Playing in front of 20,000 fans St Andrew’s for Birmingham City on a Tuesday evening for most 16-year-olds would mean mission accomplished.
But for Jude Bellingham, it meant knuckling down and staying behind at school until seven o’clock the following Wednesday evening, failing to miss a single class, putting in the extra hours to pass his A-Levels and complete his studies.
It’s been a whirlwind few years for the youngster and it’s all too easy to forget that his breakthrough campaign came just three short seasons ago, when he caught Birmingham Head Coach Pep Clotet’s eye before the Spaniard took a chance on a teenage Bellingham that August.
“I wasn’t sure how he’d cope being with a young player like him because he was just 16,” Clotet began. “You always thought, ‘well, he’s going to need to time to adjust and adapt,’ but it was completely the opposite. He was one of the professionals from day one.
“You could tell he was special straightaway. He was able to try things with a high level of confidence and he was able to be very committed on all the facets of the game.”
At 16 years and 38 days old, the midfielder broke an almost five-decade old record set by Trevor Francis in 1970.
Bellingham became the youngest player to feature for the Club when Clotet handed him his first start against Portsmouth in the Carabao Cup – something which the then-Blues boss hailed as “truly deserved” on the back of some impressive performances in friendly fixtures.
“That’s where a lot of players have to take their chance and luckily, I did,” Bellingham explained. “It was surreal. I don’t think it will every properly hit me about how big it is.
“It’s my boyhood Club and the Club’s greatest every player in terms of what he went on to do in his own career but how good he was whilst he was at Birmingham as well. He was the perfect role model for me. To go and beat that record by quite a bit is massive for me. I’ll never be able to describe how much it meant to be and my family.
“It’s not easy for a manager of a team towards the lower end of the league to throw in a 16-year-old, especially into the middle of midfield and have him starting games, so it mustn’t have been an easy decision for him. To take that and stick by it is a huge point.”
Versatility was key to Bellingham’s game, with Clotet experimenting with the youngster and trying him out in different roles with the squad.
“From that game, I can remember that Jude played a very active role,” he said. “He played as a man behind the striker with a lot of responsibility. I remember he had a strong debut with a big offensive role. He put in a really good performance, not only physically but technically and tactically as well.
Clotet continued: “As the team was very comfortable in a 4-4-2 that we had been playing for years, I thought it would be a huge pressure for Jude to play as a sitting midfielder. I was very cautious on bedding him in in the right way to put any external pressure that could be too much for him because I wanted him to keep improving and keep growing.
“I thought he would bed in very well playing as a false winger on the left because he was coming in and using his right a lot. He developed his dribbling that he does now. He had the ability to cross and the ability to come in and connect the short play with the midfielders, and he was able to express his creative ability without the risk of a mistake happening in the middle to cause a problem for him.”
Bellingham went on to make his bow in the Sky Bet Championship later that month away to Swansea City and, just shy of a week later, he would make his home debut at St Andrew’s against Stoke City.
The Blues Academy graduate, who was introduced on the half hour mark from the bench, netted a 76th minute winner as the Blues came from behind to claim their first league win of the season.
“It was almost like a month of dreams that got me into first-team football,” recalled Bellingham. “It’s quite tough in the Championship. It’s hard to deny that it’s one of the best leagues in the world competitively.
“I came on in that game not really expecting much of myself, but as I got into it, I thought why not be the one to try and change the game? It’s probably the luckiest goal you’ll ever see.”
Although Clotet had his reservations about the demanding nature of the Championship, his newest prodigy slotted into the side with ease, but it was the now-45-year-old who saw the bigger picture.
“From a coach’s point of view, it’s not about playing a young player but it’s making sure that young player who you gave their debut, he can make it,” Clotet explained. “The fact that he was able to make it in the Championship, in my eyes, it was the perfect football for Jude.
“There’s a really high requirement when it comes to the performance with so many games and so many ups and downs in the league that players have to get used to. That mentality around the Championship that makes it so competitive, it turned out it was perfect for Jude.”
That season, Bellingham made a double swoop for the 2019/20 EFL Young Player of the Season and Championship Apprentice of the Year.
Very happy and grateful to have been awarded with @efl ‘Young Player of the Season’ and @lfeonline ‘Championship Apprentice of the Year.’ Again, I can’t thank everyone associated with @bcfc enough for such an enjoyable season and making this possible.🏆🏆#JB22 pic.twitter.com/Py3vkziVRb— Jude Bellingham (@BellinghamJude) August 27, 2020
“I could tell Jude was going to go on and achieve fantastic things when he scored on his home debut against Stoke, although it wasn’t the prettiest goal in the world, but he then followed that up with another goal away at Charlton which actually won the game,” remembered his former Coach, Mike Dodds.
