverpool, but it looks like they’ll be reporting for duty. And Bale, along with Suarez and Robin van Persie, was one of the three players in the Premiership who could turn a game out of nowhere.
What persuaded Levy to take a different stance we may never know – at least until someone pulls off the unlikely task of persuading the publicity-shy chairman to tell his story in about 10 years’ time. (Any time you want to get in touch, Daniel…) Perhaps it was the strength of Bale’s desire to go to Madrid, fuelled by the strength of his agent’s desire to earn a good wedge, that persuaded Levy, or perhaps he decided to take a chance. Either way, he’s broken with his past strategy.
The emphasis on sell-on value, the English core, the careful investment, the eye on the future at the expense of the present – all that’s gone. Spurs have become more like Manchester City, buying in ready-made players in bulk to assemble a team that can deliver here and now. Ironically, that looks to have been achieved with the aid of the director of football system. Levy stuck with that even when it proved disastrous under a number of managers, then ditched it when the board’s bungling delivered the Ramos fiasco and the unlikely partnership between Levy and Harry Redknapp was forged, and has now reintroduced it. And the signal all that has sent out is that if Spurs can’t have a superstar, they’ll try to replace him with a superteam.
While Levy seems to like presenting the image of a man with an unbendable will, what comes through most strongly from the last few years is his pragmatism. He recognised what Redknapp could do for the club – although he was arguably backed into a corner when he had to turn to Harry – and broke with his philosophy by taking on an old-school manager. He was also astute, and brave, enough to recognise when the club needed to move on, and braver still in taking a chance on AVB when his stock in England was low. And now, he’s made another break with his past in sanctioning this summer’s extraordinary transfer deals.
Some will say Spurs haven’t really spent at all – the Bale money will cover the outlay on what’s inevitably going to be dubbed The Team That Bale Built. I don’t buy that theory. When you buy something, you need to show the money is going to be there, not simply that it will probably be there. And the theory that an agreed deal wasn’t revealed to prevent the price of our targets going up falls down when you remember that everyone’s assumed Spurs would have the Bale money for months.
But neither am I convinced that leopards change their spots, and the image of Levy and Joe Louis doing a Viv Nicholson and deciding to spend, spend, spend is not a convincing one. You still wonder when payback comes, and you’re still left with many questions about how the complex web of finances stacks up. It would be fascinating to find out the detail, but don’t expect to anytime soon – especially as the business of transmitting signals continues with all parties concerned spinning the figures for their own benefit. Take with a pinch of salt, too, the stories about Bale having the hump with Spurs. Convenient scapegoats reduce collateral damage.
What we will find out sooner is whether Levy’s gamble has worked. It may not be popular on a Spurs blog on a derby weekend to refer to the words of Arsene Wenger, but he’s not entirely wrong when he points out that bringing lots of new players in can affect the balance of a squad. AVB will need all his abilities to make this team gel quickly, otherwise everyone will be on his back.
But it looks sure to be an exciting season. The signing of Erik Lamela is the one that’s really captured my imagination, and Spurs have certainly not signalled an embrace of second best. And that’s down to Daniel Levy’s unexpected pragmatism. As John Motson would say: “Quite remarkable.”
Martin Cloake has been following Spurs since 1970 and is the author of a number of books on the club, including the award-winning 61: The Spurs Double; The Glory Glory Nights and The Boys from White Hart Lane. His latest ebook, Sound of the crowd, has just been released.