Craig Bellamy: 'This is my big chance to do something special'

As Adebayor arrives in South Africa, adding to City's growing forward line, the Welshman faces a tough season – his club has a shot at the big four but, as he tells Ian Herbert, he'll have to fight hard for his place
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The Independent Online

The Argentine with whom he was playing an entertaining game of keep-ball inside Durban's venerable Kings Park stadium last night is the same one who seems to be blocking his route to a starting place at Manchester City, but Craig Bellamy has been watching Carlos Tevez for far too long to harbour any kind of antagonism towards him now.

Bellamy, something of an obsessive where his chosen profession is concerned, first clocked Tevez on a South American football highlights show, as the then 16-year-old was learning his trade at Boca Juniors about 10 years back, and then again at Corinthians in Brazil. There was something about his endless reserves of energy and his work ethic which convinced the Welshman, a carbon copy striker in many ways, that this young player was set for the kind of greatness reached by Romario in the yellow of Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is why, when Tevez was about 20, Bellamy, five years his senior, asked his one-time Newcastle team-mate Nolberto Solano – who knew the player from their days at Boca – to ask Tevez for one of his Argentina No 11 jerseys. He did – and, as Bellamy has already told his new team-mate, it hangs in his house, awaiting the day next season when Bellamy's son arrives for a City home game and asks Tevez to put his signature on it.

"Maybe I will get my little boy to do that for me because I'm not really into getting him to autograph it for me," Bellamy jokes, at City's pre- season base in the winter sunshine of Africa's south-east coast.

There have been plenty of expressions of respect from last season's City players for the procession of new arrivals which have given the club its galactico feel this summer, but Bellamy's for Tevez represents more than that. "What he will do off the pitch on the training ground, with his attitude to work, will probably do us more good than what he can do on the pitch," he says. "What he did at Manchester United proved that he has so much more than a lot of heart. If you've got a guy like him in your team, you've got 12 men. I always say the best players I have ever worked with are the hardest players I have ever worked with."

Their similarities make Bellamy and Tevez an improbable pairing for Mark Hughes and you sense already that the man Hughes signed for £10m from West Ham as a first-choice striker last January is resigned to being second string when the Premier League campaign starts at Blackburn on 15 August. "I want to make sure that I am always ready; that if I step off the bench I will make a contribution then be given my chance," he says. "If I do make my mark I expect to be given a chance."

The parameters have certainly changed in the six months since Bellamy arrived but there's a marked longing in his voice as he discusses his motive for staying put and seeing off competition for places from Emmanuel Adebayor, who joined City's squad here yesterday afternoon, Tevez and Roque Santa Cruz.

"I am 30 and this is my last opportunity to be part of a special club," Bellamy says. "First and foremost, I am concentrating on staying fit. If I'm fit I can challenge. If I ain't fit, I can't challenge. What you live for is to wake up in the morning looking forward to training. If any players are having a bad time, I want to be knocking on the door."

Bellamy believes Hughes will discover in just a few games which combination of his leading strikers works best. "Good players, intelligent players, click pretty quickly," he says. But Hughes has also suggested this week that he will rotate (see graphic). The absence of Europa League football means the Carling Cup will be less of a blooding opportunity than for the "big four", but three altogether different City sides might emerge.

It might be a tough battle for Bellamy to force his way to the fore – especially for a player who has spent the summer recuperating from the knee injury that ended his first City season in early April, but he has looked comfortable in training and in City's game against Orlando Pirates on Saturday. There's also a calm focus about him these days, revealing that he has moved on from the kinds of controversy which, as he so memorably put it when he arrived at City, mean "if you tried Googling me now, you'd know that I will never get away from my reputation".

Africa is a continent which has revealed much of the unexpected about him. When Bellamy had time on his hands four summers ago – his wife, Claire, was pregnant and a holiday together was not an option – he toured Sierra Leone for a week with a friend who lives there.

The levels of deprivation he witnessed in the west African republic fuelled a need to do something. He commissioned a feasibility study from a friend who had done work in Ghana and the result is the now well-established system of Craig Bellamy junior football leagues – where teams can score as many points for services to the community as for winning matches – and his own football academy.

This is Bellamy's second trip to Africa of a hectic summer: the first, to the former Sierra Leonese rebel stronghold of Makeni three weeks ago, was to see the work one of his league's teams have done to reduce muggings by cutting down an overgrown scrub area between neighbouring villages. "It's about incentives," Bellamy says. "A team might not have won all their league games but because of their work they might win the league."

His personal incentives to prevail at City include putting right the distinct lack of silverware which has characterised his 15-year career. "I've won the odd Scottish Cup and I love Celtic so that's a big cup for me, don't worry about that, I'm claiming that," he reflects. "And there's a Charity Shield, which a lot of people don't claim and I'm claiming that, too. But this is now my big chance to do something special in the Premier League."

The barbs for the league's new pretenders continue to flow – the latest was from Sir Alex Ferguson, who said £25m for Tevez was too much money, but Bellamy's response is as dismissive as you'd expect. "People are grumbling about City spending all this money. But that's what the top four have been doing for years – paying big fees and the highest wages," he says.

"This is the best thing that's happened to football, a chance for another club to break into that elite. It's going to take a while, because the major clubs have been in that position for a long time. I suppose that's why we are spending a lot of money quickly, to try to close that gap as quickly as possible."

It's a characteristically proletarian desire to put one over on the game's aristocrats, which tells you why Bellamy will fight hard to be a first choice at City this season. An Argentina jersey is not the only one he wants off Carlos Tevez's back.

10

The number of strikers, including Bellamy, currently on the books at Manchester City.

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