Occasionally, I wonder what exactly goes on in the head of the modern footballer. Their experience of the game is unique – once upon a time, they were nothing more than employees of their club. They seldom earned more than the people that watched them play week in week out, and when they retired, they were suddenly left with a massive void to fill in their lives. It wasn’t merely a matter of finding a way to kill the days once they turned thirty-five. They had to make a living for the rest of their lives, and they’d often forsaken the benefits of a proper education in order to follow their sporting ambitions in the first place.
Now, of course, everything has changed. A successful Premiership footballer can make enough money of five or six years to ensure that he never has to work again after he retires, and changes in the relationship between clubs and players brought about through court challenges such as The Bosman Ruling have meant that players are more powerful within the game than they have ever been. Combine this with wages swollen by the massive pouring of money into the game through increased sponsorship and lucrative television deals, and the modern player has the world at his feet. Bosman has had some positive benefits – players are no longer wage slaves, and the journeyman professional has more security from the ruthless clubs. However, I think that I may be stating the obvious by mentioning that the associated rises in ego have been to the detriment of the image of the game.
There have always been players that have misbehaved on and off the pitch but, in the modern era, the number of players that become more celebrated for everything other than their actual football ability has gone through the roof. Robbie Savage, for example, is loathed by the supporters of every team in the country apart from the team that he’s playing for at the time, but it’s clear that he is a perfectly capable player – otherwise, he wouldn’t still be playing at the top level. Nicolas Anelka learned the hard way that a mature attitude is a requirement to being a successful player. He let his ego and the pernicious influence of those around him stifle his development as a player and lost the best years of his career as a result. He’s enjoying an Indian summer at Bolton now, but may have lost the best years of his career trying to find his feet both mentally and in terms of his career.
The ultimate example, though, of the player at the risk of losing it all is, of course, Craig Bellamy. There’s no question that Bellamy is a hugely talented player, but his behaviour has always been appalling, and the recent reports coming back to this country from Portugal, where Liverpool were supposed to be relaxing and training prior to their Champions League last sixteen match against Barcelona might just prove to be the start of a downward spiral that teaches him, the hard way, a bit of humility. It’s harsh but entirely true to say that there won’t be too many people that could disagree that he has had it coming to him.
It has to be said that he has taken being objectionable to a new and uncharted territory, through a mixture of pettiness, arrogance, rampant egotism and aggression (both on and off the pitch). He’s not far short of a pantomime villain now. I first became aware of his potential to irritate at the end of an FA Cup match between Wolves and Newcastle in 2003. Wolves won a thrilling match 3-2 but, at the end, Bellamy, who should probably have been licking his wounds at having been part of a team that had been dumped on its backside by a team from a division below them, instead went to the Wolves supporters pointing at the Premiership badge on the sleeve of his shirt. It was a pathetic and childish display.
His capacity for petulance hit the national headlines when Graeme Souness took over as the Newcastle manager in 2004. Reportedly, Bellamy refused to play in a right midfield position for Newcastle, stating that he’d feign an injury if made to play in that position. He even went to the trouble of saying in a press conference that he’d be prepared to pay in any position, in what looked for all the world like a calculated attempt to undermine Souness’ authority. Once his lie became common knowledge, his place at Newcastle became untenable and he was shipped out on loan to Celtic. At the end of his loan spell, he returned to the Premiership with Blackburn, but reports of abusive text messages sent to Alan Shearer have further strengthened my belief that he incapable of behaving like an adult. Throw in a handful of court appearances for assault (he’s been before a judge three times for assault in the last five years – once racially aggravated and twice for allegedly assaulting women – and has been cautioned once), and a picture is drawn of a man that it’s practically impossible to have any respect for whatsoever.
Many eyebrows were raised when Bellamy was signed by Liverpool last summer. He was being promoted to the top level of European football now but, while no-one doubted his talent as a player, many (myself included) questioned his temperament. It all seemed to be going reasonably well for him. Liverpool seem virtually assured of their Champions League place for next season and they are in the last sixteen of this year’s competition, but again his complete lack of anything like self control might just have done for his career on Merseyside. When I read the story in the papers this morning, I could scarcely believe it. John Arne Riise had reportedly refused to sing in a karaoke bar with Bellamy, and the players had been required to be separated. Bellamy, angry at having “lost face”, waited a good couple of hours finding Riise again and swinging at his legs with a golf club. It’s difficult to see how, if these rumours turn out to be substantiated, he can continue at Anfield. He might have blown his big chance.
I’m no psychologist, and I don’t know what the hell inner demons Craig Bellamy has to deal with. However, there has to be a point at which push comes shove, and this might be a line that he has crossed. It’s worth pointing out that the sum total of what passes for “achievement” in Bellamy’s career, however talented a player he is, is one Scottish Cup winner’s medal. If he has pissed his career up the wall, he won’t find a great deal of sympathy here.