Euro 2016: It could have been so different for Wales star Gareth Bale explains ex-Leyton Orient midfielder Lloyd James
PUBLISHED: 10:00 11 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:38 13 June 2016
Former Leyton Orient midfielder talks about the rise of the Real Madrid superstar and how the Dragons will get on in France
Gareth Bale will carry the hopes of a nation on his shoulders as Wales look to make their mark on the 2016 European Championships, but somebody who grew up with the former Tottenham Hotspur forward has discussed how things could have been so different.
Welsh midfielder Lloyd James has spent the last four years with Leyton Orient, before leaving to join Exeter City this summer, but began his career at Southampton alongside Bale.
Both progressed through the youth set-up at St Mary’s and played in the 2005 FA Youth Cup final, which the Saints lost to Ipswich Town. But while they have taken very different career paths since, James hasn’t been surprised by Bale’s rise to stardom at Real Madrid.
James did explain, however, that it was only when his fellow countryman started to grow physically that he was able to take his game to another level – then the sky was the limit.
“It was weird really because he was only small and actually quite weak when he was younger,” said Bristol-born James.
“His dad was big and built almost like a rugby player I’d say, but Gareth nearly got released at 15 by Southampton because he wasn’t strong enough.
“But as soon as he turned 16 he developed into an athlete. He was always good at football before and had a great football brain, but then he developed physically. You put them two together and you can see where he has got to now.”
James and Bale never actually played together in the first team at Southampton, but they were in Wales youth squads together. The former Orient midfielder qualified for the Dragons through his grandad and classes himself as half-English and half-Welsh.
He didn’t manage to make a senior appearance for Wales, but played for the under-21s on 10 occasions and he takes great pride in watching his former team-mate progress to become a household name across the globe.
“You could tell Gareth could achieve something special and there was no looking back the minute he signed his first Youth Training Scheme (YTS) at Southampton,” added James.
“As soon as he got in the first team he grew as a player and as a person. He was always head and shoulders above everybody.
“He can play anywhere to be honest and it was his football brain mainly when he was younger and then when he got his physical attributes as he got older, there was no stopping him.”
Bale, who cost Real Madrid around £90 million in the summer of 2013 and has won the Champions League twice since, is the centre of attention for Wales, but the whole squad will be confident of doing the nation proud.
James played with many in Chris Coleman’s current group in the under-21s and is gutted one man in particular will not be in France.
He added: “It’s a fantastic achievement by Wales to reach the Euros, but it’s nothing I didn’t see coming because in the under-21s we had some amazing players. We had the likes of Gareth, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley, Wayne Hennessey – loads!
“The one I’m most gutted for is Jack Collison because he was a fantastic player. I think this summer would have been a great opportunity for him if he didn’t have his injury problems and had been forced to retire. It’s sad he hasn’t been able to carry on.
“But I really think Wales will be a dark horse in the tournament and people can’t take them lightly this summer.”
With Wales in the same group as England, however, James is left in a difficult position and added: “I’m going away with the family so won’t be in France, but I’ll be watching on the TV. I’d like a draw between Wales and England!”