Craig Bellamy could not believe his luck when Kenny Dalglish brought him back for a second spell at Anfield but his admiration for the Liverpool icon couldn’t prevent his dressing-room anger getting the best of him one on occasion which brought the Welshman a severe rebuke.
Never go back’ is one of the oldest maxims in football. History is littered with players who have returned to clubs for a second spell in attempt to roll back the years and recreate what had gone before but more often than not with limited – if any – success.
Liverpool’s record with bringing back former Reds bears reasonable comparison to other clubs with Ian Rush being the most notable example and, while it would have been nigh on impossible to reach the jaw-dropping heights of his achievements before his move to Italy, the Welshman still won league and FA Cup and League Cup honours after returning to Anfield as well as smashing the club’s all-time goalscoring record .
Steve Staunton and Robbie Fowler both provided valuable experience when being given the chance to again pull on the red shirt later in the careers – the latter’s return being treasured by both the ‘Toxteth Terror’ himself and many Liverpudlians given the sad end to his first spell – although Kenny Dalglish’s return as manager, despite the Reds icon bringing silverware back to Anfield after a six-year absence, isn’t generally remembered quite as fondly.
Ironically though the Scot’s return to the LFC dug-out saw him bring back a former Red whose second spell in L4 did at least allow him to complete some unfinished business and win would be the only major trophy of his career in English football for the team he had supported as a boy.
Craig Bellamy may have grown up close to Cardiff City’s Ninian Park ground and been taken to watch the Bluebirds as a youngster but his heart had been captured from an early age by the Reds.
“I first remember seeing a Liverpool strip outside my mum and dad’s house when I was about six years of age”, he told LFC TV in 2011. “It was the Crown Paints, all-red Umbro one. Liverpool always had a big following in Wales, along with Man Utd and Everton, but when I saw that strip with the Liver bird on I knew that was the team I was going to be supporting and it just went on from there.
“I’ve been lucky really because a lot of supporters don’t get see the number of trophies we have, I grew up in the 80s which was a hugely successful period for Liverpool when it felt like virtually every year we were winning the league or the FA Cup.
My fondest memory is the year we beat Everton 3-2 in the FA Cup final, obviously with everything that happened at Hillsborough, and I was actually at the game against Arsenal when we lost the league in the last minute of the last game. But to me the FA Cup was more important because of what happened, it was so big for us to win that cup because of what went before and that for me is the fondest memory, to have two clubs like Everton and Liverpool from the same city in the final and able to share the sadness but also the joy and togetherness of what was two great sides at the time. Seeing the supporters being able to come together at a time of such sorrow for the city was the most rewarding thing I’d been involved in as a Liverpool fan.”
The Welsh youngster’s early aptitude for the game saw him signed up to the Bristol Rovers academy when he was just nine and by 15 he had moved away from home to start a youth apprenticeship with Norwich. Although he described himself as “a kid who knew he was going to be a footballer and thought he knew it all”, the teenager suffered dreadfully from homesickness and described his first year in Norfolk as the worst of his life, the first sign of the disciplinary problems which would dog his career revealing themselves when he received a final warning from staff after breaking the arm of a trials goalkeeper during a training ground fight. He was forced to grow up quickly after finding out his girlfriend was pregnant and, after being the only player promoted to the reserves after the end of the first year of his YTS scheme, made his first team debut at the age of 17 in March 1997.
Despite being small in stature, Bellamy’s pace, aggression and eye for goal belied his youth as did his combative attitude on and off the pitch which did not always go down well with team-mates let alone opponents but it soon marked him out as a player whose sheer desire and will to win would take him places.
A couple of serious knee injuries hampered his early development but by the summer of 2000 he was bound for the Premier League when Coventry City paid a club record £6m to take him to Highfield Road as the replacement for Robbie Keane who had just been sold to Inter Milan. It wasn’t the best time to be joining the Sky Blues as their 34-year stay in the top flight would end the following May in relegation but Bellamy’s eight goals in 39 appearances along with Coventry’s need to reduce their wage bill won him a £6.5m move to Newcastle where he truly began to show his capabilities.
Under the guidance of Bobby Robson – who would describe him as ‘a great player wrapped round an unusual and volatile character’ – the Welshman struck up an impressive partnership alongside Alan Shearer with the pair scoring 41 goals between them during their first season in tandem as the Geordies finished fourth in the Premier League, Bellamy’s progress winning him the PFA Young Player of the Year award although controversy continued to follow him when he was one of four squad members sent home in disgrace from a club winter break in Spain, later in the season also receiving a police caution for common assault.
