In this Christmas special, Gareth Bale reflects on a year to remember on both team and personal levels.
The year started with him back in the starting line-up for our FA Cup third round tie against Peterborough United and ended with him taking the Champions League by storm and lighting up the San Siro...
Can we start at January 2, and your return to the first team against Peterborough United in the FA Cup?
Gareth: "Benoit was struggling with injury but he would have gone to the African Nations Cup anyway, so I knew I would get a chance in January and it was all about being prepared. I did extra work in training in December to get fully fit and to be ready to take my chance. I remember there were a few nerves leading up to the game and I was determined to start well and after that, hopefully keep my place."
You set-up two goals in a 4-0 win and that was the start of an amazing year for you.
"I can’t remember too much about it now but it was a massive game for me, a stepping stone to the next game against Hull City and my confidence grew from there."
You really established yourself in the team over the next few weeks and eventually moved more regularly into left midfield after Niko Kranjcar was injured in the FA Cup semi-final. That defeat against Portsmouth must have been the biggest disappointment of the year.
"Yes, definitely. Everyone expected us to win that semi-final and to get to the FA Cup Final, but it wasn’t meant to be. In a way, it might have been a blessing because it really fired us up for the next games against Arsenal and Chelsea. We bounced back in style."
The back-to-back wins against Arsenal and Chelsea were something special and of course you scored in both! Do you think those wins set us on the path to eventually finishing fourth?
"I really feel the disappointment we felt against Portsmouth at Wembley gave us an extra edge going into those games. We really wanted to redeem ourselves and that showed in the performances. The lads were really up for it and you could say we really brought our anger out in those matches. We managed to get two great victories and they stood us in good stead to go and get fourth place. Those wins really lifted us."
Chelsea were on their way to the double and you scored that great goal to make it 2-0. That’s when we first saw that heart-shaped celebration. What’s all that about?
"It’s a private thing, really. It’s a celebration I planed a few years ago to be honest but I didn’t score for about two and a half years, so it didn’t happen! As soon as I scored, I did it."
In the end, it all came down to that now famous night at Eastlands, where we knew victory against Manchester City would secure fourth place in the Premier League. What are your memories of that night?
"The lads knew if we won, we’d qualify for the Champions League. It was basically in our hands and if didn’t make it, we’d have blown it ourselves. In the days leading up to the game we all knew how important it was and we were well prepared for it. On the night it was a tight game, they had chances, we had more chances and in the end we deserved to win. I'm sure everyone remembers the fantastic celebrations on the final whistle."
The manager ended up with a bucket of water over him in the celebrations! There really was a sense of achievement.
"It was such a massive thing. We’d come close before with two fifth places so to actually go out and achieve it and the way we did it with some great wins at the end of the season was something very special. We’ve brought that form into this season and I think we’ve improved even more."
What did you get up to in the summer? Did you watch much of the World Cup?
"It was nice to have some time off. I enjoyed spending time with my family and friends and I went on holiday. I didn’t watch too much of the World Cup in the end. I tried to watch the England matches to see how the Spurs lads were getting on, but that was about it. I relaxed and enjoyed my summer away from football."
The team returned for pre-season training at the start of July. Did you feel a sense of anticipation as we prepared to go into the Champions League for the first time?
"We all knew we had to get past the qualifying matches first. As much as we all wanted to try and look forward to the group stages of the Champions League, it was still a massive double header against Young Boys. We knew how important that was. We were up for those matches, although the first half of the first leg didn’t exactly go to plan…"
Yes, how did it feel 28 minutes into the first leg at Young Boys, 3-0 down and pouring with rain on an artificial pitch?
"Everyone wants to blame the pitch and it wasn’t easy going from grass to an artificial pitch. It was difficult for us but we didn’t get out the blocks. Perhaps we underestimated them a little, I don’t know."
Did it feel like the Champions League adventure might be all over before it had started?
"It could have been worse, to be honest! We all believed once we got a foothold in the game that we could come out on top. To come back like we did in that first leg showed real character. We always believe we can beat anyone at home, so it was about staying in touch for the second leg. We did that and won 4-0 at home."
In between those Champions League legs, you scored that volley at Stoke.
"It was one of those things. The ball came over and I just thought about hitting it. You don’t really think about it too much. It was a spur of the moment thing and thankfully it went into the top corner."
We now move to November and Inter Milan in the Champions League at the San Siro. We were 4-0 down at half-time before an unbelievable performance with 10 men in the second half and your hat-trick. Has that sunk in yet? Have you watched it back?
"Yes, I’ve watched it a few times now! To be honest, the first half was a disaster, it was 4-0 and it could have been more. We were probably fearing the worst in the second half, but we turned it around. It was a bit surreal after the game. The team showed real character in that second half. We didn’t concede a goal, despite being down to 10 men, and that was important. We had to play on the counter-attack and it worked well."
Even though we lost, that 45 minutes and your hat-trick really gave us confidence.
"Immediately afterwards. everyone was wondering what the second game against Inter at the Lane was going to be like, but that second half performance gave us the belief that we had the ability to beat them, especially if we had 11 men. We certainly showed that at White Hart Lane."
After Inter, we went to the Emirates and came from 2-0 down to beat Arsenal 3-2. You scored in that game. What did that win say about this team?
"We’ve proved all along that we’ve got real character and the ability to come from behind in matches. We did that at Arsenal. By beating the bigger teams more consistently, we’re putting our name up there and making everyone believe that we’re a real threat."
That hat-trick in the San Siro and the performance in the 3-1 win at the Lane catapulted you onto a world level. We all knew about you here and in the Premier League, but that took you even higher. How has your life changed since then?
"I’ve not really looked at it or done anything different, to be honest. I’m the same as before. In games, I’ve now usually got two players or more marking me and I suppose defenders are kicking me harder! In a way, it’s a compliment. I have to try and deal with that and look for other ways to get past players."
Along the way you’ve been named BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year, shortlisted for the FIFA/FIFpro and UEFA.com Teams of the Year, named BBC London Footballer of the Year, third in World Soccer magazine’s Young Player of the Year – the awards keep on coming!
"Of course it’s nice to get awards and be mentioned like that. I just want to keep working hard in training and in games and keep my feet on the ground. I know if I do that everything else will follow."
The best thing is that you’ve taken it all in your stride.
"I don’t think of it any differently, to be honest. I just want to play, keeping improving and working hard and if I do that, I’ll be going in the right direction."
So what was the highlight of 2010? Arsenal and Chelsea wins back-to-back? City? Inter Milan? Arsenal away?
"That’s a difficult one. I’ve not really thought of individual highlights, it’s just been a fantastic year for us. It’s been incredible for me personally and the team. It’s been great to be a part of it and long may it continue."