by Ian King
The scene was Molineux, Wolverhampton, on the 5th of January 2003. The Third Round of the FA Cup was reaching its conclusion, and the television cameras were focussing their unyielding gaze upon the match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United. It was a match that was ripe for an upset of some description. The atmosphere at Molineux – even though, with its open corners and one stand twenty or so yards from the pitch, it is hardly designed for it – can be fearsome for such matches. At the time, it had been getting close to twenty years since Wolves had last played in the top division of English football and every match against higher opposition was an opportunity for the club to prove its credentials, having spent much of the previous decade labouring under the “sleeping giant” label applied to it by the press after Jack Hayward, the “Golden Tit”, first pointed his udders in the direction of a place in the Premier League.
More often than not, the fundamental difference between Wolverhampton Wanderers the team and Wolverhampton Wanderers the club became apparent as soon as they lined up against opposition from the Premier League, but in this case it didn’t. On a fresh, late Sunday afternoon – the sort of afternoon that sees every breath of the players accompanied with a puff so defined that it could be mistaken for a speech bubble and the smell of Deep Heat hangs heavy in air so fresh that it might even be sparkling – Newcastle United, a team prone to the occasional implosion against lower division opposition for longer than many of the people that will be reading this have been alive, stumbled and stuttered, and Wolves, without even having played particularly excellently, won the game by the odd goal in five.
For much of the afternoon, the majority of the barracking from the stands at Molineux had been directed at Craig Bellamy. At full-time, though, Bellamy, precisely the sort of player that attracts that sort of reaction from opposing supporters, walked to a section of the crowd, his face contorted like a mid-coital silverback gorilla, and tugged at the sleeve of his Newcastle shirt, pointing – pointedly, as it were – at the Premier League badge adorning it. And there, in that single moment, was everything that I despise the most in modern football. The singular lack of grace in defeat. The braying, honking aggression. The deliberate provocation of the home supporters with the one act that said, “You may have won today, but I am still winning overall because I am in the Premier League and you are not”.
Craig Bellamy’s reputation has never fully recovered from the aggressive and petulant nature of much of his behaviour as a younger player, and there have certainly been times when he has hardly helped himself, as John-Arne Riise’s jaw or Alan Shearer’s mobile phone will readily attest. Bellamy, however, has matured as a player, and the only question that I ask myself now is whether I even only enjoy him “through gritted teeth” any more. Perhaps this pleasure stems from the same feeling that used to enjoy the likes of Steve Bull or Matthew Le Tissier – as a player that transcends being a mere professional and who carries something of the air of a supporter that has leapt over the advertisement hoardings in full kit and joined in with the game.
To my mind, there are three aspects to the rehabilitation of Craig Bellamy. Firstly, at the end of his career, there is the return to his home-town club, Cardiff City. When Paul Scholes announced that he was not signing another new contract with Manchester United at the end of last season, there was a little speculation that he might, for sentimental reasons, play a few games for Oldham Athletic. He was never going to, of course, and the riches that players at the top of the game earn these days mean that there are precious few that need that one final pay-day further down the leagues before they retire. In the case of Bellamy, however, the return to Cardiff City at the start of last season carried with it the air of a man wanting something beyond a pay packet and one last kick-around before retiring to the proverbial sports shop or country pub. Bellamy played for Cardiff as if imbued with a sense that he alone could drag them, through sheer force of will, into the Premier League. He only narrowly failed and, at the time of writing, it is not known whether he will get another chance with them again next season.
The second aspect of the rehabilitation of Craig Bellamy is, of course, his involvement in the Craig Bellamy Foundation. The Foundation, which does an enormous amount of good work with under-privileged children in Africa, has never given any impression of being anything other than the work of somebody that has been very lucky seeking to put something back. Bellamy has never given much of an impression of being concerned with the kudos that comes with such work, and he is understood to have put a considerable amount of his own money into the project as well as a considerable amount of his own time. The world would be a better place if anything like all professional footballers chose to apportion some of their money and time in this way.
The final act in his redemption is his performances and enthusiasm for the Welsh national team. Those of us that have endured the varying antics of those that represent England have watched the behaviour of various members of the team in recent years with increasing dismay can only look on at Bellamy, his relationship with supporters of the Welsh team and his committed performances on the pitch for them with a degree of awe. He seems to say what he says about the Welsh team because there is an element of him that remains a supporter himself. This, perhaps, is why he tugged at that sleeve and pointed at the Premier League badge all those years ago at Molineux. With the mind set of a fan, he knew what would rile Wolves’ supporters the most, and it worked.
There are still reasons to be, well, wary of declaring admiration for him. His reported involvement in what is usually described in some quarters of the press as a “fracas” at the start of this year might hint at a certain level of personal self-control that still needs to be reigned in and, to that extent, there remains a hint of the pantomime villain about him. Yet for all that, he is a player of enormous talent, one that fills a match that he is playing in with a sense that the unexpected – either good or bad – could happen at any time. In an era during which top class football often feels more and more like a game of chess that has been pumped full of steroids, Craig Bellamy retains that near-indefinable spark, the capability of being able, just perhaps, to create something from nothing, and if world football is becoming more and more homogenous, this is a virtue that sometimes seems to be in shorter and shorter supply away from the elite. Through gritted teeth? Yes, just about, but Craig Bellamy remains exactly the sort of player that most of us would love to have playing for our team, baggage and all.
Ian is the founder of the really rather wonderful Two Hundred Percent. (If you’re looking for a comprehensive season preview, well, clickety-click.) Share your favourite Craig Bellamy anecdotes with him on Twitter: @twoht.