A feature on the belief shown in two controversial players and the resulting benefits.
Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones and his Manchester City counterpart Roberto Mancini surprisingly have a lot in common. As well as their teams both competing in the Premier League of their respective countries and both being knocked-out of the UEFA Europa League last season at different, but relatively early, stages of the competition, the common bond between the Cardiffian and the Anconian this season has been the benefit gained from taking a chance on the notorious and proving that everyone deserves a second chance. While Mancini keeps the young and volatile Mario Balotelli on a tight reign, Jones has offered a free-role to the maturing Cortez Belle, and both are repaying the faith of their respective managers.
Cortez Belle was a surprise arrival at The GenQuip Stadium on the eve of the new Welsh Premier League season. A well-known figure on the Welsh football circuit, Belle has equally impressed and frustrated at every level that he has played. While his goalscoring record has been consistent, he quickly became more associated with his consistently awful disciplinary record as he picked up a string of suspensions during spells in the Football League, the Southern League, the Welsh Premier League, the Conference, the Welsh League and the lower levels of the English pyramid before being offered a top-flight olive-branch by Jones following a pre-season trial.
In fact it took just 45 minutes of a pre-season friendly against a young Cardiff City side for Belle to confirm to Jones that he had a part to play for Port Talbot Town this season. In years past, Jones had offered a similar salvation to another controversial figure in Leon Jeanne, but his risk then proved a calculated one and Belle showed enough in his brief appearance to book his place in the Port Talbot Town side for the start of the new campaign. The only surprise is that his obvious talent and potential to to be a match-winning player in the Welsh Premier League had not already been signed up by one of the clubs South Wales rivals.
But Belle is associated with some heavy baggage. His career has been littered with disciplinary problems and eyebrows were raised as he lined-up to take on Cardiff City on his Port Talbot Town debut, just a few days after playing against Mark Jones’ side for Welsh League side Aberaman Athletic. Belle’s physical and enigmatic presence had made him the target of officials ever since he first came of prominence for Merthyr Tydfil back in 2003 in the Southern League. The Coventry-born striker made headlines for the Martyrs for the right and wrong reasons, but his potential eventually attracted a move to the Football League with Chester City.
Then-manager Ian Rush saw enough in Belle to take a chance on him in the professional game but a string of dismissals prompted his inevitable release after he had tried his hand back in the non-league game on-loan at Newport County. A switch to the Welsh Premier League would follow as Peter Nicholas and his new-money Llanelli side looked to Belle to compliment the continental flair in their side, but internal and external discipline problems blighted his time at Stebonheath, and he eventually returned to the English non-league pyramid with Halifax Town, Northwich Victoria and Chippenham Town before finding his way back to the beginning of his nomadic career at Merthyr Town.
His reputation had now been set in stone. At every level at which he had played Belle had failed to show restraint and his punishments had prevented his ability from offering a true reflection on his obvious potential. While Belle was quickly becoming a familiar name on the desks of the Welsh and English FA’s disciplinary committees, a similarly young and controversial figure was causing just as many headaches in Italy. Mario Balotelli had come of age at Inter Milan, and the rest of Europe would quickly learn about the untouchable prodigy that would upset the self-proclaimed special one.
Altercations between the ego’s of Balotelli and Jose Mourinho had become common place at the San Siro. The Palermo-born striker had been brought to the club by former manager Roberto Mancini as a 16 year-old in 2006, but despite his nurturing of a prodigy scarred by a troubled childhood, Mancini was replaced by Mourinho before he could bring the best out of Balotelli and his string of on and off the field controversy began. Public spats with Mourinho became common place, while he angered the Ultras of Inter by wearing an AC Milan shirt on a television appearance before taking off and throwing his Inter shirt to the ground after a Champions League match against Barcelona. His actions made the teenager an almost untouchable option for opposition clubs and managers.
