10 June 2016

Gareth Bale: Made in Cardiff 

Gareth Bale is the €100m superstar with European football at his feet. Back home in Cardiff, he’s the much-loved local lad who’s kept those lightning feet firmly on the ground. We salute the Whitchurch boy – and the school that produced a galaxy of sporting stars.

When Gareth Bale scored his first goal in Euro 2016, the whole of Wales went berserk – and nowhere more so than the Cardiff neighbourhood where the world’s most expensive footballer grew up.

Cardiff

Cardiff


Whitchurch is the kind of suburb described as ‘leafy’, because it has trees (obv), Edwardian villas, a busy high street, and a distinctly villagey feel. Parts of it are quietly affluent, but it’s hardly flash. Its real claim to fame is Whitchurch High School and the remarkable sporting talent it’s nurtured.

Gareth Bale was in the same year – and school football team – as Sam Warburton, the Wales and Lions rugby captain, as was rugby league international Elliot Kear. The Olympic cyclist Geraint Thomas was a couple of years above them, and the Olympic sprinter Matt Elias passed through earlier. As Prime Minister David Cameron said, “I do not know what they put in the water, but I think we would probably all like to have some.”

The school’s predecessor, Whitchurch Grammar, educated an earlier generation of overachievers, most notably our former First Minister Rhodri Morgan, the screenwriter Andrew Davies, and 1980s pop haircut Howard Jones.

Whitchurch is also where BBC Radio 1’s Huw Stephens and actor Matthew Rhys grew up – although they went to the nearby Welsh-medium school, Ysgol Glantaf, whose alumni include actor Ioan Gruffudd, singer Gwenno Saunders, TV presenter Gethin Jones, and the rugby player you’d least mind your daughter bringing home, Dr Jamie Roberts.

The Whitchurch hall of fame may be long and illustrious, but Gareth Bale’s global fame eclipses them all. His talent was spotted in primary school, when he was already on Southampton’s books. His uncle, Chris Pike, then a professional footballer with Cardiff City and Fulham, also recognised the young Bale’s potential.

“It’s a bit embarrassing really,” Pike told the BBC. “We did a crossbar challenge not far from where I live … he was only eight or nine - he beat me 10-8 and I was trying.”

At Whitchurch, his PE teacher made a new rule that Bale was only allowed to use his (weaker) right foot, to give everyone else a chance. He moved to Tottenham Hotspur in 2007, where he set the Premiership ablaze. Then in 2013 he signed for his present club, Real Madrid, for a world-record transfer fee of €100m. He’s represented Wales more than 50 times, and been our leading scorer in the qualifying games for Euro 2016.

Gareth Bale is also the only Whitchurch old boy (so far, at least) to have his portrait painted on a giant mural just off the high street.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale mural, Cardiff

 

Despite the global adulation, Bale remains close to his Cardiff roots. Like Sam Warburton, he is still with his childhood sweetheart from Whitchurch High. When his old primary school moved to a new site in 2014, Bale flew back from Madrid to perform the official opening. When he comes home, he stays with his parents.

In so many ways, Gareth Bale is the ideal poster-boy for Cardiff. An exciting young capital city with a very international outlook. Bright and ambitious, but grounded in history. The perfect place to call home. And to visit, of course…