In August last year, Craig Bellamy came home to Cardiff from Belgium. It was only a brief visit. That was all it could be. That was all it ever was in those days because of Covid.
By then, the separation was starting to gnaw at him and wear him down. This was a special occasion, too. It was his youngest child’s birthday. Orla was one year old.
Bellamy knew he had to be gone the next day.
Back to Anderlecht, back to a football environment that was everything he wanted, coaching the club’s Under-21 side, working closely with manager Vincent Kompany, immersing himself in the game for 14 hours a day, educating himself, spending hours on the training pitch with the former Manchester City captain, plotting and planning.
Bellamy loved everything about working at the club but he also knew himself well enough to realise that the dislocation from his family was starting to tear him apart. He had dealt before with what Kompany was later to call the ‘monster of depression’. He knew the signs of its approach.
Craig Bellamy has had a long and privileged career in football, from his playing days to the new era in coaching – but he is keen to stress that mental health needs to be spoken about in sport
He had shut himself down emotionally before for football, at a cost, and now he was trying to do it again and it was destroying him again. He had been open about mental health issues in the past and now he could feel them assailing him once more.
‘I came back in August after pre-season with Anderlecht,’ says the former Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester City star, ‘and it was my daughter’s first birthday and there was a party for her and she didn’t know who I was.
‘I held out my arms and she wouldn’t come to me. Why would she? She had only seen me on eight or nine occasions and even then I was only around for 24 hours at a time. I wasn’t really a part of Orla’s life.
‘Family members were all around, celebrating her birthday. If I went anywhere near her, she didn’t want to know. But she was going to her cousins and people like that. Which is fine, honestly. I didn’t even want to go up to her because it looked embarrassing. I got out of there and I started crying. What do I do? Do I walk away here and don’t come back? Do I go to football and leave someone I love? Do I stay in her life?’
Bellamy had accepted Kompany’s offer of a job at Anderlecht in the summer of 2019 and had thrown himself into the role. He lived in an apartment in the centre of Brussels and thrived alongside his former City team-mate as they began the process of rebuilding Belgium’s most famous club side by using their youth system to resuscitate them. The average age of their first-team players in that first season was 22.4 years.
‘I had always wanted to work abroad,’ says Bellamy, 42. ‘If you don’t know anything about the Anderlecht youth system, you don’t know football. The talent they are able to produce is off the scale. What a club to go into. I needed to do it. Just to see if I could. I was good enough to be a coach, I knew that, and I always wanted to learn but I needed to take the next step. We decided I would take the U21s. That was great. We rely on young players, anyway. The club’s motto is ‘In Youth We Trust’.
‘We had some great young players. There were financial problems and we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride but the youth system was going to get them out of it. Player sales would fill the well back up.
Bellamy knew a coaching role at Anderlecht would prove too difficult to turn down
The Welshman linked up once again with Vincent Kompany and admits he has learned so much
‘I absolutely loved it. Getting to spend time with Vinny one on one was such an eye-opener. How he deals with people, how he makes decisions, how calm he is. He showed me a different world. What we had in common was our work ethic. We worked 12 or 14 hours a day. I got in at 7.30am and we were leaving the training pitch at 8pm. We were out under the floodlights with mannequins, just us two on the pitch. “What happens if we move there, can we press there?”
‘I had my team at the U21s and so I would try something with them first so Vinny could see if it would work with the first team. It was the best football decision I’ve ever made. It was that good. It was that educational. For the first six months, it was brilliant. It was brilliant until Covid hit in March.’
Then things changed. Just as they did for so many people. Bellamy is at pains to point that out as he tells his story. He had it no worse than anyone else. People lost loved ones and could not go to their funerals, could not even go to the hospital to say goodbye.
He came home for the Christmas of 2020. ‘I could feel my anxiety levels starting to rise then,’ he says. ‘Part of me thought, “Why have we brought this girl into this world, we have brought her into such uncertainty”. I could feel myself becoming more anti-social. My social skills weren’t great. I have got to be careful with that. It was a wrestle I had as a kid when I joined Norwich City. When I moved away from home at 15, I was able to block things out by focusing on football.
‘But missing home and missing people who you love and they love you, I couldn’t concentrate on being a footballer. I couldn’t do both. I had to shut my emotions down.’
Tasked with coaching the dazzling youth system of the Belgians, Bellamy was in his element
But separation from his family soon took its toll and was made worse by the covid-19 pandemic. Pictured: Bellamy with his daughter Lexie after Cardiff City won the Championship
He began to feel more and more isolated in Brussels. The visits from friends and family dried up because of Covid restrictions. He missed his sons, Ellis, 24, and Cameron, 20, but at least they were self-sufficient. But he was eaten up with guilt about not being able to be part of the lives of Orla and his teenage daughter, Lexi.
He had been here before. When he left to join Norwich as a 15-year-old, he was desperately homesick. Some years ago, he told me how he used to call his parents in Cardiff from a phone box in Norwich and, after the call, stay there weeping.
