From Bald to Bale

From Bald to Bale

This article was published in The Independent on Sunday on 8th September 2013, and is reproduced with the kind permission of its author Nick Szczepanik.


If you were stunned to learn that Gareth Bale will earn £300,000 per week at Real Madrid, imagine how someone who once did the same job as Bale for rather less money is feeling.


It would have taken David Armstrong, another left-sided former Southampton attacking midfielder, nearly 10 years to earn Bale's weekly wage in the 1980s. While Bale will never need to work again when he retires, Armstrong, 58, sells office equipment and draws industrial-accident benefit after an ankle injury ended his football career at 33 and required six operations, a story told in his new book, The Bald Facts.


Jealousy, though, is not part of Armstrong's make-up. "It's a short career, as I know all too well," he said. "If people are willing and daft enough to pay players silly money I don't begrudge it. Good luck to them. But for ex-players such as myself, and the fans, it's harder to relate to clubs that are paying those fees and wages. With the dire economic situation in Spain I can't comprehend how they can pay that amount of money when people there are struggling.


"I wasn't a Gareth Bale. I'd have classed myself more as a sort of Frank Lampard, so if I was playing today I suppose I'd have been earning the same as Frank is. But I didn't come into the game to make money, just to play and show people what I could do. I think I'd have been highly embarrassed at what I would have been earning now."


Is Bale worth it, if anyone is? "I was doing radio summarising when he first came into the Southampton side and you could see he had great potential – magnificent skill, strikes a good ball, a great engine, and he's been brought through a Southampton system that emphasises how important it is to continue to work and to learn as he has done. I hope it works out for him at Real Madrid."


The Saints team that the Durham-born Armstrong joined from Middlesbrough in 1981, if not exactly full of galacticos, was certainly studded with stars, such as Kevin Keegan, Mike Channon and Alan Ball, and finished runners-up to Liverpool in 1984. Ron Greenwood gave him his first cap, Bobby Robson a start against West Germany at Wembley. But four years after playing for England, he was hobbling to sign on at the dole office, where his distinctive bald dome made anonymity impossible.


The left foot that provided innumerable assists and most of his 118 goals between 1971 and 1988 is now fused and immobile. But at least it no longer causes him such agony that he once considered amputation. "It crossed my mind," he said. "I was taking a step and cringing because I couldn't put full weight on my ankle joint. It was raw bone rubbing on raw bone. You would think, 'Do I really need to take that step?' I cried myself to sleep on many occasions, as my wife will verify, and thought: 'I can't go on like this'.


"I had a second fusion operation after an unsuccessful first one, and if it hadn't worked, I thought I'd rather have the bottom of my leg off because it was wearing mentally on me and my wife. I still have to watch every step I take and to concentrate if there are any cobbles or bumps. But I am now pain-free for the first time in 25 years."


The ankle had taken many knocks before the final tackle in a game for Bournemouth. "I played through injuries, I played on with an undiagnosed broken bone at one point. But I wouldn't change anything. I'm very fortunate to have played for as long as I did."


Never a drinker or gambler, he began to struggle financially after a ruinous divorce settlement gave his first wife £15,000 of his £35,000 salary. Bailiffs knocked on his door soon after he had been persuaded by Lawrie McMenemy to join Southampton rather than Manchester United, and later needed the help of the PFA and Middlesbrough ex-players' association to cover the mortgage and fund some of the operations.


"It's not easy asking for help, it's embarrassing, but needs must," he said. "I don't blame my first wife, I blame myself for marrying and then leaving her. The problem is that my injury robbed me of the second half of my working life. I literally limped through all my coaching badges. Jimmy Quinn offered me work at Reading but I had to be honest and say I couldn't stand on my leg day in and day out.


"There have been difficult times, but a lot are worse off than me. People die of cancer and other diseases – I've only got a bad ankle."


Click here for more information on The Bald Facts.