There wasn't much surprising about Gareth Bale's unveiling at the Bernabeu. The move had been on the cards for months. The massive crowd was in line with his world record transfer fee. The adulation of the fans was in line with his status as a global superstar. The weird part in his hair was pretty much in line with what we've come to expect from his barber.
The only surprise in the whole event came in his presentation. When asked why he wanted to come to Madrid, Bale did not say it was his dream move, or that he was doing it for trophies, or even admit it was a callous money-grab. Instead, his answer was short and succinct. "I had to get away from Tom Carroll. I could never reach my potential as a footballer in his shadow."
Tom Carroll, aged 21, is a midfield prospect of Tottenham Hotspur's youth academy. Despite getting only a few minutes of first team football, he has become a bit of a cult legend among the Spurs faithful. Slightly built with a short blonde haircut, Carroll does not cut the figure of a man who could threaten the ego of a player who was the focus of the world record transfer fee. Determined to unlock this mystery, I delved into the enigma that is Tom Carroll.
Meeting Tom Carroll at Tottenham's training ground was not what I expected. I was led through their training complex to what appeared to be an empty building. I entered a dark room that reeked of musk and smoke. Robin Thicke played in the background, the bassline pulsing. The walls were lined with strings of lights that shone through plumes of smoke. Panties, used condoms, discarded cigarette paper, and deflated balls were scattered across the room.
In the corner of the room was a mass of humanity, a teeming pile of limbs on top of the largest bean bag chair I had ever seen. As I peered through the haze of musk and smoke, I could see Tom Carroll in the only place he ever is: right in the middle, dictating the action.
Once he extricated himself from the pile of naked female flesh, Carroll took a deep swig from his bottle of whiskey. He found a pair of aviators and slumped into a chair covered in corinthian leather. Tattoos snaked across his chest, gang symbols warred with drug iconography and scenes of violence in a shocking tableau.
"The key to my game," he sighed. "Is the same as the key to my life. I cut through it all man. Defenses, passes, bullshit. I just slice through it and power on through. It's not just a strategy man. It's like a philosophy."
Perhaps it was the confidence with which he communicated the sentiment. Perhaps it was the allure of the attractive women passed out in the corner. Perhaps it was the hallucinogenic drugs swirling about the room, but Carroll's words hit me like a thunderbolt. It was clear to me that Tottenham did not just have a midfield prospect, but a golden god.
For the next few months, I followed Carroll around with Tottenham. He barely trained. He smoked, drank, and used drugs in quantities that would kill a rhinoceros. Yet he played like an angel. His passes sliced open the best defenses in the nation. His through balls pushed Tottenham to glory. His runs made you rethink the way you looked at the game.
His life of excess was appealing but offsetting. Teammates would try to join in at first, but then, they would fade away, unable to achieve his dizzying heights of decadence. Struck by the realization that they could not keep up with this slight young man, envy, awe, and resentment spread through the squad. The dynamic was striking, but young Mr. Carroll's confidence was never shaken. He just kept breaking through his challenges, on the pitch, on the training ground, and in the club.
It was perhaps what happened at Norwich that best sums up Tom Carroll. It was ten minutes before kick off and young Mr. Carroll had yet to arrive. Tottenham gaffer Andre Villas-Boas was cursing up a storm in at least four different languages. Then, with moments to go, Tom showed up. He had not shaved in three days and reeked of sex and booze. AVB was furious. Removing his glasses, Tom said three sentences in Portuguese to the gaffer, prompting him to break down in tears. Tom patted him on the back and told him to have his wife call him later that night. He stepped onto the pitch, handing his aviators to Scott Parker and sending him back to the bench, and took his rightful place in the heart of Spurs' midfield. He then went on to record three assists and a goalazo. In the first half.
At halftime, he drank a fifth of vodka and slapped Brad Friedel in the face. He spent the second half lounging by the dugout teaching Heurelho Gomes how to launder money in between spraying perfect 40 yard passes. He fled the ground with six Panamanian drug lords and three pregnant women in pursuit.
It is impossible to separate Tom Carroll's inconceivable excess from his unimaginable talent. One is tied to the other. However, everything has a price. In this case, it would seem to be Tottenham's other players, who feel unable to match up on the pitch or off of it.