After undergoing knee surgery in the summer, he would receive a retrospective three-game ban for head-butting Dynamo Kyiv’s Tiberiu Ghioane on his Champions League debut and, after scoring two goals including a last-minute winner against Feyenoord which took Robson’s men into the second group stage as it was then, received the fastest red card in the competition’s history when he was sent off for swinging an arm at former Everton defender Marco Materazzi just five minutes into a tie at Inter Milan.
Despite continuing knee problems, Bellamy’s ability to rise to the occasion saw him score a memorable winner for Wales against Italy as the Dragons came close to qualifying for Euro 2004 and his partnership with Shearer ensured Newcastle recorded third and fifth place Premier League finishes as Robson’s side threatened to end their long trophy drought. The departure of the much-loved former England boss in 2004 and subsequent replacement with Graeme Souness marked a sea-change in the Welshman’s time at St James Park however and after a series of rows between the pair he joined Celtic on loan in January in 2005. He helped the Bhoys win the Scottish Cup that May and looked to set to join Everton that summer only to back out having agreed a deal following what he described as a ‘tense and hostile’ second meeting with Blues boss David Moyes.
With his former Wales boss Mark Hughes now in charge at Blackburn Rovers, Bellamy moved to Ewood Park and despite an injury hit campaign scored 17 goals in all competitions and was voted club Player of the Year as the Lancashire finished sixth and qualified for the UEFA Cup while also reaching the League Cup semi-finals. Newspaper reports linked him moves with back-to-back champions Chelsea as well as Tottenham but over on Merseyside Rafa Benitez – having won the Champions League and FA Cup in his first two seasons in charge at Anfield – was looking to build a squad capable of challenging for the Premier League title and when the Reds had a £6m bid accepted, there was only one place Bellamy wanted to be.
“The fact that it was Liverpool made it impossible for me to turn them down”, a delighted Bellamy said after putting pen to paper on a four-year deal. “As I’m a fan, it doesn’t matter what club I was at. I could never turn Liverpool down. You get the chance to play for Liverpool and it’s a lifelong dream come true.
I had a lot of friends at Blackburn – the players, the coaching staff, the chairman are all great people – and I owe them a lot, a hell of a lot to be honest. They helped me improve and they were there at an awkward time for me. Even from the outside looking in, you could tell that things were heading in the right direction here under Mr Benitez, and if we can improve on what we did last year and move two steps on, hopefully we can win the title.”
The Welshman was part of a big summer influx at Anfield with Benitez also bringing in £9m Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt from Feyenoord, winger Jermaine Pennant for £6.7m from Birmingham, left-back Fabio Aurelio from Valencia on a free transfer and Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez from Albacete, the latter making a dream start to life on Merseyside with Bellamy when they both scored important goals on their debut when the Reds fought back from a goal down to beat Israeli side Maccabi Haifa in a Champions League qualifier, the Welshman days later creating the winner for Peter Crouch which defeated champions Chelsea in the Charity Shield. But he had already had a glimpse into the difficult relationship he would have with the Liverpool manager on his first day of training with his new club.
“When I walked into Melwood, I felt as though everything in my career had been leading to this moment”, he recalled. “It was the first time I had ever been there and it was like being in a dream. A lot of things went through my mind. It was only a year ago that my name was mud and everybody had been branding me a troublemaker and saying I was untouchable. I had undergone four operations on my patella tendons and two on my cruciates. I had suffered from episodes of depression. I even thought back to sitting in my garage in Norwich on Christmas Eve, doing my leg presses. This is why I did it. To get here. To get to Melwood. To sign for Liverpool.
“I did my medical stuff and then I went upstairs to see Rafa Benitez in his office. I sat down. He was business-like. He produced a cutting from a newspaper. The page was dominated by a picture of me with a snarl on my face. Most of the time back then I’d have a snarl on my face. It was nothing unusual. ‘Why are you looking like this?’, he said. I told him I couldn’t remember. ‘You can’t play like this’, he said. ‘This kind of aggression is not what you need as a player.’ Then he got a board out and started quizzing me about footballing systems. What did I think about this formation or that formation, the positives, the negatives, the benefits of playing between the lines. Where would I run if a teammate had the ball in a certain position.
