The Championship is a notoriously tough league. Although the quality of football varies, the commitment and intensity needed to compete never does. Each season is a long, hard slog, drawing on reserves of mental and physical strength that few possess, particularly at 16, but Jude Bellingham has always been an anomaly.
There had been murmurs about an absurdly talented young prospect in the Birmingham City academy for a while. As he climbed up the ranks, progressing at a much faster rate than his peers, they grew into a barely containable clamour. Everyone knew about Bellingham.
He was just 14 when he first played for the under-18s and scored on his debut for the Under-23s a year later. Bellingham rose to every challenge he was set. It was simply a matter of when, not if, he made his mark on the first team.
Bellingham’s opportunity arrived in the 2019-20 season. Garry Monk had been sacked despite delivering decent results and his assistant Pep Clotet was put in charge. The owners’ aim was to dominate possession and play more attacking football. It was rarely fulfilled as Blues once more flirted with relegation.
In a season defined by disappointment, Bellingham’s emergence was the one clear and unquestionable highlight. He already had a bit of everything – strength, skill, vision and close control – but his mentality impressed most. He was a boy playing with the presence, maturity and self-belief of an adult. He was fearless, both on the ball and when trying to win it back.
Bellingham had been something of a project for the Blues academy, a chance to test out their ideas about how to produce a complete midfielder. A quick learner and a willing case study, he had the raw ingredients needed and an insatiable desire to improve.
The origin of Bellingham’s preferred squad number lies in a conversation with his former coach Mike Dodds. He wanted the teenager to combine the best attributes of a holding midfielder (4), a box-to-box runner (8) and a traditional playmaker (10), hence the fabled 22.
“I remember watching him and felt he had to play with the older boys to provide the appropriate stretch and challenge for him,” Dodds told The Sportsman.
“We had lots of resistance from some of the coaches who obviously didn’t feel it was appropriate. I’m not saying playing in a higher age group is the only way for challenging footballers, there’s loads of different ways of challenging them. But we just felt it was appropriate in terms of we felt the games were coming a little bit too easy for him.
“We eventually moved him up an age group and I worked with him probably then all the way through until he broke into the first team. I was probably using a consistent programme [with him] for the best part of four or five years.”
Dodds didn’t want to limit him to one specific role. He believed Bellingham had the positional awareness, irrepressible energy and technical ability to be whatever he wanted. That ethos has been evident in his exceptionally well-rounded performances at the World Cup.
Bellingham is busy thriving on the biggest stage of all, but that felt like a distant dream when Bellingham made his professional debut at a rickety Fratton Park in the League Cup. At just 16 years and 38 days old, he broke Trevor Francis’ record as the youngest player in the club’s history.
A couple of weeks later, he was summoned off the bench in place of the injured Jefferson Montero during the first half against Stoke City. Late on, the Tilton erupted and he was mobbed by supporters after scoring a deflected winner.
“Bellingham had a very good game,” Blues boss Pep Clotet told the BBC.
“We played him because we thought he was ready, and the conditions were good for him. We slowly helped Jude to mature during the summer. We introduced him to the league last week against Swansea, and we thought he was the right player to go in. He deserved it. It wasn’t a present. It was just reward for his work.”
In the next match, Bellingham’s calm finish secured another three points. He was more than justifying the hype.
Six months before his 17th birthday, he’d established himself in the starting XI. By the time Marcelo Bielsa’s promotion-chasing Leeds United came to St. Andrew’s at the turn of the year, he was a fully-fledged rising star.
Birmingham lost 5-4 to the eventual Championship champions, but Bellingham scored and stood out in a clash that featured his future England team-mates Kalvin Phillips and Ben White.
There would only be one more goal in a Blues shirt for Bellingham, but his performances were remarkably consistent. Often asked to fill in on the left of midfield, he thrived when played through the middle. There were similarities to Steven Gerrard in his driving runs and sheer will to win.
More than the sharp passing and clever touches he showed, including an audacious roulette turn on the edge of his own box against Brentford, it was Bellingham’s desire and work ethic that often set him apart. His finely honed technique was allied to a tough, streetwise attitude. And there was no better example of that than away at Barnsley when he chased down a lost cause and somehow turned it into the winning goal.
The ball into the Tykes’ half was nothing more than a hit and hope. And with Scott Hogan walking back from an offside position and two defenders in position to pick up, it is genuinely hard to imagine what other player would have even bothered making the run from where Bellingham was, just over the halfway line.
There are some who might have made the run for the fans perhaps, to show desire with the game still there to be won, but most would have simply preserved their energy and got back into position. It would have been the obvious, sensible thing to do.
But Bellingham was already different. With two opponents in front of him looking to shepherd the ball out of play, he put the afterburners on, charged round both of them, kept it in and crossed for Hogan to score. A perfect summary of why he wore 22 – he could already do it all. Even at such a young age, he drove the team on and made things happen.
Leaving a legacy
Across the course of the season, he made 44 appearances in all competitions. The biggest shame was that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the final nine matches were played in front of empty stands, denying supporters the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the golden boy.
It was inevitable that Bellingham would leave that summer, just a year into his professional career. He had big ambitions and had already outgrown his boyhood club. Amid interest from the Premier League’s giants, a move to Borussia Dortmund made sense in terms of fast-tracking his development. It’s proved to be the right decision.
Bellingham often spoke of his love for Birmingham City. His family appreciated what the club had done for him and ensured that they benefited from his move to Dortmund by agreeing to sign a professional contract before he left. He could have gone on a free transfer, but Blues received an initial £25million fee, with a sell-on clause, instead, helping to safeguard their future.
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READ: Forget the goal, Jude Bellingham’s roulette told us England were taking the p*ss
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These are the unusual circumstances in which his shirt number was retired. A strange decision, which the vast majority of supporters disagreed with, it was a gesture designed to recognise what he represented to the club, the importance of that act of selflessness and his potential to become one of the greats of the modern game.
Until the last decade, the Birmingham academy had few success stories to point to and typically laboured in the shadows of local rivals Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. A more coherent approach, and financial constraints, have helped to change that for the better. Since relegation, the club has been increasingly forced to rely on homegrown players and found that it could.
Nathan Redmond, Jack Butland and Demarai Gray have forged impressive careers at the top level, but Bellingham has already eclipsed them all. At just 19, he is truly part of the elite, captaining his club in the Champions League and starring for England at the World Cup. Blues supporters remain fiercely proud of him and excited to see what the future holds.
By Sean Cole
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