Andy McNeil had a quiet chuckle as he watched Gareth Bale’s free-kick against Slovakia send Wales on the road to victory in their opening game of the European Championships, their first major finals in 58 years.
For when they were kids together at Southampton, the youngster – who was to go on to become the world’s most expensive player – was banned from taking them as others pulled rank on the then 15-year-old.
Today, though, there will be no doubt as to who will step up should Chris Coleman’s side be presented with such an opportunity as they face England in Lens, the Real Madrid star now the free-kick specialist to be feared whoever the opposition might be.
Former Hibs goalkeeper McNeil will be watching from afar, glued to his television screen not only to see how Bale fares but also England midfielder Adam Lallana, like the Welshman a team-mate in the Southampton side which contested the final of the FA Youth Cup against Ipswich Town 11 years ago.
“Being able to take in the game and see people you started out with in the game certainly makes it interesting,” admitted McNeil. “It’s a big game, a derby match in which I think Wales will be the underdogs.
“But Gareth is unbelievable right now, he turns up and does it in every game for Wales so I am sure he will have a big say in how it goes.”
Bale’s standing in the game is unrecognisable to that when McNeil first came across him, the 29-year-old revealing: “Gareth was two years younger than me, he wasn’t particularly big although he had good technical ability. He was an unassuming boy and playing left back then, not the six footer he is now, and someone who didn’t particularly stand out at that time.
“He did, though, have that technical ability, had a good attitude and I think it’s fair to say he’s been something of a late developer. It just shows that you are never quite sure how people might develop from a young age but Gareth has gone from strength to strength. He’s a player who makes things happen, sometimes you get guys who are great athletes but can’t play that well or the other way about, players who are good but can’t put in a shift.
“Gareth has both, he’s so versatile he’s such a threat. If he picks the ball up on the halfway line with a bit of space then England know they’ll be in trouble.
“And everyone knows what a threat he is from a free-kick. I remember after I’d come back up the road to join Hibs watching a Southampton match and seeing Gareth put one in the top corner. I couldn’t believe it because he wasn’t allowed to take them when we played together, the other boys always pulled rank on him.”
It was, however, only after his £7 million move to Tottenham Hotspur that Bale began to blossom into the world-class player he is today, switched from left back to left midfield and forward again, moves which allowed him to display the qualities which persuaded Real Madrid to fork out a fee which eclipsed the £80m they had paid for Cristiano Ronaldo four years earlier.
Lallana’s rise may have been less spectacular than that of Bale’s, more than 230 appearances for Southampon finally earning him a £25m move to Liverpool while over the course of the past three years he has become a regular in an England shirt and someone, McNeil reckons, who will play just as important a part for Roy Hodgson’s side as his other former Saints team-mate will for the Welsh.
And, McNeil revealed, Lallana had to overcome a major heart operation to do so. He said: “Adam was a year below me, still a schoolboy in his first year. As part of the medical you’d undergo at Southampon you were screened and that detected a hole in his heart which needed surgery.
“At the time we were all just young boys not used to such serious issues and, to be honest, there weren’t any signs anything was wrong. Adam was fit, full of energy and in running tests he was always up at the top. If he hadn’t been screened as he was you just don’t know what might have happened.
“But the club were great with him, he spent six months recovering from the surgery and the second half of the season getting himself back playing and he’s now gone on and developed into the player he is today.”
Like Bale, McNeil believes Lallana will play a major role this afternoon, pointing to the 28-year-old’s performance in England’s opening match against Russia. He said: “I thought England looked strong, Adam kept them ticking along but unfortunately they couldn’t get the second goal they probably needed and paid the price with that late equaliser.
“I don’t think they need to change things other than maybe tactically. I’d expect Wales to be quite defensive, they are a good team and can do that well. But with the likes of Gareth and Aaron Ramsey they are liable to score at any time. Wales also have the confidence of knowing they’ve already got those three points from the Slovakia game in the bag which helps take the pressure off them.
“Even another point would help take them towards the knock-out stages while England will be desperate for the win having been forced to settle for that draw with Russia. However, Adam and Dele Alli are capable of picking holes in any defence with their clever rungs.”
Bale, of course, has already caused a furore ahead of the game with is claim the Welsh have more passion and pride than their opponents before mischievously adding that he didn’t think any of Hodgson’s players would get into the Wales team.
But McNeil, who won the CIS Insurance Cup with Hibs in 2007, sees nothing wrong in what his old pal winding the English up. He said: “I think Gareth has been asked a question, he’s answered it honestly and we all know that what we say can be twisted a bit.
“This is a derby match, one everyone is looking forward to. We are the same when it comes to England. No-one wants them to win because they always rate themselves, are always cocky and so you can’t blame Gareth for that.”