Few players have split opinion amongst football fans as much as Craig Bellamy. The former Welsh international striker was the epitome of a Marmite footballer.
Born and raised in a working-class area of Cardiff, Bellamy quickly showed his talent with a football at his feet. At just nine, he was signed up to the Bristol Rovers academy, with his local club Cardiff City failing to pick out his talent.
Following a short stint at Rovers, a young Bellamy was brought into the Norwich City youth system, where he then made his breakthrough with three appearances off the bench for the first team at the end of the 1996-97 season.
The new season saw Bellamy leave his mark on the first team, gaining his first career start against Barnet in the League Cup and his first league start in September against Manchester City. In true Bellamy style, it didn’t take him too long to earn his first sending off, with a straight red against the same club in February ’98. Controversy would follow him around for the rest of his career.
He finished the season with 13 goals, a respectable return for a young, raw striker. The 1998-99 season saw Bellamy secure his first hat-trick in August. By December, though, a challenge by Wolves defender Kevin Muscat saw Bellamy suffer a serious knee injury; one that would later impact his career in football.
Although promising at Norwich, Bellamy struggled with the effects of living away from home and grew lonely in the east of England. He told the Daily Mail: “I spent nights crying myself to sleep with homesickness. I spent months with that in Norwich, months when I was looking for any excuse to get out of it. I would try to break every rule.”
From Norwich, the Welshman joined Gordon Strachan’s Coventry City, but the move did not prove prosperous. “I never once enjoyed it at Coventry. I felt quite demoralised. I had enjoyed myself so much at Norwich – but I found I had taken a backward step,” Bellamy told Wales Online.
Things looked up for Bellamy after joining Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United, where a positive start saw a goal on his home debut. He formed a formidable partnership with hometown hero Alan Shearer and won the Young Player of the Year award for his 14 goals in 2000-01.
After Robson – who enjoyed a hugely positive influence on Bellamy – was controversially sacked, the Welshman duly fell out with his replacement, the equally feisty Graeme Souness. It was a clash of personalities, with neither the Welshman nor the Scotsman backing down.
Bellamy was quickly sent on-loan to Celtic, but continued to prove himself unpopular with the Magpies after sending captain Alan Shearer abusive messages. In his autobiography, Bellamy wrote:
“‘Fucking typical of you,’ I texted. ‘Looking at everyone else yet again. You need to look at yourself instead. Your legs are fucking shot. Concentrate on yourself and let the team take care of itself.’ I got one back from him straight away. ‘If I ever see you in Newcastle again’ he wrote, I’ll knock you out.’
Needless to say that Bellamy had no future left at Newcastle. He was sold to Blackburn, managed by his former Wales team-mate Mark Hughes. His season was hampered by injuries, but Bellamy proved a success and won the club’s Player of the Year award.
It earned him a move to his boyhood club, Liverpool. Despite being Cardiff-born, like many in the city Bellamy had an affiliation towards the red half of Merseyside.
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A young Bellamy in action for Norwich
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Bellamy again scored on his debut, but life at Anfield failed to kick-start after that. It took the Welshman until mid-October to score his first Premier League goal – against his former club Blackburn Rovers – but controversy would hinder his spell at Anfield. The striker was embroiled in a court case for an assault on two women in a Cardiff bar, but was eventually cleared of the charges in November 2006.
With the weight lifted from his shoulders, Bellamy finally hit the ground at Liverpool, scoring four goals in four games after the charges were dropped. Then Portugal happened – an event that would mar Bellamy’s career forever.
During a team training session, it was alleged that Bellamy attacked team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club. The Guardian reported at the time: “The dispute involving Bellamy and Riise seemingly started with a karaoke competition in the early hours of Friday morning, when Bellamy took offence at the Norwegian left-back’s refusal to sing.”
Writing in his autobiography, the striker added: “Ginge was a nice enough lad. He was a bit of a child. He was insanely competitive. If there was a competition to see who could ping a shot against the crossbar, he was always mad keen to win it. People used to make a joke of it and say: ‘I bet Ginge could do that’.
“That night at Vale do Lobo, I was sitting with Steve Finnan, who was my room-mate, Sami Hyypiä and Ginge.I told Ginge he had to sing a song. I might have said it a couple of times. He said he didn’t want to do it.
“I mentioned it again and he snapped. He got shitty about it. He got up and started shouting. ‘Listen,’ he yelled, ‘I’m not singing and I’ve had enough of you banging on about it.’”
