Oliver Holt meets the REAL Craig Bellamy
Published 23:00 30/01/12 By Oliver Holt
Craig Bellamy is sitting in his flat in Liverpool. The place is spotless and austere.
The television is on. Novak Djokovic is talking but the sound is turned down.
Bellamy is talking, too. The intensity is turned up.
He is speaking about something that broke his heart. Later, it turns out it was not the only thing.
Until a couple of months ago, the Liverpool forward says, he was so stressed about the fear of failure and the shame of losing that he could not remember the last time he had enjoyed playing a football match.
Then the tragedy of the death of his great friend and mentor, Gary Speed, made him reassess his life and a profound change swept over him.
“People say, ‘If you take the anger out of Craig Bellamy, he would only be half the player,” Bellamy says. “It’s b******s. I know that now.
"You know what, I’d be a better player. I would be actually thinking more rationally.”
Through much of the last five years, he has sought fulfilment in helping others but in the last eight weeks he has come to accept that he must also learn to help himself.
“The lads I played football with on the street when I was a kid in Cardiff were as good as me,” Bellamy says, “and in many ways my career is due to them.
“But I had my parents. I had the dedication of my father to take me from A to B. He tried to do it for others but it’s very difficult to be other people’s parents.
“It sort of broke my heart a little that those lads haven’t enjoyed what I’ve enjoyed.”
It took him a while but Bellamy found a way to banish that sadness. Five years ago, he flew to Sierra Leone to visit a friend working in Kono in the north of the country.
It transformed his life.
“I had always wanted to get involved in charity work in the UK but going to Sierra Leone made me think, ‘We’re okay’,” Bellamy says.
“These kids have nothing. They weren’t playing with footballs. They had rolled up socks or oranges, but their love for the game is what we had 20 or 30 years ago.
“Very rarely do you see kids playing football on the street here any more. Sierra Leone just brought that back and made me think ‘I’d like to do something here.’”
What Bellamy did is the subject of a documentary which will air on ITV4 on Tuesday evening, while he is trying to help Liverpool beat Wolves at Molineux.
What he did was pour more than £1.2m of his own money into a football academy for young players outside the capital, Freetown, that houses, provides for and trains 20 promising footballers and will have soon have room for 20 more.
Unicef increased the scope of his project.
Together with Bellamy, they established the Craig Bellamy League for youth teams across the country. They started a girls’ league and a team for amputees maimed in the civil war.
“That I’ve been able to help people in a worse situation gives me more satisfaction than anything football’s been able to give me,” Bellamy says.
“At 22, 23, would I have been able to do this? Of course not. I’m older and I’m financially secure, but that means little to me.
“I’m aware of my value as a player of course. But do I need to buy a holiday home that I’m only going to use two weeks every year? Course not. It’s a waste. Why not give the money to people who could do with it.
“It took a while to convince me to do the documentary. I don’t do this for people to have a different opinion of me. That’s not too important to me.
“I realised I had to do this for me to sustain income. Unicef are moving on to other projects and for me to give more children an opportunity I had to be realistic that this cannot keep coming from my pocket.
“I will keep funding the academy but we are going to rely on charitable donations for the youth league, the women’s league and the amputee team.
“I have put a lot of money into the project in Sierra Leone but every time I go over, I would spend again.
“I get thanks when I’m over there but, if I’m honest, I need to thank them more for what they’ve done for me as a person.”
Despite the satisfaction he gained from his work in Sierra Leone, Bellamy found it hard to draw fulfilment from playing professional football.
Then, on November 27 last year, the news broke that Speed, then the Wales manager, had committed suicide at his Cheshire home.
Bellamy missed that day’s game against Manchester City and the staff at Anfield, concerned that he was bottling things up, urged him to seek help from sports psychologist, Steve Peters, who also advises stars like Sir Chris Hoy.
Bellamy is still struggling to come to terms with Speed’s death, which he can only refer to as ‘what happened’.
In the two-hour conversation at his apartment, it was too painful for him even to mention Speed by name.
“He wasn’t just a former teammate,” Bellamy says. “He was my idol in football. He was everything I tried to become. I spoke to him once a week for the last 10 years.
“But I get to see his kids. I speak to his kids every couple of days which is good because they remind me so much of him.”
Peters, who has written a book called The Chimp Paradox about the struggle between the rational side of the brain and the rage that comes from our primitive origins, has helped him put his search for achievement in the game into context.
