The Whitchurch High School a few miles outside central Cardiff is a quaint place. The school is located in a vast suburban sprawl, with charming duplex villas lined right opposite.
The main building looks deceptively small, possibly because all around it is acres of playing fields. Athletics tracks, football grounds, rugby fields, an indoor basketball gym, four tennis courts.
At this point you may ask, why are you reading about a nondescript Welsh high school? Imagine if Sachin Tendulkar and Leander Paes studied in the same school. Not just that, but, they were also class-mates?
Well, this school has the Welsh equivalent of that fantasy – the two best sportsmen of the country sharing history notes and canteen fights, graduation day and prom night.
One is the reigning English Footballer of the Year. Both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are willing to spend 50 million pounds to land his signature. In short, he’s the hottest property in British football.
The other is the captain of the British Lions rubgy team. Rugby is arguably the most popular sport in Cardiff, which automatically makes him the most popular sportsman in the city.
Gareth Bale and Sam Warburton are the men in question. Both are charting their way to the top in their respective sports. The duo also has another thing in common, they were classmates at Whitchurch High.
Physical education teacher at the school, Gwyn Morris has played a key role in the development of both. HT met the PE teacher at Whitchurch and he shared how Bale went from a sports-loving Welsh teenager to the most valued footballer in Britain.
“He was a very special talent when I first saw him. He was 14 at the time. He did all sports, cross-country, athletics, football and rugby. He was in a year group where there 12-13 other internationals across various sports. They pushed each other,” he remembered. Other members of that class includes Olympic cycling gold medallist Geraint Thomas and rugby international Elliot Kears.
Talk of Bale’s magical left foot, which has ended the career of many of the world’s best right-backs (Has Brazilian Maicon, at Inter at the time, ever looked the same after hattrick hero Bale terrorised him at the San Siro?), had already spread. Southampton FC to give him his professional debut at 16. His right-foot technique had to be worked upon.
“One thing that we did was to work on his right foot. His left foot was very advanced even at that age so we did some special drills only using his right foot. It’s what we would do with any prodigious sporting talent. If we had a tennis player with a good backhand but a weak forehand, then we would work on the forehand. And everybody can improve at that age. You put them in structured game whereby he can only stay in a certain part of the field and then develop the discipline to work within that system,” said Morris, whose work was rewarded when the school won the British Sport School of the year award last year.
By the time he was 16, Bale, who grew up around the corner from the school, was asked to focus primarily on football and even excused from playing rugby, a physical sport which would pose a greater injury risk to the skinny, teenaged Welsh wizard.
He also had to travel from Cardiff on the west edge of the British Isles to Southampton, at the eastern edge. A six hour car ride, it wasn’t easy for Bale to travel the distance twice a week. But, he persevered, with a little help from his mother and father, who drove down with him. The education also wasn’t neglected. Morris says, with a glint in his eye, “Gareth got an A grade at PE.”
The right motivation
On his most important contribution in Bale, and other student’s sporting aspirations, he said, “Mentally you have to make them understand that it’s good to set goals and tell them that it’s achievable. You have to set your goals very, very high.
"So, if you’re a mountain climber you want to climb Mount Everest, and if that’s your target you may get to base camp one day. There are not many people who’ve climbed atop Everest. Now, that Gareth and Sam are there they need to put a flag up there saying winners on it. There’s always a target that needs be maintained, improved, developed. If you drill that into a youngster early it stays with them and helps them cope with the tremendous pressure.”
Bale, on his part, has acknowledged the help. A wonderful signed Tottenham jersey is framed in the school’s reception. The school also has a wall of fame dedicated to any student who plays for Wales.
On it are portraits of Bale, Thomas and Warburton. Also on this wall of fame is a man you must be accustomed to seeing on the television – commentator Alan Wilkins, who graduated from this school and played county cricket before swapping roles.