#17 Meet the man who discovered Gareth Bale – in a six-a-side aged nine
Rod Ruddick is rummaging around in his office at his home near Bath and has just found a piece of paper that ought to be in a frame on his mantelpiece.
It is a fax he sent to Southampton Football Club on 28 September 1998, titled "players recommended to sign". There are three names listed and the last boy is a nine-year-old who lives on Velindre Road in Cardiff. His name is Gareth Bale.
A month before sending that fax Ruddick had travelled to south Wales on a bank holiday Monday to watch a tournament in Newport. It was the sort of journey he has made more times than he cares to remember since starting as a scout for Southampton in 1985, but this day sticks in the memory. "The traffic was terrible getting across the Severn Bridge," he says. "When I got there it was a six-a-side and I saw a little lad a few pitches away who just kept running at people."
Ruddick watched for a while before speaking to Bale's parents, Debbie and Frank. He smiles when asked how he knew who they were. "Little tricks. You watch a player and see who he goes to between games. Then you go and stand next to them and say: 'Enjoying your day? Oh, is that your lad? He isn't bad, is he. Would he like to come and see us at Southampton?' I try to keep it short, because other people could be watching me. Get a phone number and get away as quick as you can, otherwise you might alert somebody else: 'Who's Rod talking to?'"
As scouting missions go, this was as good as it gets. Bale joined Southampton's satellite academy in Bath, where Ruddick was the manager, and went on to make his first-team debut for the club at the age of 16. Little more than a year later he moved to Tottenham Hotspur for £5m. Last summer he became the most expensive footballer when Real Madrid paid £85m for him. Next Saturday, he hopes to sign off his first season in Spain with a Champions League winner's medal to go with the Copa del Rey he won last month.
It has been quite a story, although the journey from six-a-side tournament in Newport to European Cup final against Atlético Madrid in Lisbon has not been as straightforward as it sounds. Bale could easily have been cut loose by Southampton at the age of 15, when it was touch and go whether he would be offered a scholarship. Ruddick is a mild man but he knew that he had to dig his heels in to convince others. "I had to be strong. And to be fair to Rupert Lowe [then the Southampton chairman], he later said to me: 'I'm glad you pushed it.'"
Bale has never forgotten Ruddick's contribution to his career. In the first interview Bale gave after signing for Real Madrid, he was asked about Southampton nearly releasing him. Bale talked about the "debate" that was going on inside the club at the time and singled out the influence of one person. "Rod Ruddick, the Southampton scout who spotted me at the age of nine, believed I would make it," he said.
Ruddick is not the sort of person to blow his own trumpet or, for that matter, criticise anyone. He was, however, convinced that Bale "had everything to be a great player" and was determined to fight his corner. In Ruddick's eyes, the reason that Bale's development stagnated a little in his mid-teens, when some questioned the merits of keeping him, was purely down to a growth spurt.
To illustrate his point Ruddick reveals some fascinating data that shows how Bale performed in physical tests when compared with the other players in his age group at Southampton. "Look at these stats," Ruddick says. "When Gareth was 15, he was third-ranked in the 10m sprint with a time of 1.88 seconds, Theo Walcott is 1.76 seconds. But the interesting one is the Yo-Yo test, which is like the bleep test. Gareth was doing over 2,000m, almost double some players. Now look at the height, Theo was 5ft 7in, Gareth was 5ft 6in at the age.
"The following year Gareth's Yo-Yo was 2,880m – that's stamina, he was the best ranked. But he still didn't have his pace back. Look where he is, he was ranked seventh on pace. He was going through a growth spurt at that time, he grew almost eight inches in 18 months. He was struggling. But I knew he would come through that."
It seems extraordinary that Bale, a man whom Usain Bolt described as the fastest footballer in the world after the Welshman scored that incredible goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, was not among the top six sprinters at Southampton at under-16 level. "But at 11-years-old he was No2 in the whole of Wales at 50m and you don't lose that pace," Ruddick says. "Till he reached 18, 19 it didn't really come back."
