On the 29th November 2011, Liverpool travelled to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea in the Carling Cup quarterfinal. Two teams in states of transition—Liverpool in their post-Torres post-Hodgson hinterland, trying to accommodate Andy Carroll as a number 9; and Chelsea blooding André Villas-Boas as Mourinho 2.0, giving precious minutes to fringe youngsters like Romelu Lukaku, Oriol Romeu, Ross Turnbull, Josh McEachran, and Ryan Bertrand.
The match finished 0–2, a Maxi Rodríguez tap-in and a Martin Kelly header, with both goals assisted by Craig Bellamy. The first an unselfish square ball after a smart, quick, run down the right; the second a well delivered set piece. By all accounts, Bellamy was the best player on the park, furiously zipping around the pitch, causing problems for Chelsea’s inexperienced backline. When he was subbed off for Dirk Kuyt, and despite the standing ovation he was receiving from the Shed End, he didn’t look like a player who’d just put in his best performance in a Liverpool shirt. His teammates congratulate him, more forcefully than usual, first Jamie Carragher, then Charlie Adam. Kenny Dalglish gives him an enormous, fatherly hug when he gets off the pitch, and Bellamy disappears down the tunnel. The previous week, Craig Bellamy’s friend and former team-mate Gary Speed had committed suicide, and this was the first game he’d played since.
To understand Craig Bellamy—the snarling, divisive forward who perhaps never reached his full potential—you have to understand his start in the game with Norwich City, aged 13. Context is important here. This was the dawn of the Premier League era, and ostensibly, Norwich were on the up. Martin O’Neill was their manager and they’d come third the year before—in a season where for a time it looked like they might actually win the title. The obvious choice for breaking into the professional game for a lad from Cardiff would be to stay around the area, go to Cardiff or Swansea, but this was a long way from the days of Huw Jenkins and Vincent Tan. Both teams were thudding around in the lower echelons of the game, flirting with relegation and insolvency on a semi-regular basis, without a sniff of a young local following.
So, Norwich it was. On the one hand, the club was a great football education for a small, lithe, technical player like Bellamy, and they allowed him to develop at his own pace and learn the passing and movement skills that would make him such an effective player later in life. On the other hand, Norwich is about as far away from Cardiff as it’s possible to get in one direction, and the more time he spent away, the more difficult coming back became.
Now, go to any community in Wales, a country where sport features so heavily in the fabric of daily life, and there’ll be a story of a footballer or a rugby player who nearly made it, but didn’t. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one degree of separation away from someone who did. When I was a kid, there was palpable excitement knowing that Wolves and Wales midfielder Carl Robinson was from the town seven miles away. His brother taught PE at the rival school to ours; he sometimes came to watch our 5-a-side tournaments, including one where I wore an Arsenal shirt the week after he went toe-to-toe with Emmanuel Petit in an FA Cup tie. Bar the small contingency of Wolves fans in town—I assume as a result of him directly—none of us were really sure how good he was, and it sort of didn’t matter. He was playing football! For a living! And he was from Powys!
More often than not though, the story goes the other way. You hear it from your parents, and your teachers, and the blokes down the pub. Someone gets an injury and regresses, someone starts a family and doesn’t want to leave town, someone gets distracted by drink or drugs or crime. Not only that, it’s a lot more difficult in Wales to progress from “talented kid” to “professional sportsman”, predominantly because that pathway seems closed off to people in rural communities. When I spoke to Tom Jones, a youth coach and amateur footballer in Rhayader, a town in mid-Wales with a population of approximately 2,000, he still notices the same issues that there have always been—“softer” kids being bullied out of their enjoyment of the game, ceasing to enjoy it. Parents being too pushy and aggressive on the sidelines, leading to mimicry from the players. Scouting, academies, even playing at a semiprofessional level—these are all pipe dreams for most.
Small towns can be stifling; you can get trapped before you even know it’s happened to you. Often, you come to a fork in the road, and whichever path you choose, it’s very difficult to turn back. In larger cities, more multicultural areas, third, fourth, fifth options are open, and kids are encouraged to take them. In Wales it’s often hidden below the surface, needing to be dug up.
Bellamy came to his fork in the road at 15. The kids he was hanging around with were older than him and were already going off the rails. Bellamy was back and forth between Norwich and Cardiff, trying to live two separate lives, but once people know you’re ostensibly a Premier League footballer in a town of talents that go unfulfilled, you’re a target. Not ostracised, but treated differently. It’s not exactly an easy group dynamic to slip back into. The watershed moment came when Bellamy jumped into a stolen car with a friend and went for a joy ride. Nothing happened, but it could have, that was one path that he could have gone down, the one where he stays in Cardiff and becomes another one of those nearly-but-not-quite stories. Getting a taste of it was enough motivation to double back and go down the other path. Bellamy moved permanently to Norwich, away from his family and girlfriend, to begin his career proper.
The move away from home is where you first see the seeds of the psychological issues that would plague Bellamy’s career take root. Being taken away from your whole support network at such a young age means that homesickness is inevitable, and it hit Bellamy hard—calling his parents from a payphone outside a Norwich chippy after training, crying to them about how we wanted to come home. On the pitch, things were better, but while the coaches were nurturing, the senior pros were merciless. You hear this from old pros a lot now, usually when criticising players for being soft, how “back in their day” a culture of intimidation was essential to building character, to making you a leader. It’s nonsense, it’s dangerous. There’s a difference between asking a trainee to clean your boots and telling him you’re going to break his legs. That kind of masculinity, one based on punishment and suffering and resilience, has the consequential effect of ignoring psychological issues. It pushes them to the bottom, it makes them worse. It takes something that used to be a passion—the game—and turns it into a crutch.