In the first match after the confrontation, Bellamy equalised for Liverpool against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. It was a Champions League quarter-final, and to celebrate he emulated a golf club swing. It was vintage Bellamy – always on the edge.
Liverpool eventually made it to the Champions League final, but the Welshman was left on the bench as an unused substitute; a move widely criticised from Rafa Benítez. Did their relationship impact the decision? Maybe, but the decision to leave an attacking, high-tempo player such as Bellamy on the bench when you’re trailing in a big final was bizarre.
In 2011, Bellamy told the Liverpool Echo how the disappointment spurred him onto better things and to make a difference in the world: “I was on the bench for the Champions League final for Liverpool in 2007. I didn’t get to appear. I was disappointed not to appear. I was at my wit’s end.”
The Welsh striker visited a friend in Sierra Leone and was inspired to make a difference to the children there. He set up the Craig Bellamy Foundation, which runs the country’s only football academy and coordinates a nationwide league of 88 teams. “The poverty is another level,” Bellamy said shortly after. “It made me want to do something about it. To qualify to play in the league they need to go to school – it’s not about football, it’s about education.”
A move away from Liverpool was on the cards, so when West Ham submitted a bid for Bellamy there was little doubt he’d be leaving the Reds.
His first season in London was ruined by injury, playing just nine games. His second season, however, firmly proved his credentials as an outstanding Premier League talent. He registered a goal every three games, before moving to Manchester City for £14 million in January.
If the start of the 2008-09 season proved Bellamy was a top player, his spell at Manchester City opened eyes to his true quality and the potential he had always possessed. Another debut and another goal immediately endeared the Welshman to the Citizens, also making him only the fifth player in the league’s history to score for six different clubs.
The 2009-10 season was Bellamy’s first full season in the blue of Manchester and he contributed immediately with a goal and two excellent assists in September’s 4-2 win over Arsenal. “Arsenal’s misery deepened four minutes later when Wright-Phillips rounded off more good work from the tireless Bellamy,” said the BBC’s Phil McNulty at the time.
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Craig Bellamy was a passionate, consistent performer for Wales
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He followed that up with arguably the best performance of the season against arch-rivals Manchester United. City lost the game 4-3, but Bellamy scored two and earned all plaudits. His first goal was an emphatic 20-yard strike, while the second was a sublime rounding of Red Devils’ keeper Ben Foster. His performance, however, was tempered by an incident involving a pitch-invading fan, whom Bellamy decided to slap. It seems that every time Bellamy had a career high point, he countered it with controversy.
The surge of Bellamy at Manchester City was no surprise; history suggests that he works well with manager Mark Hughes.
When Hughes was sacked, Bellamy didn’t hide his displeasure. New manager Roberto Mancini dropped him for his first game in charge, signalling the end of the Welshman’s spell in Manchester. The Daily Mail stated at the time: “Bellamy has been among the most upset players in the wake of Hughes’ sacking last weekend and told City chief executive Garry Cook last Saturday that he was considering his future at Eastlands.”
Bellamy’s next move shocked all in football. With the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Everton all chasing his signature, Bellamy went home to Cardiff. He joined the Bluebirds on a season-long loan deal with the aim of guiding Dave Jones’ team, arguably the best in Cardiff’s history, to the Promised Land of the Premier League.
The move was highly criticised across the country, based on the fact that Manchester City were paying a large percentage of Bellamy’s wages. All was above-board though, and Bellamy remained in Cardiff.
The hometown hero, fresh from being names captain, marked his debut – a 4-0 win over Doncaster Rovers – with a delicious 35-yard free-kick. Despite injury problems, the Welshman cemented himself in the hearts of the Bluebirds with the winning goal in the South Wales derby against Swansea City.
Bellamy would go on to play a big part in the club’s surge for promotion, linking up well with fellow hometown boy and short-term loanee Aaron Ramsey. He suffered a hamstring injury during the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Reading as Cardiff went on to lose the second leg 3-0. The dream was over.
It was heart-breaking for the Cardiff faithful and Bellamy, who had dreamt of taking his club to the Premier League for the first time.
Liverpool, now managed again by club legend Kenny Dalglish, made a move to sign Bellamy after his play-off agony, who duly accepted and returned to Anfield. “I’ve grown up with Kenny Dalglish, now to be signed by him is a massive honour,” he told liverpoolfc.tv after being signed.