‘It was heartbreaking,’ he says. ‘I started to feel the loneliness I had felt when I was a kid. Your stomach turns, you get the anxiety of not being able to breathe properly. And sorrow. Family is first. It’s the most important thing. I tell my players that all the time. If any of the players ever come to me and say there is a wedding or whatever, I tell them to go and do it. Football will come and go for you. You cannot miss those moments. I won’t allow it.
‘Unfortunately at times, I haven’t lived it myself. Not by design. I’ve focused on other stuff. When I moved away at such a young age, any 15-year-old kid would find it very difficult. It did have an effect on me and it always has done. You have to wrestle with your thoughts. I had to shut down my emotions. I was making myself ill. I got shingles. How many 15-year-old kids get shingles?
‘I was crying myself to sleep every night as well as trying to be a footballer. I didn’t want to be a footballer because I didn’t want to be in this much pain. But then I worked out that this was my career, how I could make a living. But how do I get through this? So I had to shut off emotion. And unfortunately that comes back. For me to be able to do something I love, sometimes I have to shut down the other side.
‘There was a point in Belgium where I tried to go the Norwich way and block it all out. I said to everyone at home: “Forget about me, I’m not coming back”. I started to think that maybe it would be better for the baby that way because it would only confuse her if I was coming in and out of her life. I tried it. I went a month.
‘I thought it was the only way I could do it but I knew it wasn’t right. I’ve never been that type of person. I wish I could be less emotional and more ruthless but I am not built that way. I have to deal with that and face up to it. If I am going to bring someone into this world, I have to make sure she knows her dad loves her and that I’m here for her.’
Bellamy was known as a colour character in the game and a permanent face in Premier League football: Above seen arguing with Jamie Carragher, who would later become a team-mate
After signing for Liverpool Bellamy later played and scored in a historic victory in Barcelona
Bellamy was haunted by the idea of letting Kompany down by leaving. Anderlecht were keen for him to stay, too and were pressing him to sign a new three-year deal. They had already promoted him from the U21s to be Kompany’s assistant. Professionally, he was proving himself every day but, by last month, he knew it was time to go.
Riven by guilt about his family, he had started to struggle to sleep. He watched Anderlecht beat Mechelen 7-2 one Sunday last month and then lingered by the side of the pitch as his players did a lap of honour. He turned and saw Kompany standing behind him.
‘Vinny knew what was coming,’ says Bellamy. ‘I’d spoken to him about it and he had said they would do whatever they could to help but there was nothing they could do. I just said to Vinny: “Today’s a good day”. We called the other coaches together and I told them. That was tough. Anderlecht’s sporting director, Peter Verbeke, showed me the contract they were offering me as assistant manager and said, as long as he was at the club, it would still be there for me. He has put it in the club safe. That means an awful lot.
‘I’m proud of what I achieved there. I know so much more about the game than I ever did before. I see the game in a completely different light. I am more complete in football than I’ve ever been. You name me any system, you name me any build-up pattern, any pressing system, I’ll work you out and I’ll have something to come back at you with. You want to switch this up on me in a game? I’ve got a solution for that as well. Pep Guardiola came into Vinny’s life at the right time and I got into Vinny’s life at the right time, too. I’m ready for anything now.
‘I ticked every box that I didn’t have in terms of the football. It was just the balance. The travel restrictions killed me. When I left, I felt so proud of the impact I had.’
After he had told the other coaches of his departure, the club released a statement paying tribute to Bellamy’s contribution. ‘Everyone was concerned about whether I was OK,’ says Bellamy. ‘I’m OK. Something happened that is quite normal. I had to stop it before it became a problem.’
Bellamy arrived back in Cardiff a month ago. While we are sitting in a cafe, Ellis comes over to say hello. Bellamy is picking his elder daughter up from school later on. He collects her every day now. He is having counselling again and enjoying its benefits.
He says: ‘I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s even been good for my coaching. People are much more open about mental health. One in four people suffer with it through their lives. This is not a taboo any more. That belief has to go. This is normal. This is not a weakness. This is a huge part of a lot of people’s lives.
‘Some people don’t recognise it or are not conscious of it. I am aware when I go into it. I have been lucky the last five or six years that I’ve had people around it who notice it before I do.
‘I go into such tunnel vision where I am fixated with the love of the game that they bring me back to earth. If you leave it to me, I’ll go all the way. I have people to talk to now fully aware of how obsessive I can be. They know me and know what to watch out for. I get to talk about it and these things really help me and help me become a better coach.’
The striker later returned for a second spell at Anfield and flourished once again for Liverpool
So what now? ‘I need to take a break,’ he says. ‘I need to spend time around people I haven’t spent time around. I tell players to put family first and I have to lead by example. Because I wasn’t. Do I see my life without football? No. But I have more important issues to address. For me to be at peace, I need to take a little while away.
‘I’m not putting a time limit on that. I can feel the urge to go back. I wake up every morning. I miss the training buzz. I miss the smell of the grass, I miss setting up pitches, designing the session, building towards the game. I had all that. But I made the right decision to leave.
‘I was under no grand illusion that suddenly now I’m back, I’m going to see Orla every day. Now, it’s a transition period. I see Orla twice a week, which isn’t enough but everyone has to adapt. In a lot of ways, I feel like the luckiest man alive.
‘And there’s another thing: when I reach out my arms now, Orla comes to me.’