He asked me about every scenario under the sun. And every answer I gave, even if it was correct, was twisted into another answer. I was a bit taken aback by his attitude. It was like being in the presence of an unsmiling headmaster. The atmosphere at the club seemed strange, too. It was a place of business and a place of work but there weren’t very many people smiling. There wasn’t a lot of laughter around the place. Even the physios were on edge when they were doing the medical. Everyone seemed uncomfortable and wary.”
Liverpool’s hopes of a genuine title tilt were torpedoed by poor away form at the start of the campaign which saw defeats suffered at Everton, Chelsea, Bolton, Manchester United and Arsenal by early November, Bellamy’s acclimatisation not helped by a looming court case over an alleged incident at a Cardiff nightclub the previous year which was ultimately dismissed by the judge.
In his first appearance for the Reds afterwards, Bellamy scored twice in a 4-0 triumph at Wigan – Benitez’s side’s first on their travels of the campaign on 2nd December – with the Welshman’s only other strike having been in a 1-1 draw against former club Blackburn in October – and it heralded improved fortunes for both player and club with the forward finding the net three times as seven out of the next eight league games were won to cement Liverpool in third behind leaders Manchester United and Chelsea.
However the underlying tensions within the club Bellamy had noticed during that first day Melwood would come to the surface when the Champions League knock-out stages began in February. With Liverpool’s defence of the FA Cup having been ended in the third round by Arsenal, Benitez took the squad away to Portugal for a training camp ahead of the last-16 first leg clash at holders Barcelona and Bellamy was involved in an argument with John Arne Riise over a karaoke machine one evening as the squad were relaxing with a few drinks which has gone into infamy.
“I told Ginge (Riise) he had to sing a song”, Bellamy claimed. “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 s****y 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.’
We’d played golf earlier in the day and I just knew he was cheating. All day he just wound me up. Sami told me to ignore him and Ginge left fairly soon afterwards. But as the evening wore on and I had more to drink, it started eating away at me. When you’re drunk, what was said is times 10; he threatened me! It just ate away at me as the hours went on. And I was like ‘I’m not having this, I’m not accepting what he done there’.
“So I got one of my golf clubs, went to his room, knocked the door. Daniel Agger’s sharing with him and Riise had put the door on the latch because he thinks it’s Agger. So I open the door, roll in, he’s in bed, I gave him a thwack across the legs and said ‘you ever speak to me like that in front of anyone, I will put this round your head’. I look back at what I did now and I cringe. It was pathetic. It was stupidity of the highest level. It was drunken, bullying behaviour.”
Riise’s recollection of the incident was somewhat different, the Norwegian years later claiming in his own autobiography Bellamy had attempted to seriously injure him by swinging with full force.
“Bellamy raised the club over his head and swung as hard as he could. He tried to hit my shins, which would have ended my career, but I managed to pull my leg away in time,” he wrote. “He raised the club and swung again. This time he connected. Full force on my hip. I was so pumped with adrenaline that I didn’t feel the pain, but he hit me hard. It was an iron. He could have seriously injured me. At the same time, I knew I could take Bellamy if I needed to. I was bigger and stronger.”
Craig Bellamy celebrates scoring against Barcelona in the Champions League with his infamous golf club swing to the amusement of Steven Gerrard.
People talk about Kenny Dalglish being the greatest Liverpool footballer of all time and he probably is. But you know what, he is the greatest man who has ever played for Liverpool Football Club. There is no shadow of a doubt about that. To be involved with him was just a huge honour.
He was brilliant to play for. He had such a calming influence over everyone at the club. He was just The King. He was a true man. The humility he shows constantly on a daily basis to everyone was overwhelming. When I say ‘everyone’, I don’t just mean the players. I mean all the employees of the club. The impression you get of him on the television, defensive and monosyllabic, is the exact opposite of what he is like when the camera is turned off.
“Before the League Cup final, he showed us a short film that illustrated what Wembley meant to Liverpool and what it meant to the club being back there. I sat there watching Shankly talking and Kenny scoring that magnificent winner against Bruges in the 1978 European Cup final.
And I thought about all my years of growing up and wanting to be part of this club. When the film ended, there were tears in my eyes. For someone like me, you don’t get much better than playing for Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. When Kenny was fired a few months after bringing Liverpool their first trophy for six years, I knew for sure it was time to go.”