Craig Bellamy is the owner a unique Premier League record, an idiosyncratic achievement perfectly encapsulating the delicate equilibrium that made the Welshman such a well-travelled, long-serving varied and controversial member of the English top flight for the best part of 15 years.
On the one hand, a consequence of his short temper, egotism and often destructive nature; on the other, a testament to the intelligence and dedication to reinvent himself as a dramatic shift in tactical thinking wafted across the Premier League. In between these two polarised points, the pivot of the aforementioned delicate equilibrium and the proverbial cuffs bonding those opposing hands, was an unequivocal dose of match-winning quality.
If you haven’t already worked out the record being allude to, Bellamy is the only player to score in the Premier League for seven different clubs, a feat spanning from his breakthrough days at Newcastle to his prodigal swansong at boyhood club Cardiff. It’s the moments in between those two bookends of top flight involvement that defined and shaped Bellamy’s ever-turbulent, ever-unpredictable Premier League career.
Make no mistake, Bellamy was a bad boy, one whose list of indiscretions remains as holistic as his goal history. Self-serving, foul-mouthed, short-tempered, occasionally violent, usually unapologetic and described by Bobby Robson in his book as ‘a great player wrapped round an unusual and volatile character’, the former Wales international left many of his clubs on incredibly frosty terms.
In 2001, after moving to Newcastle from Coventry City, who gave him his first shot in the top flight, Bellamy quickly declared that he ‘never once’ enjoyed playing for the Midlands outfit, describing the club as a backward step from his time in the First Division with Norwich. His departure from St. James’ Park was even more explosive, enduring an incredibly public fall-out with manager Graeme Souness over his apparent refusal to play on the right wing. Ironically, it would be a willingness to modify his position that later secured the longevity of Bellamy’s career and ultimately, his ownership of the seven-club record.
Souness’ declaration that Bellamy would never play for the club again heralded productive spells with Celtic (on loan) and Blackburn Rovers, convincing Liverpool to activate his release clause. But just seven months into his first season at Anfield, Bellamy’s devilish instincts once again rose to the fore in perhaps the most infamous act of his career, confronting team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club. A few months later, Bellamy was sold to West Ham – a club he’s alleged to have tried to force a move away from in January 2009 after storming out of a training session.
Bellamy matured in his older years, even earning himself a second chance at Anfield. But for all the controversy his hot-headedness caused during his career, it was also the driving force that pushed him around the farthest corners of the Premier League, that made his record possible. Between 2005 and 2009 alone, the forward scored for five different Premier League clubs – six teams in total, including his spell at Celtic.
Whilst that inability to settle and relentless volatility represents the unflattering aspect of Bellamy’s record, the other underlying factor is far more complimentary of not only how talented a player he was, but also how thoughtful and self-aware he was too. As Bellamy himself explained on Monday Night Football, Didier Drogba’s emergence at Chelsea transformed the Premier League. Within the space of a few seasons, the traditions of 4-4-2 were completely overthrown in favour of Jose Mourinho’s 4-5-1 philosophy, hinging on a physically imperious lone target man of the Ivorian’s mould.
“2005. When Jose Mourinho and Didier Drogba came in… it changed the game. He went 4-3-3 with a big, strong target man. Even my manager at the time said to me, ‘to be a modern day striker, you have to be 6’3, 6’4, strong…’ Everything I wasn’t! The game shifted for me. It was a difficult time.”
Bellamy simply wasn’t that kind of player in stature or style – his career had been forged from playing alongside another centre-forward as the looser and slighter of the two – and by the time he arrived at Manchester City, he realised he’d no longer have a place in modern football unless his game evolved.
“When I moved to Manchester City, we brought in Carlos Tevez. I didn’t feel I was going to be able to move him out of the way. Then Emmanuel Adebayor for £30m. It made you look and say, ‘maybe I won’t get in those positions, because of all the money that was spent’. But I saw a weakness on the left. I saw Robinho. I felt if there was anyone I was going to be able to move out of this team, it would be him. So I targeted him.”
Never one for shirking a challenge or confining himself to the reputations of others, it was the spot of Robinho, the most expensive signing in Manchester City’s history and one of the biggest names in the Premier League, on the wing that Bellamy targeted. While their first season together at the Etihad Stadium saw the Brazilian produce 14 goals and Bellamy manage only eight appearances after arriving from West Ham in January, their second heralded a complete reversal of roles. Robinho featured just ten times in the top flight, never scoring, before being loaned out to Santos midway through the season; Bellamy, on the other hand, made the winger berth his own, scoring ten in 32 Premier League outings.
“If this is the position I was going to get in, it was going to be a little bit new to me, so I looked at the best left wingers who were playing at the time. I looked at Franck Ribery, looked at Andrey Arshavin, looked at a lot of players and studied their game. I had to look at the game differently, otherwise I wasn’t going to play at a club like Man City.”
Of course, the situation could have panned out incredibly differently. Like many modest-sized poachers at the time, Bellamy’s career could have simply faded away – by the time his second season at City had started, he was already 30. But the reinvention secured the Welshman a few more vital years; a free-scoring loan spell at Cardiff, a short-lived return to Anfield and finally a permanent move to his boyhood club, who he went on to represent 22 times in the Premier League, scoring twice to set the seven-club record, at the age of 34. Four years earlier, he’d pondered retirement.
Only a few more decades down the line will we truly know how history interprets Bellamy, whether he’s remembered as a talented, intelligent footballer who changed his game for the sake of self-sustenance, or a player whose career was stifled by his often destructive behaviour. But the true Bellamy lays somewhere down the middle; a footballer who limited opportunities for himself in his younger years yet extended them as he got older. The consequence, for better or worse, is an incredibly unique place in Premier League history. In many ways, to once again quote Bobby Robson, that epitomises how unusual a character Bellamy was.