Long Reads

Craig Bellamy: goals, golf clubs and greatness – just how good was the Welshman?

craig bellamy
Image: Jon Candy, Flickr

During his career, he donned the colours of nine British clubs, a further two on the international scene, played for some of the best managers the game has ever seen and journeyed through his career with flashes of brilliance and a twist of controversy but just how good was Craig Bellamy?

An over-confident nobody?

Bellamy was born in 1979 to parents Douglas and Angela who raised him in a working class area of Cardiff and, because of his father’s influence, he grew up an avid Bluebird supporter despite their low ranking league status and those early experiences shaped his desire to play the sport.

In the early days of trying to make steps into the game, Bellamy found himself rebuffed on numerous occasions with his small stature going against him. He did eventually find himself with a team though – albeit his dad had to create and coach it – but it gave Bellamy a platform to consistently play competitive games and then his ability began to shine through in spite of his lesser frame and the professional clubs came calling with Norwich City – based some 270 miles away – ultimately offering the most appealing deal; although the full benefit of the deal wouldn’t come to fruition for several years.

As Bellamy came into his teenage years, with his Norwich YTS contract not yet in place, the pull of the dark corners of Cardiff began to take a hold and he flirted with drugs and crime whilst acting as a ‘lookout’ whilst regularly bunking off school because he was adamant his future was in football and therefore education was, at best, secondary. Thankfully, Bellamy met Claire Jansen – who became his wife – aged just 14 and she helped to re-route his journey back towards the straight and narrow.

Small moments, huge decisions

Bellamy uprooted and moved to East Anglia to live in digs at the age of 15 and it proved an emotional rollercoaster for the Welshman; he struggled behind closed doors, which isn’t uncommon amongst youngsters, but his ‘rough and ready’ side was starting to cross the line too often and the majority of clubs would have dumped him onto the footballing scrapheap after a training ground brawl culminated in Bellamy inflicting a broken arm to a trialist goalkeeper. Norwich opted to give Bellamy a final chance though and he’d soon prove them right to do so with his first team breakthrough coming at the back end of the 1996/97 campaign where he played as a centre midfielder.

The following season saw Bellamy firmly establish himself in the senior side as he racked up 38 appearances and scored 13 goals with his performances putting him on the radar of some Premier League clubs but when the 1998/99 season rolled around Norwich found themselves with a new manager at the helm with Bruce Rioch replacing Mike Walker and that spelt change for Bellamy. Rioch decided Bellamy was a centre forward rather than a midfield player and it proved a masterstroke as he netted 19 goals across all competitions that season. The next season was a write off due to injury but the Premier League vultures quickly circled on his return to fitness.

The long road to Newcastle

The summer of 2000 saw a number of Premier League clubs interested with Newcastle United emerging as Bellamy’s preferred destination; the trouble was, a deal couldn’t be struck between the clubs and instead Bellamy ended up moving to Gordon Strachan’s Coventry in a deal worth in the region of £6m. On the face of it, there was nothing not to like; it was a Premier League club and, at the time, it was a bigger club than Norwich too but Bellamy didn’t want the move and has admitted since hanging up his boots it was a mistake. 12 months passed with Bellamy scoring six goals in 35 games as the Sky Blues suffered relegation for the first time in over 40 years.

Luckily for Bellamy, Newcastle were still interested in bringing him to St James’ Park and a deal was done to finally take him to the North East.

Reaching New Heights

Arriving in Newcastle to work under Sir Bobby Robson was another level for Bellamy; he’d been used to second tier football and battling relegation and all of a sudden he was plying his trade in European competitions, competing at the top end of the league and playing for one of the best managers the world has ever seen. He didn’t look out of place either.

Newcastle had England legend Alan Shearer leading the line with the likes of Nolberto Solano and Laurent Robert providing ammunition from the wide areas and Bellamy’s movement and rapid bursts of pace proved a great ingredient to the overall attacking recipe Robson was cooking up. In his first year on Tyneside, Bellamy scored nine goals in 27 league matches as the Magpies finished fourth to qualify for the Champions League and he added another goal to his season’s tally in the Intertoto Cup where he ultimately ended up with a runners up medal after an away goals defeat in the final.

The next campaign saw Newcastle improve on their previous placement with a third-place finish as they flirted with the title race but really the season was about Europe. Bellamy made his first ever appearance at the very top of club football and he went on to write his name into the Champions League history books with a dramatic brace in the final group phase match against Feyenoord. Newcastle had fallen to three straight defeats in their opening three games before winning the next two – then came game six. Bellamy opened the scoring with his pace too much for the Dutch backline but after throwing away a two goal lead it looked like curtains for Bellamy and co, however, with seconds left on the clock Kieron Dyer stung the palms of Patrick Lodewijks and Bellamy was alive amongst a statue-like defence and fired in a winner to send Newcastle through.

From hero to zero and an acrimonious departure

If Bellamy was the hero of round one, then he quickly transitioned to villain in the next phase. It was a dream draw for Newcastle fans as they were pitting their wits against some of Europe’s best sides in Inter, Barcelona and Bayer Leverkusen but within 60 seconds of the first game – a home tie with the Inter – they fell behind and just three minutes later Bellamy saw red for throwing a punch into the midriff of Marco Materazzi. Newcastle got stuffed 1-4 and Bellamy was ruled out of a trip to the Nou Camp and a double header with Leverkusen. It was goodbye to the Champions League dream for another year.

