CRAIG Bellamy paused during an ABC interview with me and then said: “I think there are issues I’ll struggle to get over in my lifetime.”
It’s was not a surprising comment, given the circumstances. Melbourne had just finished the 2010 season with a 34-4 win over Newcastle but had no competition point to show for it. They had been forced to play for nothing after being stripped of two premierships in April that year for gross salary cap offences.
What’s significant about the quote is that it marked just about the only time Bellamy has expressed even a shred of introspection or self-pity in the wake of the greatest ordeal any coach has endured.
In rugby league, the Storm pioneered the practise of taking the trophy to the middle of the pitch after a final and singing the team song, as the likes of Warrington, Leeds and Wigan have done in recent seasons.
But what they came back with in 2009, around 12am on grand final night, they were not allowed to keep.
It would be predictable and cloying to simply pay tribute to Bellamy, the 53-year-old former Canberra Raiders centre, here for delivering Melbourne a premiership after the ravages of the salary cap investigation.
After all, Melbourne cheated.
What is different about Bellamy, what is perhaps his greatest strength from the perspective of this observer who deals with him weekly, is the manner in which he restored the pride and standing of the team which will this month visit Britain for another World Club Challenge.
When St George Illawarra won their first premiership in 2010 after years of being referred to as chokers, there was an angry sense of vindication in the eyes of their coach Wayne Bennett and several players, who raised the criticism without prompting.
Outsiders – including accredited journalists – were kept two rooms away from the victorious sheds. Likewise, in 2003 when Penrith beat Sydney Roosters in an epic grand final, winning coach John Lang attacked reporters by saying “you reward cheap shot merchants” (ie: Adrian Morley).
Now pause for a second and put yourself in the position of Craig Bellamy and his players, on September 30 last year.
As a professional athlete, you cannot help by infer from the stripping of two championships that the authorities did not believe you won them on your merits. That’s how you are conditioned to think as a competitive person.
In a Rugby League Week poll, 62 per cent of respondents said they believed Storm players would have known about the illicit payments. So your peers don’t trust you either.
And when you play away games, fans throw money at you in disdain and shout “cheat”. They are putting gaffer tape over the sponsors on your jerseys because companies don’t want to be associated with you. A journalist flies in from Sydney with a symbolic wooden spoon to give you.
And two years later, without Greg Inglis, Brett Finch, Brett White and Jeff Lima, after being made to play for nothing and go through two painful pre-seasons, you win the comp again. Fair and square.
Even the most even-tempered, rational, clear-headed of you, be truthful: how would you react?
I’ll tell you how Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith reacted. They gave veteran rugby league writer Steve Ricketts the final question at his final match as a working reporter, the 2012 grand final. They invited everybody into their rooms who could fit and posed for photos and conducted interviews late into the night.
There was no bile, no vengeance. Backslapping, champagne.
Craig Bellamy is a coach of such illustrious standing that other franchises – like the Warriors and St George Illawarra – are perhaps willing to sacrifice a whole season for him.
He’s an individual on which a multi-million-dollar ownership change for his club may well hinge.
But for this journalist, Bellamy is a man who has changed the entire culture of coaching in Australia by succeeding without tools which were previously considered useful: political clout, covert media alliances, subtle and overt intimidation of officials.
When he thought his captain, Smith, had been unfairly treated by the judiciary in 2008, he reacted the way a fan would – with a somewhat irrational attack that got him sued. But he did not make abusive calls to power brokers which were covered up by powerful allies or shout sleights within hearing distance of people and then claim to have been addressing someone else.
Bellamy has the good grace and intelligence to focus solely on what he can control and not direct hatred and intimidation at others.
Some of you reading this will never forgive him for the extent to which he brought wrestling into our game. That’s fair enough.
But coaches always try to stay ahead of the curve. When the rules caught up with “Bellyache”, he told his men to stop doing it and tried to come up with something new. Despite all the feelgood denials, read any of last summer’s league biographies and you’ll realise the game IS about hurting people, and always has been.
Bellamy and Melbourne are a perfect fit – both outsiders, both determined to challenge the Sydney “mafia” that, in one fashion or another, ran things for most of the last century.
They succeeded. Spectacularly.
The comment that opened this story suggests Craig Bellamy holds grudges. But he is too busy trying to win to bother with that. A man who competes with players thirty years his junior in road runs, has spent most of his recent working life living in another state to his family and is rumoured to sleep in his office, he is clearly a man with an abhorrence for short cuts.
Which is probably the real reason there are things surrounding 2007-10 which he will struggle with for a lifetime.
His only real “issue” however, is a compulsively foul mouth which once resulted in a special coach’s box being built for him at Coffs Harbour so the crowd was spared his tirades.
Craig Bellamy has no agenda aside from not letting down his players. To use his vernacular, the c#@* just likes to f$#@ing win!
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE