Bellamy steps into heat of Old Firm cauldron

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The Independent Online

To his detractors, Craig Bellamy is the type of person who can cause trouble in an empty house. Yet to be able to do so while 200 miles away was beyond even the fiery Welshman's powers of persuasion.

To his detractors, Craig Bellamy is the type of person who can cause trouble in an empty house. Yet to be able to do so while 200 miles away was beyond even the fiery Welshman's powers of persuasion.

If Bellamy had any doubts that he was about to enter an entirely different world this week, then they were rudely removed on Monday as he turned up for training with his new Celtic colleagues. The police were there wanting to interview Bellamy about an alleged assault in Glasgow city centre last Saturday night.

Fortunately for Bellamy, he had a cast-iron alibi. The striker, recruited last month on loan from Newcastle United, was tucked up in bed in a hotel in the Highlands as Celtic prepared for a game with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. "Welcome to Glasgow," reflected Martin O'Neill yesterday. The perils of being a Celtic or Rangers player are evident enough at the best of times, but in the build-up to an Old Firm game they escalate out of all proportion.

Bellamy enjoyed a night out or two on Tyneside before Graeme Souness came along but even if he were to enjoy success on his debut tomorrow at Parkhead in the crucial Scottish Premier League encounter, it's unlikely his team-mates would let him out to celebrate. His fellow refugee from the Barclays Premiership, Barry Ferguson, could testify to the problems that come with Old Firm celebrity or notoriety: the Scotland captain says he is a changed man from the one who went to Blackburn Rovers, but four and a half years ago Ferguson ended up in police custody after an altercation with Celtic fans just hours after he had been sent off in a 6-2 defeat at Parkhead.

There will be little chance of an empty house in the east end of Glasgow tomorrow lunchtime. More than 60,000 will provide the backdrop for football's most volatile occasion. But if O'Neill betrayed a touch of weariness about the start of Bellamy's week, he is convinced the 25-year-old can end it perfectly.

"Nothing that happens before, during or after one of these games surprises me," O'Neill said. "Nor that the story got into the papers. Craig was confused about allegations of headbutting someone when he was 200 miles away. Welcome to Glasgow. I know he's quick, but he's not that quick that he could get out of our hotel in Inverness without me noticing and be back for bedtime.

"I am sure Craig will have had plenty experience of the problems of being public property in Newcastle of all places but it's a bit different here, especially with this game," said the Celtic manager. Tyneside is a one-team toon but in Glasgow, as Neil Lennon has found - the former Northern Ireland captain has been assaulted and death threats daubed outside his home - trying to remain anonymous is impossible.

Souness found it just as hard when he was player-manager at Ibrox, and he never even lived in the city, preferring to stay in Edinburgh. Yet another former Rangers player, Colin Hendry, believes that Bellamy is simply misunderstood. The pair were team-mates together at Coventry City five years ago and Hendry saw then a passion for the game that could ignite the Celtic fans.

"Craig would not be the same type of player without certain characteristics," stated Hendry this week. "Yes, he's feisty but I did not see him as arrogant and he was great to have in the Coventry dressing room. I don't think the whole situation at Newcastle was handled well. There were loads of people involved with loads of opinions.

"Craig will relish the Old Firm game, although it will be different from any match he has experienced. Some of the big games he has played with Wales will help him, but this is truly something out of this world. It will be fierce and physical and Craig must keep a lid on things. I'm sure people will have told him he cannot go gung-ho."

Stilian Petrov, the midfielder who has made Glasgow his home since moving to Celtic six years ago as a teenager from Bulgaria, agrees. "We've told Craig and Stephane Henchoz what to expect," said Petrov yesterday. "But they are experienced players. They know about pressure and will be prepared. We found out the hard way in the last league game [a 2-0 defeat at Ibrox in November], when Chris Sutton and Alan Thompson were sent off, about the need for good discipline and the manager tells us to stay calm."

If handling Bellamy well turns out to be further vindication of O'Neill's man-management skills, then the reward could be a fourth championship in five seasons for Celtic, who will seize control of the title race again should they win tomorrow. The manager would have preferred his new signing to have turned out in a Celtic shirt already but is not perturbed.

"Juninho was thrown into the Old Firm game just days after coming here in August and played well," stated O'Neill. "Craig has been here a couple of weeks and has got used to the team in training. The game being called off because of snow at Inverness last weekend was unavoidable but he's an established international player and he will handle this." Bellamy will partner his Welsh colleague, John Hartson, in attack while Chris Sutton will drop into midfield without a grumble. You could not see Sutton's old partner, Alan Shearer, doing the same. Perhaps that attitude, and not Bellamy, was the real problem at St James' Park.

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