Malky Mackay was once so irritated by Craig Bellamy's hyperactivity that he locked him in a toilet for four hours. But the inconvenience was strictly temporary, for today Cardiff City's talismanic star has matured into a model senior pro who, together with manager Mackay, is leading the Welsh club into the Premier League.
Bluebirds, Redbirds, call them what you will (this season's colour change is still a bone of contention), Cardiff have topped the Championship since 24 November, and could conceivably secure promotion in the home game against Charlton on Tuesday. Then the long-suffering supporters, who have endured near misses for four successive seasons, can finally celebrate.
Dave Jones, Mackay's predecessor, was the architect of those near misses, having started the revival of a club which, when he arrived, had no money, no players, no training ground and the decrepit home that was Ninian Park. His make-do-and-mend team reached the play-offs twice and the 2008 FA Cup final.
Ultimately, however, Jones could not deliver the big prize and was sacked in June 2011. Cardiff's first choice to replace him was Alan Shearer, and it was only when he showed no interest that they turned to Mackay, who had become disillusioned as manager of Watford under an owner, Laurence Bassini, who was later banned from involvement with a football club for three years after a Football League commission found him guilty of misconduct and dishonesty over financial dealings on behalf of Watford.
The day Mackay took charge at Cardiff, he faced the coming season with 12 players about to leave "and in six weeks I had to find a team to play West Ham at Upton Park on the opening day [Cardiff won 1-0]. For those six weeks there was a revolving door here. On the plus side, I had a blank canvas and could breed the culture I believed in and run things exactly how I wanted, rather than having people fighting change all the time. There was no hangover from past disappointments or old attitudes. It was a new season and a new template with a brand-new group of players, working under a new manager and management staff.
"I told the players from the start that if they had an ego, to park it at the door because this was about everyone buying into a team. That's what has made us so competitive. I have to thank the players for that because they were the ones who were prepared to open themselves up to change, and to trust the way I work.
"Locally, we were expected to finish mid-table in my first season. We exceeded all expectations by getting to the Carling Cup final and into the play-offs, and we've kicked on from there."
The transformation in the team is partly down to the change in Bellamy. "I've known Craig since he was a teenager at Norwich," says Mackay. "He got a bit loud and lairy in those days, and I remember locking him in the toilet on the team coach on one Norwich trip. We were playing away to Birmingham, so he was in there for about four hours. It was a long time ago, but he's never going to forget that. I won't let him.
"What I'm now seeing is a much more mature man who, probably for the first time in his career, realises that he has got to be a figure people look up to. Now he's the senior pro at a club where he has a lot of respect and players want to learn from him. It's a very different situation and he has embraced that."
After his experience with the dodgy Bassini, it was no problem for Mackay to work for Vincent Tan, Cardiff's Malaysian owner. If Tan sometimes sounds eccentric, his money (he appears on the Forbes 2013 wealth list with an estimated worth of $1.3bn) deserves to be taken seriously. So far, Tan is into Cardiff for £70m, and he has pledged to make it £100m in the event of promotion.
Mackay says: "The owner has promised a legacy. He intends to give the fans Premier League football, to deal with the inherited debt [still a staggering £83m] and leave the club with a new training ground and improved stadium. "
Tan financed the assembly of the Championship's strongest squad, including the signing of Fraizer Campbell, the 25-year-old striker who played for England less than a year ago, and who has scored six goals in 11 games since joining in January from Sunderland for just £600,000.
But sceptics would underestimate Mackay's role if they conclude that Cardiff have just bought success. When asked recently if he thought Cardiff would go up, Dave Jones said: "They should, given the amount of money they have spent."
Mackay smiles at that and says: "Blackburn spent £8m on one player [Jordan Rhodes], and look at them. Is £10m really so much for what we've done? I don't think so."Reuse content