“I have realised a lot more stuff since what happened,” Bellamy says. “Every time I play a game, do I think about it? Of course I do. Do I think about it most nights? Of course I do.
“It is difficult but at the same time it has helped me discover a lot about myself. Steve Peters has made so much sense. Basically we are all chimps. The human side is at the front of our forehead but the chimp is the part that lashes out.
“When I play, I am completely chimp-orientated. Why can’t I watch myself play a day later? Because that’s not me. I hate it. I hate watching how I confront the ref. I don’t like that side of me.
“It goes with who I am. There has always been this Jekyll and Hyde. I have had the chimp fighting me.
“Do you know how many times I have wasted energy over thinking about a decision and preventing me doing something two seconds later because I was still thinking about what just happened?
“I have always been told, ‘That’s who you are and to play well, that’s what you’ve got to be like.’ But if you see the top athletes, they are not like that. Do you know why? Because the other part of their brain, the computer, takes over.
“I’ve always had this crazy thought that I have to win something, otherwise my career’s a complete failure. It’s ridiculous. Will a trophy change me as a person? No. Will it make me a better player? No. So what the hell am I worried about.”
Bellamy credits the work he has done with Peters for getting him through the two legs of the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
Bellamy scored the decisive goal in the second leg at Anfield last week and has been in some of the best form of his career.
“The support of the manager, the players and the fans at Liverpool and the stuff with Steve Peters is responsible for my form at the moment,” says Bellamy. “It has had a huge impact.
“I have been in a lot of semi-finals. But I have been injured in a lot of them. In the play-offs with Cardiff last year, I pulled my hamstring after 15 minutes of the first game. I believe it was because of the tension.
“I have been aware of opportunities to work with sports psychologists before but it was something I was afraid of. I was doing all right as it was. Don’t mess with it. Don’t rock the boat. It was probably due to what happened as well.
“What I’m doing with Steve Peters is not about me becoming a better footballer. I’m not interested in that. If it helps my football, then great. If it helps me after football, that’s more important.
“If it helps me deal with not being able to fall back on football, to enjoy my life, my wife, my kids, stop stressing over things that I don’t have...
“If I’d carried on the way I was going... I was just torturing myself day in, day out. What happens when I finish, thinking everything is just a waste of time, everything I’ve done in football? No-one else is believing this but I am.
“I’ve always listened to people talking about winning - win this, win that - but I’ve done more than I could have dreamed of in my career. I’ve already won.
“The two things I ask my kids after they have played a game are, ‘Did you enjoy it’ and ‘did you do your best’ but I wasn’t asking myself the same questions.
“It’s just that we get taught, ‘You must win this, you must do that’. It’s rubbish.
"Be thankful for what you’ve done. Keep trying hard. Don’t let it ruin your life. I’ve done that for too long.”
CRAIG BELLAMY is agonising about whether to retire from international football after the tribute match to Gary Speed between Wales and Costa Rica next month.
Speed died last November after leading a resurgence in the Wales national team and he has been succeeded as manager by Chris Coleman.
“I don’t know whether I’ll play on for Wales,” Bellamy said. “I do think it’s going to be difficult for me to play because of the impact of what happened.
“I am committed to the Costa Rica game and then it might be my last. I’m not too sure. It might be but it might not. There are a lot of people I need to talk to.
“Wales has meant everything to me. It has been the highlight of my career. I believed in him that much as a manager and I believed in him that much as a person, I actually thought we were going to qualify for the World Cup.
“I wanted him to have that satisfaction as well because I saw how hard he tried for Wales and how hard he played. To try to qualify and him not be there, I don’t know.”
CRAIG BELLAMY insists he was just ‘having fun’ with Bolton midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker following the players’ bitter war of words at the Reebok Stadium ten days ago.
Reo-Coker and Bellamy clashed angrily on the pitch during Liverpool’s defeat and Reo-Coker said after the match that he had no respect for the Liverpool forward.
“Reo-Coker behaved like an idiot,” Bellamy said. “I was only messing about. It was just comical. I was actually laughing about it with Zat Knight because Reo-Coker had gone.
“He was saying, ‘See you down the tunnel’ and I was laughing because we go down separate tunnels there anyway.”
Bellamy said he spoke to sports psychologist Steve Peters about the incident and confessed he had been involved in an argument.
Peters asked him if he had lost control. Bellamy said he hadn’t.
“If you watch, I wasn’t the aggressor,” he said. “I was having fun. I wasn’t letting it get to me.”