The season saw Bellamy lift silverware, ironically against Cardiff, as the Reds defeated the Welshmen via a penalty shoot-out in the League Cup final.
After just one season back on Merseyside, Bellamy returned to Cardiff City after new manager Brendan Rodgers replaced Dalglish. It was seen as a strange move at the time, with many Reds fans seeing Bellamy and Rodgers as an ideal partnership, with the Welshman suiting the manager’s high-tempo, pressing football.
Personal reasons were cited for Bellamy’s move back to South Wales, with the death of close friend Gary Speed contributing to his desire to move home.
He retained his number 39 shirt and set about completing the failed mission he had started just two years before. “One of the reasons he came back in the first place three seasons ago was to do that and have that little bit of history attached to him helping that happen in his home-town team,” said Malky Mackay.
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Bellamy succeeded in helping Cardiff reach the Premier League
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Throughout the season, Bellamy was hit by injury after injury and had to be managed on and game-by-game basis by the management team. In the end, though, the season was a success as Cardiff City won promotion to the Premier League for the first time since 1962.
It entered Craig Bellamy into Cardiff folklore, with a home point against Charlton Athletic securing automatic promotion. It was a season in which identity issues could have overshadowed Cardiff City, but on-pitch success, led by the determined Bellamy, was the prominent topic in South Wales.
With injuries severely hampering Bellamy’s performances, his game time in the Premier League dwindled. His effort and determination to go out on a high with his hometown club, however, saw him enjoy one last season at the top. His first Premier League goal for the Bluebirds came against his first professional club Norwich City, and made him a history maker as the first player to score in the top-flight for seven different clubs.
Bellamy made just 22 appearances for Cardiff in the Premier League, with the club relegated. Their dream season in the top flight became a disaster; Malky Mackay was sacked, the fans ultimately turned against the club’s owner Vincent Tan, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Mackay’s replacement, was an undoubted failure. Bellamy himself was offered the job but turned it down – something that happened again after Solskjær was sacked the following season.
Following relegation, Bellamy retired from football. A glittering career ended on the low of relegation. For Bellamy, he had realised his dream of taking his hometown club to the Premier League. Injuries had become too much for the striker, forcing him to stop playing the game he graced with so much passion and excitement: “I guess over the years I’ve become accustomed to the pain from various injuries, but for the last three to four years I’ve been on anti-inflammatories every day. I’m not sure my body will think that’s a wise thing in due course, but it kept me playing for that period. However, the time has come to stand aside and say enough. My body can’t take anymore.”
For all of his controversies and questionable temperament, it is hard not to admire Bellamy. You’d struggle to find a more passionate, hard-working player in football. It’s these traits that endeared the Welshman to the fans of the clubs he played for.
From the streets of Cardiff to the stands of Anfield and Celtic Park, Bellamy earned admiration. This was a young boy from Cardiff who realised his dream of playing professional football; putting his body on the line in the process.
For Craig Bellamy, football was clearly everything. He set up the Craig Bellamy Foundation in 2008, using his privileged position to do some good in Sierra Leone. Current Rwanda manager Johnny McKinstry worked there for a period and has spoken positively about Bellamy’s work.
Bellamy now works at the Cardiff City academy as a coach for free and recently completed an internship with the coaches at Ajax in his quest to become a better coach. It’s all testament to his football mind and desire to learn.
A fitting testament of Bellamy’s passion and knowledge of the game came in December 2015 when he temporarily replaced Gary Neville – who had left to become Valencia manager – on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football. There were no signs of the temperamental, aggressive Bellamy that was evident so often on the pitch, but instead the passionate, intelligent Bellamy those that appreciated him have come to known.
“Bellamy gave some fascinating thoughts on his own experience as a forward and the development of the position over the years,” said The Mirror on his MNF debut. The paper went on to add: “Bellamy is not afraid to speak his mind and his claim that Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez has been the best player in the Premier League this season certainly raised some eyebrows.”
Not many are raising their eyebrows now. Bellamy’s claim proved to be true.
Few players have polarised opinions like Bellamy. Under the surface, though, sits an interesting, intellectual man who loves the game. He’s passionate, knowledgeable and ambitious. Expect to see Craig Bellamy in a professional dugout very soon.
By Scott Salter. Follow @ssalter_ftbl