The next year began with failure to make it through the Champions League qualifying stages and despite making it to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup – where Bellamy scored five in seven games – the campaign was deemed an unsuccessful one as Newcastle missed out on the top four with Bellamy only notching four times. By the time the 2004/05 season was a month old, Robson was sacked and the notoriously fiery Graeme Souness was eventually named his replacement.

Despite Bellamy rattling the goals in during the first half of the season – 12 in 29 to be precise – he was proving a tough man to manage for Souness. The situation came to a head in January after a 1-0 defeat against Arsenal; Souness publicly accused Bellamy of refusing to play but, as you’d expect, the club’s leading scorer for the season didn’t take the accusation laying down and gave his side of the story, which somewhat conflicted Souness’ view. The result? Leaving Newcastle.

Two steps back, a giant leap forward

Bellamy moved north of the border for a loan spell at Celtic and although he was only there a few months he made a big impact on the Hoops with seven goals and a Scottish Cup win. As summer rolled around, Celtic wanted to keep him but Bellamy opted for another shot at Premier League football and a £6m bid – and a little convincing from his former Wales boss Mark Hughes – saw him sign for Blackburn Rovers.

Bellamy, who was ably supported in attack by Shefki Kuqi and the in-form midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen, was the star man as Rovers reached the League Cup semi-final and finished sixth in the league to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Hughes wanted to build his side around the talismanic Bellamy but a clause in his contract allowed him to speak to clubs who were in the Champions League and Liverpool – then managed by Rafa Benitez – put up the required cash.

Failure to find a home

Bellamy got off to a good start at Liverpool as he scored and assisted in his first two matches – a Champions League qualifier and the Community Shield – but league goals proved harder to come by and it wasn’t until game number seven when the league duck was broken, ironically, with a stooping header against Blackburn. Bellamy went on to score nine – and lay on a further seven – goals in the equivalent of 29 matches (2,662 minutes across 42 appearances) as Liverpool reached the Champions League final but it wasn’t his on-field displays the drew attention with the ‘nutter with a putter’ fiasco – a nickname he received after an altercation with teammate John Arne Riise where Bellamy wielded a golf club as a weapon – dominating headlines. His Anfield career was over after just one season with Benitez breaking the news after the Champions League defeat where Bellamy remained on the bench despite the Reds desperately chasing a goal.

Next up was a move to West Ham who beat Everton, Newcastle – who were managed by Sam Allardyce rather than Souness by this point – and Aston Villa in the fight to sign Bellamy. A five year deal was penned but injuries hampered much of his time in London; although he regained fitness in the first part of the 2008/09 campaign and his form caused his former manager Hughes – now with the reigns at Man City – to splash £14m on his signature.

Almost immediately, Bellamy looked at home in sky blue with two crucial goals in his first three games but his desire to win started to cause issues again with tension bubbling away between Bellamy and a couple of big names – Elano and Robinho to name two – and Bellamy ended the season on the treatment table. He was back fit for the start of the next season and had a new pair of strikers to contend with in Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez but the net kept rippling as Bellamy netted five goals in the opening part of the campaign but fast forward a few games and Hughes was sacked.

Roberto Mancini arrived and transformed City behind the scenes with Bellamy reportedly taking significant issue with the new look training regimes. The games and goals kept flowing but so did the rumblings of unhappiness and the inevitable end came round sooner rather than later.

A Cardiff homecoming

Mancini wanted shot of Bellamy but knew his talent could hinder City if he went to a rival so a season long loan move to Bellamy’s hometown club, Cardiff, was organised. The experienced frontman was quickly named skipper and had a huge influence on the side as they missed out on automatic promotion by four points. Bellamy and his main strike partner, Jay Bothroyd, were formidable at that level though and the Welsh club were desperate to bring 14 goal Bellamy back on a permanent basis in the summer. It probably would have happened too if another huge opportunity had not presented itself.

A surprise move back to Liverpool and the impossible dream

When ‘the King’ calls, you don’t say no and it just so happened that Kenny Dalglish was manager at Liverpool. He saw Bellamy as a great option to add experience to his team for nothing after he’d negotiated a premature settlement of his Manchester City contract. Bellamy was very much a bit part player to begin with but his involvement increased as the season wore on and he was central to Liverpool’s League Cup triumph and their FA Cup run that ended in a final defeat.

The class was still there for all to see and he could have spent further time at Liverpool but the lure of home was too much and off to Cardiff Bellamy went once again. His first spell back in the Welsh capital ended in play-off heartbreak but this time he was determined to go one better and his involvement in 12 goals, 11 of which came in wins, helped his hometown team to the promised land of the Premier League with a tearful Bellamy branding the achievement ‘the impossible dream’. The next season saw Bellamy net a record breaking goal – and his last in professional football. It came in poetic circumstances too as he notched against his first club, Norwich, in a 2-1 victory and meant he became the first player to score for seven different Premier League clubs.

The greatest honour of all

Bellamy might have represented his fair share of clubs during his career but overarching across it all was his affinity to the Welsh dragon. He made his international debut aged 19 and went on to wear the strip 78 times and bagged 19 goals. It wasn’t just his talents as a footballer that endeared him to the Welsh fans though and he wore the armband for a five year period – something that is all the more impressive when you consider he spent much of his international life playing alongside the likes of Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs and Robbie Savage, who all brought strong leadership skills of their own but he was eventually forced to retire with injuries taking their toll. It wasn’t just for Wales where Bellamy’s presence was appreciated though because in 2012 Stuart Pearce named him as one of three overage players for the Great Britain Olympic squad with Bellamy featuring in all five games, scoring once.

There you have it, a look into the past of Craig Bellamy; truly one of the greatest characters – and most underrated players – to have played in the Premier League.