Gareth Bale may have been the big star of Europe's summer transfer window, but behind the scenes it was his former club chairman Daniel Levy who emerged as one of the most formidable characters.
The Tottenham supremo has long been known as one of the toughest negotiators in football, and he cemented that status with the manner in which he handled the Bale sale. Not only did he demand a massive fee – possibly even a world record – for a player largely untested at the highest level, but he played the European transfer market with all the strategic flair of a chess Grandmaster.
Throughout the summer, I received plenty of messages from fans around the world, telling me that the Welsh winger wasn’t worth anything like the astronomical figures being quoted, and maybe he’s not. But in any market, the value of any commodity – be it a piece of real estate or a bale of hay – is only decided by the two negotiators around the table.
If you want it bad enough, you’ll pay what I say.
On Sunday, social media sites were alive with armchair micro-analysis of the trade and much of the comment was commending Levy’s role. With his business acumen he should take over as Britain’s finance minister, the narrative went, or with his negotiating skills he should represent terrorist organizations. Clubs who are struggling in the transfer market should just sign Levy ahead of any new players and – apparently – he never loses at monopoly, because anyone landing on his properties ends up having to pay three times what they’re worth.
Bale was by far and away Tottenham’s best player last season, swaggering his way to three individual player awards and scoring 26 goals, none of which were tap-ins – many of which were 30-yard netbusters. Spurs didn’t have to sell their prize asset and nor did they particularly want to, but having just missed out on Champions League qualification for a third year in four, and with Bale already seduced by the idea of a dream move to Spain, the time was now right to make the most of an opportunity.
England’s top three teams changed their managers in the summer, a perfect time for Spurs to strike. Aided and abetted by his new director of football Franco Baldini, Levy identified several key targets early on, quickly sewing up deals for Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue and Nacer Chadli. While English Premier League rivals Arsenal and Manchester United were idling in the market, Spurs were organized and decisive, breaking their own transfer record – twice.
Levy wasn’t finished. Chelsea may have snatched Willian from under his nose, but he broke the club’s record transfer fee for a third time in just a matter of weeks by landing the Bale-esque Erik Lamela, and he also signed Christian Eriksen and Vlad Chiriches – all while Bale remained a Tottenham player.
A world record deal was "imminent" for the last fortnight of August, but it didn’t actually go through until the penultimate day of the window.
Naturally Tottenham wanted to have their own targets under contract, but in assessing the landscape around him, Levy was particularly shrewd. He knew that Real would unload several players to accommodate Bale’s arrival, but they couldn’t risk doing so until they knew he was coming for sure.
It just so happens that Arsenal wanted to sign one or both of Real's Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil. By holding on until last Friday it meant they couldn’t get them before the North London derby against Spurs on Sunday, after which the Bale deal was finally confirmed.
Levy knows very well that Arsenal represent arguably the biggest threat to his club's aspirations of a top-four finish. In the end, the Gunners got Ozil on deadline day but we may never know if they could have had more.
I interviewed Levy for World Sport a few years ago; it was a rare chance to speak with the 51-year-old, who prefers to keep a low profile in the media. His record isn’t perfect, but he’s learned from his mistakes. He thoroughly frustrated Madrid when they last went after one of his players, making them pay through the nose for Luka Modric in late August 2012, and he had no hesitation in cutting manager Harry Redknapp adrift when he became too greedy in his contract negotiations.
Levy doesn’t take kindly to anyone who pushes him too hard on a deal. When Real had the arrogance to build a stage upon which they were going to parade Bale, Levy made them take it down – nothing had yet been signed.
Of course it all counts for naught if Spurs again fail to push on up the table before mixing with Europe’s elite in the Champions League. But there is only so much a chairman can do. It’s now up to manager Andre Villas Boas and the men on the field to follow their chairman’s example: don’t take any prisoners and make sure you’re not the first to blink.