Gareth Bale is one of those rare footballing talents who can turn a game with a moment of magic. It’s been my privilege as a Welshman (and a Tottenham Hotspur fan) to watch him getting us out of a hole on several occasions; and last year I was one of the army of fans who followed him and the Welsh team at the Euros, during their finest hour.
As I wrote at the time, in my capacity as National Poet of Wales: “A’r haf yn euro’r disgwyl hir, cymerais fy hynt tua Ffrainc, Ac mi a welais ryfeddodau; yn gyntaf, wal goch, a honno’n cyd-symud ac yn canu…”/“As summer gilded years of anticipation, I wended my way towards France. And I beheld marvels; first, a red wall that moved in unison and sang…”
Now we have Don’t Take Me Home, a cinema documentary that lets us relive that story again, but this time with unique access to the players themselves. And what a story it is, for Welsh fans and neutrals alike.
After failing to qualify for a major tournament for nearly 60 years, Wales reached the semi-finals of the European Championships – the smallest country in the history of the competition to progress that far. So when I learnt that Gareth Bale was doing interviews, I jumped at the chance.
The night before I left for Spain, where he plays for Real Madrid, my friends bombarded me with suggestions for questions – some helpful, and some completely off the wall.
In a hotel near his home, Bale looks relaxed in T-shirt and jeans. He may have been the most expensive footballer in the world (Real Madrid reportedly paid €100.8 million, or £85 million, for him in 2013), but he immediately puts me at ease.
Although only 27, he’s been playing for his country for nearly 11 years, and scored his first international goal at the age of 17. But he’s been watching Wales play since he was ten. “I think it might have been against Finland?” he suggests, as he tries to recall his first match. “Jari Litmanen scored, that’s how I remember it… That’s the first one I can really remember. And from then on I always used to go with my dad and my friends.”
Bale was born in Cardiff, to parents Frank, a school caretaker, and Debbie, an operations manager, and although his club career has long since taken him to Southampton, Tottenham and now La Liga, he still has a discernible Cardiff accent, and his affection for the city where he was raised is undiminished. “It just feels like home,” he says. “You feel like you know most people there, friends and family all live there or are from there – it’s just what I call home.”
Does he get to go back often? “Usually when there’s an international! And when we have the Christmas break in Spain, and obviously in the summer.” Despite his extraordinary talent and achievements, Bale has his feet very firmly on the ground. Knowing that his home suburb of Whitchurch in Cardiff boasts two chip shops, I ask him (one of the off-the wall questions suggested to me!) whether he has a favourite? “Hmm… I don’t really eat chips,” he laughs. “I’m more a Nandos kind of guy!”
We turn our attention to Wales at the Euros last summer. Manager Chris Coleman was the architect of Wales’s success. Since Bale has played under four different Welsh managers during his international career, what does he think is Coleman’s secret?
“I think maybe the attention to detail,” he says with obvious respect. “We have a lot of meetings, we do a lot of shape work – he’s tried to instil an identity into our play. Also he’s very much involved with the boys, has a bit of banter, but when things need to be said, he puts his foot down and we all listen. He’s been perfect for us.”
One of Coleman’s key decisions as manager was to appoint Ashley Williams as captain. Again, Bale is full of praise. “He’s a leader, first and foremost, a warrior. He has a good voice in the changing room. He’s Mr Reliant; he’s always there. And I suppose he’s one of the oldest in the group [he’s 32]…” He smiles mischievously. “And you always respect the elders! He’s grown into this role amazingly and he’s taken it in his stride very well.”
Given that Williams is five years older than Bale, would he be interested in the national captaincy, should Williams retire before him? “Obviously I would never turn it down,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “But it’s up to the manager and who he sees fit to be the captain. If it ever happened, it’d be a great honour. But at the moment, Ashley’s the captain and we’re focused on the here and now, not so much the future.”
Throughout our conversation, Bale’s respect for his fellow players is evident. He’s at pains to emphasise that Wales’s success was based on collective strengths rather than individual brilliance.
“I think the whole point for us as a team was that it didn’t matter who scored or who played well, as long as we won – that was the main thing for us. There was no one wanting to be the star – we were all just working hard for each other, and when you work hard as a team, you’re more than likely to win.”
As Wales progressed to the semi-finals, although Bale was the top Welsh scorer with three goals, five other players chipped in with goals, too. Hal Robson-Kanu scored one of the best goals of the tournament in the quarter-final against Belgium when he sent three defenders the wrong way before calmly slotting the ball past the keeper.
