Handle with care... he'll deliver goods

Craig Bellamy divides opinion but the striker is feeling the love at Liverpool this time – and Kenny Dalglish is reaping the rewards. By Ian Herbert

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A clear, cold night in Durban, on South Africa's east coast, a few years ago told the story of Craig Bellamy. He was with the Manchester City squad on a pre-season tour and the promise of an extended interview to those few who had made their way – the City project was still in its early stages – had given way to a warning that Bellamy was feeling uneasy about this undertaking. The advice was that the discussion should start on his terms and not deviate from the subject of his beloved Sierra Leone football charity until he was ready. He was soon ready. The outcome was a 30-minute interview – a rarity in football – and the most revealing of that tour.

The point of the story being that Bellamy needs to be handled carefully, loved a little, and that the rewards are as infinite for those who appreciate the fact as are the difficulties for those who do not. Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool, who fall into the former category, had a Carling Cup final place as reward for their troubles yesterday and a re-reading of that Durban interview left the impression Bellamy can hardly believe his good fortune. "I am 30," he said that evening, with what was to be his final season at City ahead. "And this is my last opportunity to be a part of a special club."

In truth, Liverpool were the only club genuinely close to his heart. He adored West Ham for the laughs and for the attitude that "if Bobby Moore can train here then you can too", as he put it last year, but he was six years old when he saw someone wearing a Liverpool Umbro Crown Paints kit outside his parents' home in the unprepossessing Cardiff suburb of Splott, particularly loved the liver bird, and knew in that moment that this was the club for him. The Liverpool name kept popping up subliminally, too. London's Liverpool Street station become an important part of his Friday evening pilgrimages from Cardiff to East Anglia when – after he'd despaired of the nomadic training existence at Cardiff City, moving between high schools to practise because there was no facility – he left town, for Bristol Rovers, then Norwich City.

Norwich was the club where Bellamy's split personality – part irritant, part deep thinker – first revealed itself. The midfielder Adrian Forbes tells how the Norwich players locked Bellamy in a team bus on one trip, just to shut him up.

Bellamy's move to Liverpool, in 2006, should have felt different to how it did. "It didn't feel great for me. There was something about it. I was in the office speaking to Rafa [Benitez] and it didn't feel right," Bellamy told Liverpool's club magazine, LFC. "We were two different people but he was the manager with his own views. We were on different wavelengths. I remember feeling that about the positions I was going to be used and thinking that I was just the right price at the right time."

Bellamy holds great store by acting on instinct, but went against his gut and signed "because it was Liverpool". The result was a single season remembered mostly for golf clubs, John Arne Riise and no part in the 2007 Champions League final, despite his goal in the first knockout round with Barcelona. "Sometimes it can go like that and it's not quite as romantic as you like to make it out to be," Bellamy said.

In the depths of last winter, before the personal challenge he set himself to take Cardiff back to the Premier League gave way to frustrations with the club, you sensed that he wished his shot at Liverpool had come with Dalglish. "Dalglish is back – I pray it goes well," he said. Bellamy was watching his son play for Cardiff academy against Liverpool when Dalglish's coach Kevin Keen, whom he knew from West Ham, came over and suggested there might be an opportunity. He was with Gary Speed's Wales squad, preparing for the win over Montenegro, when he got a call to say Dalglish and Harry Redknapp at Spurs had both made offers. He took a helicopter from Speed's Celtic Manor base to Merseyside, though Liverpool almost didn't happen. Bellamy was halfway through a medical scan at Melwood when he was pulled out of the room to be told Tottenham had improved their offer. Dalglish's wrath about that intervention appears to have helped convince Bellamy that he would be loved a little at Anfield, second time around.

Bellamy, a pall-bearer at Speed's funeral, is understood to be unconvinced about continuing his international career under Chris Coleman, despite the new manager's entreaties. But Dalglish has delivered him a match of sublime symmetry, playing for his lifelong club against his boyhood side at Wembley on 26 February. A little like the night he sat down to talk in Durban, Bellamy has finally been persuaded that the Liverpool conversation is worth persevering with.

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