A Welsh regional newspaper asked this question on the morning of Craig Bellamy’s first training session as a Cardiff player: “How will City boss Dave Jones fit him into a team already bristling with Championship talent?”
To which the correct answer should be: “Anywhere Bellars wants”.
Cardiff’s capture of one of Norwich City’s best-loved old boys will be the biggest single factor in this season’s Championship. I now expect Cardiff to win the title and, as a Norwich fan, I am gutted.
They have already got Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd and Jason Koumas but this is their Huckerby moment: an event which will lift the entire region, galvanise the club and give the team a momentum that might well be irresistible.
My first sight of Bellars was when he was an unused sub in an FA Cup away tie at Leicester in 1997. (I did, vaguely, remember that it was Filbert Street, but I looked it up to verify my recollection because, if I’d made a mistake, readers of this site would be as quick to point out my howler as they were to correct me about Stephen Fry’s Twitter pic!)
Anyway, on that long ago day in the FA Cup, my family and I assumed during the warm-up that Bellars was the mascot, because he looked so little and so young, but, once I’d seen him play it was apparent that he had precocious confidence.
Norwich used him in midfield at first, and he would scream instructions at seasoned team-mates and demand the ball from anyone and everyone.
It was, and is, a confidence that often crosses the line into arrogance. There is the famous story of Norwich players locking him in the lavatory on the team bus to shut him up, and at Manchester City last season there were reports of him telling folk that, at last, he was playing alongside players some of whom were as good as him.
But at Norwich, the Welsh kid became far and away our best player very rapidly. When he was fit, we looked good. When he was injured, our honest endeavour and pretty passing lacked his incisive sharpness.
So when, in December 1998 at Molineux, Kevin Muscat clattered Bellamy with a heinous tackle, City manager Bruce Rioch had to be restrained, the Dennis family had to restrain me and our club’s long-term antipathy towards Wolverhampton Wanderers was born.
As a journalist, I quite like going to Molineux to work and I certainly enjoy talking to Mick McCarthy. But I cannot ever forgive a club for once shamelessly employing Muscat.
The summer after Muscat’s destructive challenge on Bellars, our little star was crocked in a pre-season friendly. For the only time in living memory our campaign was effectively over before it had started officially.
The summer after that, City accepted £6.5 million for him from Coventry. He had stalled on contract talks, there was doubt about how the Bosman ruling would affect transfers, and it was more than anyone else had offered. But it still hurt horribly to see him go.
Since then, he has had a nomadic career and only sporadically fulfilled his immense potential. When he has not, it has often been because he has fallen out with managers or team-mates or both.
Bellamy is a perfect illustration of my belief that in football all of us – managers, media, fans – are so wrong to make black-and-white judgements. We say players are good or bad. But all people are more nuanced, less binary, than that.
So the Bellamy who allegedly attacked John Arne Riise with a golf club and who stood trial for assaulting a girl in a nightclub is also the Bellamy who has set up and funded a foundation in Sierra Leone.
And he is the Bellamy who has now shunned the Premier League so that he can play for a club whose training ground is a short drive from his home.
I was at Tottenham’s match with Manchester City on Saturday and confirmed four things about Bellamy.
1) He is more than good enough for the current Manchester City team, no matter how many zillions they spend on other players.
2) Roberto Mancini could not forgive Bellamy for confronting him during one training session and, more recently, criticising him in newspaper interviews.
3) Harry Redknapp would have crawled to Eastlands on all fours if the journey had a realistic prospect of ending with him snapping up Bellars.
4) Manchester City’s chief executive, Gary Cook, was resolutely opposed to Bellamy going to any club who might have a realistic tilt at a top four finish.
So Bellamy had three options:
1) Take his £90,000 a week but sit out the season.
2) Go to someone like Fulham, or Sunderland (both of whom made offers) for a mid-table season.
3) Go home.
Those of us who think we know something of his character were not at all surprised that he decided to go home. But those of us who care about the City in Norfolk are really disappointed, and frightened about what he might do when he is running at Michael Nelson or Elliott Ward.
Yet although we haven’t got Bellamy, we’ve got the Paul Lambert and Grant Holt and both have impressed me again enormously already this season.
I watched three pre-season friendlies – at Dereham, Stevenage and Dagenham – and, when what was obviously the first-choice 11 was deployed, I liked the shape. There was a holding midfield player, two men ahead of him and Wes Hoolahan ahead of them with licence to roam.
The three midfielders behind Wes were summer signings: David Fox mopping up in front of the back four, Andrew Crofts on the right and Andrew Surman on the left.
Fox looked good with the ball at his feet. He has a good range of passing and can quickly assess options. I though he would be key in releasing Simeon Jackson.
Crofts had obvious qualities and the tidy, clever Surman was the one whom people I spoke to during the World Cup in South Africa – folk like McCarthy, Graham Taylor and David Pleat – thought would have the most impact on our team and in our division.
But against Watford, when the serious business started, Malky Mackay’s team were better than us at getting up and down the pitch. So when they attacked, they did so in numbers and Fox was often overwhelmed. When they defended, they did that in numbers as well and it was the turn of Wes to be crowded out.
Against Gillingham in the League Cup, Simon Lappin and Korey Smith came into the midfield and were all revved up. Their “box-to-box” endeavours ensured that we had sufficient personnel when we attacked and when we defended.
But Lambert did not change the “back six” – the keeper, defensive line and holding midfielder – for the start of the Gillingham game, to give them another chance to bed-in.
It was a big, brave and correct call to make changes for the match at Scunthorpe. Fox was dropped, Crofts moved back to the base of the midfield diamond, and Smith took Crofts’ berth further forward, on the right.
I know many managers who would have stuck defiantly with their own purchases and with Plan A. Lambert didn’t and that is yet another sign that he is something special.
The other big reason for the improvement, first against Gillingham and then against Scunthorpe, was the return of The Horse. Grant Holt? I chuffing love Grant Holt.
Look at the movement, the single-minded determination and the utter magnificence of his header in added time at Scunthorpe and then don’t listen to anyone who harbours any doubt about Holt’s ability in the Championship.
But it is a tough old division. Millwall have started like a train, Neil Warnock has obviously used QPR’s money well, and Middlesbrough have signed a shed-load of Scots who, I am told, are significantly better than the crew Peter Grant shipped in for us three summers ago.
The good news is that of the three relegated from the Premier League, Hull and Portsmouth have continuing and crippling financial problems and Burnley have had to bomb out Steven Fletcher and Robbie Blake.
Yet when I go through the teams, their signings and so-on, and try to work out who will be top six I keep coming up with 15 or so who have the potential to reach at least the play-offs. And it is a division in which the cliché about anyone being able to beat anyone else “on their day” is accurate.
I think Bellamy will give Cardiff numerous good days, but I think Lambert and Holt will give us enough, as well.