And you even let Neil Taylor score a goal, I joke… “Exactly!” laughs Bale. “Even he can’t believe it!”
Taylor, a defender, scored against the Russians in Toulouse in Wales’s final group game, but before that his last goal had been six years earlier for non-league Wrexham against Grays Athletic in 2010. But it only served to underline how the Welsh set-up managed to get the best from a range of talents.
In Don’t Take Me Home, as we see the players training and relaxing at their base, it’s obvious how well they all get along.
I ask Bale what the players did between games to wind down. “I don’t think we ever wound down, to be honest! Obviously we stayed in a hotel, but we were never in our rooms. We were either watching the tournament if there were games on, or we were doing quizzes together, playing table tennis, golf, the PlayStation… Or we went out for a coffee or a hot chocolate. We were always doing things and having a laugh, I suppose – we all had a great time!”
This light-hearted camaraderie in camp translated into a collective resolve on the pitch. But for Bale, the squad’s togetherness extends way beyond the players.
“The medical staff, the fitness coaches, the managers, the fans – they’re a big part of everything. Every little detail was looked after – and if we’re looked after, we can look after the football and the country’s happy. It was one big unit, pushing in the same direction, and I think it showed why our slogan is ‘Together Stronger’.”
Bale was keen to share the euphoria of Euro 16 with his family, too. He has two little girls with his fiancée Emma Rhys-Jones: Alba Violet, who is four, and Nava Valentina, who will be one next month. One of the most touching images of the tournament was when he carried a beaming Alba Violet on to the pitch dressed in her Welsh shirt to share in the celebrations.
Fellow poet Llion Jones also followed the Welsh team in France and I show Bale a couplet he wrote in response to that image: “Cawr ar gae a’i chwarae chwim; yna tad yn anad dim”/ “A giant on the field, swift in play, but a dad above all at the end of the day”.
He smiles. “The kids coming on the pitch after was amazing,” he says, “and definitely worth the fine from the Football Association of Wales!”
I ask him if he is interested in poetry at all. “Not particularly, sorry to say – I’m more of a golf fan! I’m not really one for books, to be honest. I can’t really sit down still for too long, I’m always wanting to do something.”
And that’s as it should be. He creates his own kind of poetry on the pitch. But he has undoubtedly developed a way with words, as he showed during press conferences last summer as one of the spokesmen for the Welsh squad.
He has matured since his more diffident younger days, and Don’t Take Me Home shows him smiling behind the mic, swivelling slightly in his chair, looking completely at ease and even making the odd provocative remark. When asked how many English players would get into the current Welsh squad, he replies with a disarming smile, “None!”
I ask him, now that he has featured in the documentary Don’t Take Me Home, which actor he would want to play him in a biopic of his career “I haven’t got a clue!” he says, then after some deliberation: “Christian Bale!” He’s not your cousin, by any chance? “That would be cool, having Batman as your cousin, but unfortunately he’s not.”
Welsh football fans didn’t need Batman last summer, we had our own superheroes. Truth was stranger than fiction and we were living the dream. And as Bale and his teammates progressed to the knockout rounds, the anthem Don’t Take Me Home took on added meaning for all of us, making it an apt title for the film.
“It was the constant chant through the whole tournament,” recalls Bale. “Even we were singing it after the games, celebrating!” However, Don’t Take Me Home was just one song in a rich and varied repertoire, as the “Red Wall” of travelling Welsh fans made their presence felt, both inside and outside stadiums around France.
Spontaneous renditions of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau/Land of My Fathers also spurred the players on. “They knew when the team needed it – they’d sing the national anthem at around 80 minutes, to give you that boost of energy to get through to the end of the game. It was massive for us,” says Bale. “They’ve definitely been the 12th man and hopefully they continue to be so in the future.”
After the disappointment of the defeat by Portugal in the semi-final, the film concludes with an unexpectedly uplifting sequence as the Welsh squad is welcomed home by tens of thousands of fans, lining the streets of Cardiff. Bale had seen the huge army of travelling fans in France and had read about the “fan zones” that had sprung up all across Wales.
“But after the tournament,” he says, “when we came back and we had the open-top bus tour through the centre of Cardiff, we realised how big this all was back in Wales. It just shows what a nation can do, when they all pull together in the same direction.”
Don’t Take Me Home will be in selected cinemas across the UK from 3 March