Higher stakes, higher pressure, higher anxiety. This attitude that Bellamy cultivated early on to help cope with his changing circumstances followed him throughout his career, motivating all his personal and footballing decisions. When injuries came, he rushed himself back. When international football was preventing him from progressing at Norwich, he worried about his chances of getting a professional contract and didn’t want to go. When he was playing under Rafa Benítez at Liverpool and being rotated regularly, depression crept back and was never dealt with. Recommendations to go see a psychiatrist were ignored, football was therapy. Then Gary Speed died.
Speed’s death hit the whole football community hard, and the weeks that followed had a profound effect on Bellamy. People spoke about how Speed could be withdrawn, how he could be difficult to have a conversation with, how he didn’t have many close friends. Bellamy thought they could be speaking about him, and began to look harder at himself, at the bouts of depression he had suffered, the volatile temper and the self-sabotage of relationships. To see someone you look up to as a player succumb to their own demons so suddenly is enough to engender a period of self-reflection, but the problem with these models of masculinity is that, tragically, that’s so often what it takes.
The tendencies that people like Speed and Bellamy elicit—being closed off from the world around them, displacing their emotional turmoil onto sport or booze or drugs or whatever—aren’t exclusive to sport. They’re part of the fabric of growing up as a man. People talk about masculinity being in crisis, but what does that mean? Over the years masculinity has been codified in a very rigid way, be that through which sport you like, or how long your hair is, or what clothes you wear. This is without even considering how difficult it must be if your sexual preference or orientation is in question in your own mind. There are pressures to subscribe to certain traits, and if you can’t subscribe to them, then it’s just pressure, building up over time until it becomes something all-encompassing, something chronic. It’s a laboured point, but it bears repeating: suicide is still the biggest killer of young men in the United Kingdom, representing nearly a quarter of all deaths of males between 20 and 34. That’s not worldwide, that’s us; it’s a uniquely British phenomenon. If you take a look at the American Society for Suicide Prevention, in a country where going to a psychiatrist is akin to going to see your GP, younger groups have had consistently lower suicide rates, sometimes by as much as 10%. Something has to change.
The first step is recognising that the issue is at least partly chemical, and not totally circumstantial. Throughout Bellamy’s career, the attitude was always, “I’m depressed, because…” never, “I’m depressed.” When you have something to attribute your faltering mental state to—an injury, a failing marriage, a bad run of form—it can cloak deeper issues. It’s only when you start tugging at the thread that everything begins to unravel. Bellamy began to see Steve Peters, a well-known sports psychologist, in the aftermath of Speed’s death and credits him with turning his mental state around. After that incredible season at Liverpool, where his form was one of the real catalysts that allowed Luis Suárez to begin his ascent to become one of the best players in Europe, if not the world, new manager Brendan Rodgers assured him that he would be a key figure for the team in the next season. But priorities had shifted by this point. He knew he was coming towards the end of his career and so, when Cardiff became an option for the second time, he returned home to an apartment that overlooked the sea to try and help the club his dad supported achieve Premier League football for the first time in their history, and to be near his kids.
It’s funny to think that this was a club that was always on Bellamy’s doorstep—how different would it have been if instead of moving across the country, he was nurtured in his own community? Made to feel a hero in front of his family and friends? You get this sense hearing Bellamy talking about Cardiff and the infrastructure they now have. This is a team that not only can boast the city itself as a catchment area, but can cast a net across the South Wales valleys, in a similar way that Athletic Bilbao have done in the Basque region, or Barcelona have done in Catalonia. Cardiff is no longer the shonky, unstable club it was when Bellamy was dipping his toes in the game, and arguably, football is not the sport it once was in Wales either. The success of the national side at Euro 2016 showed the country in a proud and positive light, proving that they could compete on the world stage at a sport that for so long has been considered second to rugby. Both Gary Speed and Craig Bellamy played a huge role in that, even though neither was involved when it came to fruition.
I think about what it’s like for Welsh kids now growing up who choose football over rugby. I did when I was at school, despite having a New Zealand dad who still doesn’t really enjoy football that much. I was a goalkeeper too, which is a weird position to play anyway, but if you already feel slightly left out, or get the impression that everyone else on your team is playing what is essentially their second sport, stood alone at one end of the pitch while older kids stand behind you and try to put you off…well, you probably need to be more mentally robust than I was aged 11 to deal with it and come out the other side. The last game I played in goal for my local team when I must have been 11 or 12, I ran home at half-time, we were 3–1 down, and I couldn’t deal with the pressure, the shouting parents, the sniping kids. I hated it, I still remember that walk home vividly, tearing my gloves off and throwing a strop. I didn’t play or watch football at all for a few years, and by the time I started again, I refused to go in goal. Part of me thinks that I made the right call, doing that—something wasn’t making me happy, so I stopped. The part of me that wonders whether I could have turned into a better keeper, is tempered by the fact that had I played through, I might have done myself some lasting damage.
Watching Bellamy now, and towards the end of his career—articulate, measured, calm, a leader on the pitch, displaying all the qualities you’d need to become a successful manager or coach—it’s clear something has changed within him, that the issues he had are being worked on, and he’s getting results. Work is what it takes though, and the support of organisations committed to addressing the issue. Mental health charities like Gofal and Time to Change, whose We Wear The Same Shirt campaign is starting the conversation head on by working with local clubs in Newtown and Merthyr, with Cardiff, Newport, and Wrexham to follow later in 2016, are starting those small steps that may mean that when kids in Wales get to that fork in the road, they don’t make the wrong choice.
Images: Well Offside