Bellamy and Souness in Position Impossible

The reluctant wide boy heads out of Toon for Birmingham after a Newcastle affair that was bound to end in tears

It was a surprise to find Craig Bellamy at St James' Park yesterday morning, wreathed in a huge smile and decidedly larger than life. His face beamed down from a six-foot poster hanging just inside the entrance to the club shop. Printed on it was the legend: "In black and white, everyone is a hero." Well, not quite everyone, perhaps.

It was a surprise to find Craig Bellamy at St James' Park yesterday morning, wreathed in a huge smile and decidedly larger than life. His face beamed down from a six-foot poster hanging just inside the entrance to the club shop. Printed on it was the legend: "In black and white, everyone is a hero." Well, not quite everyone, perhaps.

In seven days of typically pantomimic goings-on in the life of Newcastle United Football Club, Bellamy has not quite gone from hero to complete zero. Unlike the plastic figurine of Jonathan Woodgate, his "Pro Stars" statuette has yet to be placed belly-up on the shelves of the club shop and marked down from £3 to £1.50. So far as Graeme Souness is concerned, though, the real-life version of the combustible little Cardiffian has become irreparably damaged goods on Tyneside. The Newcastle manager was only too happy to send him off to Birmingham, with a view to a £6m sale, although he admitted yesterday that the money for Bellamy would not be likely to come soon enough for him to spend in the current transfer window.

Having sent Bellamy to the metaphorical Coventry since the fiery dragon of a Welshman branded him a liar in a television interview last Monday, Souness was never going to send him out to face the city's Sky Blues in their FA Cup fourth-round match yesterday - or, indeed, to face any team ever again in a Newcastle shirt. When Souness announced at his weekly press conference on Friday that Bellamy would "never play for me again", it was reported that the Newcastle manager would leave him to rot in the reserves if he did not move before the close of the transfer window. When asked about the interpretation later, though, Souness stressed: "He will not play for this club again, as long as I am managing it."

The message was loud and clear. Bellamy would have to find another club or live the kind of outcast existence that poor George Eastham was obliged to endure at St James' Park 45 years ago. Eastham was left in limbo for five months, and had to work as a cork-tile salesman, when he came to the end of his contract and Newcastle refused to grant him a transfer. Back in 1960, players were obliged to sign new contracts under unimproved terms with their clubs, under the so-called "retain and transfer system".

With the backing of the Professional Footballers' Association, Eastham took his case to the High Court, and his subsequent victory led to his transfer to Arsenal and to the breaking of football's maximum-wage limit of £20 a week. When he returned to Newcastle as a Gunner, Eastham was pelted with peanuts, rather appropriately given the money he earned as a player on Tyneside.

Given Bellamy's weekly wage - some £45,000 - a shower of champagne would be a more fitting accompaniment to his return to St James', although that would not be with Birmingham this season. Steve Bruce's side have already met Newcastle home and away in the Premiership, and Bellamy would be cup-tied should they be drawn together in the FA Cup.

Still, it will be intriguing to gauge the public reaction the next time the Newcastle manager meets the miscreant player, the Toon Army having been split down the middle in their support for the two sides as events unfolded last week.

In general, Newcastle's supporters deem Bellamy to have stepped beyond the pale, although they still retain a greater fondness for the high-speed, hyperactive 25-year-old than for Souness, who has yet to produce the attacking flair that flowed throughout Sir Bobby Robson's managerial reign. The focus of concern has shifted quickly from a defence that struggled to defend to a forward line blessed with a dwindling number of forwards. Having already been in the process of seeking one new attacking player, in anticipation of Alan Shearer's retirement at the end of the season, Souness conceded on Friday that he would now be looking for another, and he was asked how he felt about needing to replace "two top-quality strikers".

"Who are [top-quality strikers]?" he replied. "Craig and Alan," the questioner said. "Well, one is an absolute legend," Souness said. "One's goalscoring record is the best there is, and to replace his goals will be very difficult."

The stony silence that ensued prompted the follow-up question: "What about the other one?" A wry smile flickered across Souness's face. "Can I make the point," he said, "that he's now scored seven goals, Bellamy, playing out of position, as he says. He's in line to have his best-ever scoring season for this club."

"So is the key to the whole situation that you see his position as being wide rather than central?" someone enquired. Souness exhaled in exasperation. "No, no," he replied. "You people [the press] have written 'right-winger, left-winger'. In my book, that does not exist. There's wide-working players, whether it's on the left or the right. It's not about playing out of position."

Nevertheless, the vast bulk of the supporters would have preferred to have seen Bellamy going for goal as a central-working player. Asked whether he was concerned that the followers of Newcastle were divided in their support for him and for Bellamy, Souness responded: "All I can do is do the job the way I see fit. In the big picture, the only thing that's important is Newcastle United. Not him [Bellamy]. Not me... I don't want to talk about him any more. I've exhausted all my energies this week on anything but preparing to play Coventry City."

Souness, though, still managed to find sufficient energy to pen a scathing attack on Bellamy in his match-programme notes yesterday. "Craig Bellamy," he wrote, "has been a disruptive influence from the minute I walked into this football club, with his attitude to the coaching staff, to me, and to his team-mates."

Back in his days as a 17-year-old novice with Norwich City, Bellamy was once locked into the toilet on the team bus when he insisted on telling his experienced colleagues where they had been going wrong on the pitch. He can only be grateful that Graeme Souness stopped short of doing the same at Highbury last Sunday - and throwing away the key.

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