Ruddick has remained close to Bale as well as Frank and Debbie – "the easiest parents for me to ever deal with, no demands" – and had planned to go over to Spain at some point this season but has been unable to fit a trip into his schedule. Instead, he has watched from afar, marvelling at what Bale has become, albeit not in the least bit surprised.
"When Gareth went to Tottenham I said to him: 'You can play for any team in Europe, son, because you've got what it takes. It's up to you.' Then I said: 'Start learning Spanish.' When he was about to go to Madrid we texted each other, and he did say he's picked up some Spanish, not very good Spanish, evidently."
Ruddick laughs at some of the responses he gets from Bale. "I texted him after that goal against Barcelona: 'Is that the best you've scored?' He texted back: 'Yeah, not bad.' Just like Gareth would. He's so unassuming. When he scored a hat-trick in the San Siro [when Spurs lost 4-3 to Internazionale in 2010] he was given a few days off and went back to Cardiff to play golf with his schoolmates. He posted his lowest score and put that on his mantelpiece, not the man-of-the-match award against Inter."
For Ruddick, who would prefer to stay under the radar, the only part of the story that he has become slightly uncomfortable with is that he is now known as the Man Who Discovered Gareth Bale. "I don't like that tag," he says. "People come up to me and say it all the time. I get introduced as that by people at the club: 'This is the scout that found Gareth Bale.' I say: 'Just as importantly, I found Jason Dodd and he's coaching here now.'"
Dodd made more than 400 appearances for Southampton and is now the club's academy manager. Nathan Dyer, who has established himself in the Premier League with Swansea, was another player Ruddick brought to Southampton as a schoolboy, along with Martin Cranie, the former England Under-21 international now playing for Barnsley. Many others have made a living in the lower leagues, which gives Ruddick just as much satisfaction.
These days his own role has changed. He is Southampton's youth recruitment officer with responsibility for the 15-19 age category, which means he is often looking at players at other clubs. One of his more recent successes was the acquisition of Sam Gallagher, an England Under-19 international who joined from Plymouth Argyle and recently signed a four-year contract with Southampton. "That was two years' work, starting with watching him in a district game," Ruddick says.
Scouting is, by Ruddick's own admission, a strange profession. It plays a crucial role in the world of football, yet few people outside the sport would know the names of those involved. It is also a cut-throat business. "We're a secret society," Ruddick says, smiling. "It's ultra-competitive. I've got a lot of friends who are also in my role. But we con each other as well. You've got to do it with a smile. We all know that's how it works."
Over the past couple of decades Ruddick has seen big changes, both in terms of the proliferation of scouts working in the game and the money that some clubs have at their disposal to entice young players. Southampton are unable to compete at the top end when it comes to wages (they also refuse to pay agent fees for schoolboys), but what they are able to put in front of parents and young players is a proven track record and the promise of a pathway to the first team.
"It's a club where you know kids will have a chance and that's important," Ruddick says. "Other clubs offer a financial reward to these players. And sometimes the parent would like a bigger club, say Chelsea, for their ego rather than for the long-term advantage of their son. But what I can do is put forward what we've produced and if the boy works hard he has got the same chance as [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw – that's our sales talk."
That he is still delivering that pitch at the age of 71 says everything about the enjoyment he gets from his work. "I don't think you retire in this job," says Ruddick, who left Southampton in 2007 but returned in 2010 after brief spells with Portsmouth and Birmingham. "Do I hope to find another Gareth? No. How often do they come? Once in a lifetime. But I still like to try to succeed, outfox everyone else."
The very nature of Ruddick's job means that he rarely gets the chance to watch Bale these days but Saturday night has been set aside to tune into the Champions League final. It will be a proud moment for the man who sent that fax with three names on 16 years ago. "I've no idea what happened to the other two boys," Ruddick says with a smile.