Agog on the Tyne: why Souness v Bellamy was football's accident waiting to happen

Bitter clash of egos has led to Newcastle's dirty linen being aired in public once more. Tim Rich reports
Click to follow
The Independent Football

All footballers have egos but those of centre-forwards are sharper and more fragile than any others. Even when he was winning the European Golden Boot at Sunderland, Kevin Phillips's pre-match routine consisted of watching videos of himself scoring, just to convince himself he still possessed that instinctive touch.

All footballers have egos but those of centre-forwards are sharper and more fragile than any others. Even when he was winning the European Golden Boot at Sunderland, Kevin Phillips's pre-match routine consisted of watching videos of himself scoring, just to convince himself he still possessed that instinctive touch.

Craig Bellamy has never seemed constrained by such bouts of self-doubt. Once, as his partnership with Alan Shearer began to transform Newcastle from mid-table irrelevancy to members of the Champions' League, he was told by a television interviewer that crowds at St James' Park loved goalscorers and if he kept this up he could become a hero on Tyneside. "But I am a hero already," came the instant reply.

Sunday afternoon at Highbury saw the Welsh striker in the decidedly unheroic role of spectator, muffled against the January chill, having declared himself unfit after being told he was playing on the right wing before changing his mind on the eve of the match. This impressed his manager, Graeme Souness, not at all.

If Bellamy, who, to the astonishment of his team-mates, got off the team bus at Highbury to give a television interview attacking his manager after being told that Souness had criticised him publicly, expected the waters to be smoothed over yesterday, he was mistaken. The Newcastle chairman, Freddy Shepherd, may have issued a statement denying he would be put on the transfer list but, as Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole discovered at Blackburn, Souness does not do conciliation.

The Newcastle manager denounced Bellamy, effectively calling him a liar and making it unlikely he could ever play happily for the club again. He said: "After Friday's press conference at St James' Park, I arrived at the training ground to find Craig Bellamy in the dressing-room with his boots off.

"He told me he felt his hamstring was a bit tight but my first-team coach, Dean Saunders, informed me that Bellamy had told other players in the dressing-room he was going to feign an injury. I took him to see the chairman on Friday afternoon at St James' Park and he admitted to both of us that this was true. I asked him in front of the chairman if he had feigned an injury. He said 'yes'.

"I told Bellamy that he had to apologise to the rest of the players but then I found out later he had not done so. That was on Friday teatime and that's when I decided he wasn't going to be in my team at Arsenal. If he had apologised, he would have been."

Souness stated that this was not the first time he had questioned Bellamy's desire to play for Newcastle. Last month he pulled out of a match with Liverpool after allegedly straining a back muscle warming up at Anfield yet was training the following day. This month Bellamy failed to turn up for training the day before a game against Southampton, claiming he was affected by a stomach bug but still played. Souness also accused him of attempting to unsettle his two new signings, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Celestine Babayaro.

"Bellamy said in front of Babayaro and Boumsong that this was a rubbish club with a rubbish manager," Souness said. "I asked him what all this was about and he told me he was upset at the speculation he was going to be sold or used as a makeweight in a transfer. I told him on Friday that I wanted him here but on my terms and those terms are that everyone is pulling together and not acting in a confrontational manner or sniping away all the time."

This is Souness's third run-in with Bellamy, who insulted his manager after being substituted at Charlton, which was then followed by a reported stand-up fight between the two men at the club's training ground. If Souness was brought in to discipline Newcastle, he appears to be failing off the pitch as well as on it. On his arrival, he was told the club was tired of washing its filthy linen in public; but this morning the soiled sheets seem to stretch the length of Hadrian's Wall.

It should not be forgotten that there were sound tactical reasons for Souness wanting to play Bellamy out of position at Highbury. As Arsène Wenger has noted with a certain weariness, most sides now play five across the middle and a lone striker to stifle his Arsenal side and this kind of containing operation must have represented Souness's best chance of success. Last month, when Arsenal were fortunate to grind out a 1-0 victory at St James' Park, Newcastle employed precisely that formation with Bellamy deployed on the right, a position he has regularly occupied for Wales.

Bellamy said yesterday he did not want to endure the same treatment meted out to Kieron Dyer, who was howled down when appearing for England at St James' Park a few days after telling Sir Bobby Robson he did not want to play on the right wing in the opening fixture of the season at Middlesbrough. After Souness's comments, it is unlikely the Gallowgate End will ever rise to him again.

If Shepherd holds the line for the last few days of the transfer window, then Bellamy, like Dyer, will exist in a kind of uneasy limbo with his manager until the summer. However, as Robbie Savage, another turbulent Welshman, has demonstrated, if a player is determined to leave there is little his club can do but exact the highest price for his services. "I know Graeme Souness is the manager and he cannot go, so it's possible they want to get rid of me and I'm on my way out," Bellamy said yesterday.

And yet amid all the furore, there must be a shard of sympathy for the boy from an impoverished Cardiff council estate, who has felt he has to fight for every scrap of recognition. The first Newcastle player to demand to feature in every match was not Bellamy or Dyer but Alan Shearer, who on the club's pre-season tour of Thailand greeted the arrival of Patrick Kluivert with an announcement he would not be part of any striker rotation. Yesterday, Shearer, who in Geordie eyes is an icon of selflessness, publicly threatened that players who did not fit in with Souness's policies would be sold.

When Robson, after paying Coventry £6m for his services, paired Bellamy with Shearer, Newcastle won 17 of the first 25 matches the two men played together, with the former's pace creating space in the penalty area that the Newcastle captain gorged himself on. Without that combination, it is debatable whether Champions' League football would have returned to Tyneside.

Had Shepherd not disregarded Robson and signed Kluivert, another ego, edgy, monumental and fragile, for a salary of some £3.5m a year there is no reason to suppose matters would have come to such a head so quickly. As Shearer is effectively undroppable, Bellamy found himself discarded too frequently for Kluivert.

The Amsterdammer would not understand the cricketing phrase, "flat-track bully" but that is what he has proved. Of his eight goals for Newcastle, half have come against the Arab-Israeli part-timers of Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin; of the rest, two were against Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion, while another against Liverpool was patently offside. In other dressing-rooms, they would have shook their heads and said nothing - but Craig Douglas Bellamy, the steelworker's son from the unpolished end of Cardiff, has never been one for suffering in silence.

THE UNFORGIVEN: HOW SOUNESS GETS EVEN

GRAHAM ROBERTS (Rangers) 1988: Roberts felt Souness's wrath after defeat to Aberdeen. Souness said: "You'll never play for this club again." He didn't.

MARK WRIGHT (Liverpool) 1992: Wright lost the captaincy because Souness felt he was not popular enough in the dressing-room.

DAVID DUNN (Blackburn) 2003: Souness hated Dunn's "playboy lifestyle", questioning his commitment. He was transferred to Birmingham later that summer.

ANDY COLE (Blackburn) 2004: Cole returned from a training camp two days early. Souness was not consulted and accused Cole of going behind his back. Cole complained to the Professional Footballers' Association. Reduced to training with the reserves, he was sold to Fulham.

DWIGHT YORKE (Blackburn) 2004: Yorke reacted angrily to a challenge from the Scot in training. A verbal exchange resulted and the pair had to be separated. Yorke rarely started again and was transferred to Birmingham.

Comments