During this time Cortez Belle was sitting out a seven-match suspension for Merthyr Town, having picked up his third red card of the campaign. His return to Merthyr had initially been a result of the controversial figure having his contract at Chippenham Town cancelled after Belle had played in a five-a-side match in back in Newport. During the low-key event he was alleged to have verbally assaulted and threatened a match referee and he was subsequently suspended by the Football Association as the enquiry into his actions took place. Following a guilty verdict, Belle was sacked for breaching his contract with the club.
Mancini’s arrival at Manchester City and the limitless wealth available for him to spend meant that he and Balotelli were eventually re-united in August 2010. Widely-regarded as a risk by outsiders due to his history of controversy, Mancini’s judgement quickly came into question as Balotelli struggled with injuries and failed to make an immediate impression. The potential of his ability was apparent, but his obvious lack of enjoyment and public misery of living in England prompted many to believe his time at the club would be a short one. The pair even clashed on the touchline during the summer when Mancini publicly condemned his adopted genius of failing to show respect to his opponents when he attempted a failed back-heel shot against the LA Galaxy on a pre-season tour.
But last weekend things were very different at the newly-named Etihad Stadium. After eventually moving Everton’s proverbial parked bus, Balotelli emerged from the substitutes bench ahead of former club talisman Carlos Tevez to score in the second goal in the 2-0 win. The celebration over-shadowed the goal and the result, as the often sullen striker leaped into the arms of his manager, and in return received unparalleled praise from Mancini -”Mario didn’t start for three or four games but he has worked well, did not say anything and he was waiting for this moment. He scored an important goal and now it is important that he can continue,” said Mancini, who then added – “Mario is a good guy. Sometimes his behaviour has been so-so but he’s a good guy. He likes Manchester City and he likes English football. He was really happy. Sometimes when he scores he is unhappy but he knew this was a very big goal for us.”
And with all well at the Etihad, a similar story was emerging from the GenQuip. Where as Balotelli has become a familiar figure though is expressionless misery, Cortez Belle offers a wide-smile that has become all-too familiar as the controversial signing proves his doubters and critics wrong with three goals and a memorable assist from his seven Welsh Premier League starts. Used in a variety of positions already by manager Mark Jones, Belle has quickly earned himself a cult-status with the clubs own band of passionate Ultras, and while Balotelli suffered the wrath of Inter’s Ultras at the San Siro, the self-titled Sand Siro offers a far more supportive environment for Belle.
“Its been a promising start so far,” said Belle to the clubs ‘1901 Ultras’ website. “I’m happy to be playing football and want to do best I can for the team. I’ll play anywhere I’m just glad to be playing. If I play up front I will want to be top goalscorer but I’m more happy if Port Talbot are winning.” These were typical sound-bites to be expected from the former pro, but Belle quickly opened up to his new found love for the game after a career of controversy. “I’m enjoying my football again. The birth of my son Donté and my fiance Caroline have had a calming affect on me and I have mellowed in life. If I’d been like this five or six years ago I would still be playing pro football. I like the stadium at Port Talbot, the support is outstanding and the manager, Mark Jones, does a great job. He’s not too extravagant and the morale is good. Its a good club to play for and there is more to come from myself and the team.”
The statement from Belle is a significant one. Once untouchable for the wrong reasons, his performances for Port Talbot Town have shown him to be untouchable for the right reasons, and Mark Jones is reaping the benefits of taking his latest calculated risk and opening up the ability of a figure tagged for his past instead of being listed for his potential in the future. Meanwhile, Balotelli can now mature and move forward under the guidance and control of Mancini and the volatile Italian may yet play with a smile on his face as he begins to make headlines for the right reasons, it remains very doubtful however, that his smile will match that of the resurgent Cortez Belle.
Port Talbot Town and Manchester City are at very different ends of the football spectrum, and the weekly playing budget managed by Mark Jones would struggle to dress his opposite number. However, both are now enjoying the benefits of the equal investment they have made in their respective controversial stars, and that level of investment has brought with it the best possible return. That investment, of course, being nothing but belief.
The article was also published on the WalesOnline Magazine Sports Blog here – http://blogs.walesonline.co.uk/sport/2011/09/belle-and-balotelli-repaying-t.html