“A few weeks later, he played on a Friday evening against Middlesbrough as a 16-year-old in centre midfield and completely ran the game. That little period where he broke into Birmingham’s team was the indicator to me that’s a special talent.”
Selfless, tenacious and eager; just some of the words used to describe Bellingham by those who knew him best.
Dodds first came across the England international as in the Birmingham Under-7 age group and almost immediately, he made an impression on the Blues Academy Coach.
“What made Jude stand out initially when he came in when he was seven or eight was just his general enthusiasm for football,” he noted. “He wasn’t technically that far ahead of a lot of the boys, but he had a real appetite for the game.
“What made him different to other players that I’ve coached in the past is his desire to get better in every element of his game from a very early age. His general desire and application to be the best and be different was the thing that stood out.”
And Bellingham himself acknowledged his own standards of himself at such a tender age.
“It’s not all about quality,” he reaffirmed. “It’s about having that fire in your belly and that hunger to go and stand out regardless of your age. “I wanted it more than anything. The only goal I had was to perform well for Birmingham City and get into the first-team and continue to play well.
“It’s easy to get your debut and coast a bit because you’ll always be the young one, but to go and make an impact like so many young players have is a credit to themselves, the Clubs and the League as well.
“In my case, the work Birmingham City did with me, I can’t thank them enough as I’ve said a million times, but it’s important to highlight that.”
His was a passion that stemmed largely from the love for his hometown. A Stourbridge-born boy, Bellingham made history for the Club he held so dearly, and his influence goes beyond what he achieved on the field.
“He was a part of the Club all the way through, and that helped him a lot,” Clotet said. “That season Jude was a very important part of the team because he was playing with a very bright heart to try and do the maximum for the Club by loving the Club and loving the team he was playing in.
“Being from the city, he had an influence on and off the pitch because he was Birmingham through and through. He knew what the Club meant, he knew what it meant for the supporters and he knew that Birmingham is a Club that is desperate to do well. He was desperate at that time to do something different and something big, and Jude became that.”
As is the case with most players coming through the ranks, he suffered some setbacks, but it was those obstacles that have shaped him into the player that he is today, with his coaches, parents and peers providing a support network for Bellingham.
Dodds added: “One that stands out was when he was in in the Under-15s or Under-16s in that age group when, unfortunately, he got sent off in a game. The collaboration between myself, Jude and Jude’s parents to handle that process and making sure that we didn’t make a huge deal of it was really important moving forward.
“The proof is almost in the pudding when you see the way he conducts himself on the pitch now, something like that might have been a contributing factor to the positives that everyone sees.”
In the summer of 2020, Bellingham finalised a move to Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund, bidding a fond farewell to Birmingham City, and, as a nod to his dedication to the Club, the Blues opted to retire the number 22 jersey upon his departure.
His career continued on an upward trajectory when he was called up to represent his country for the first time in November 2020.
“To watch Jude play for England now is still surreal because I still talk to him very regularly about normal things,” Dodds stated. “I still see him as the young man that developed over 10 years at the Academy; his demeanour and his personality hasn’t changed one bit.
I’m incredibly proud of him but the way he conducts himself is my biggest achievement. One of Jude’s best qualities is his ability to communicate with people who have helped along his journey.
“My conversations with him are the same types of conversations that we would have two or three years ago with a lot of banter. He’s such a humble human being. He hasn’t and he certainly won’t forget where he’s come from.”
The Three Lions star has earned comparisons with some of the very best. For Clotet, who saw Lionel Messi in the flesh when he arrived at Barcelona aged 12, Bellingham is up there for the Brescia manager.
“To see what he’s doing now, I feel very proud to have helped him to start his career,” he said. “I follow him a lot and it doesn’t stop to amaze me. I keep telling him he’s achieving unbelievable things. Everything he achieves, it reminds me that it’s possible with a lot of hard work, it’s possible to become something big.
“Out of all the young players that I’ve worked with, he’s one of the most – if not the most – determined to become what he has become. He’s always had a very high vision and demand on himself to achieve his maximum ability to perform at the highest level. That was what always made me think he had no roof.”
Bellingham left a lasting legacy in the West Midlands but, according to his former coaches, he will always remember where he came from.
“For him to be talked about in the same arena as Trevor Francis speaks volumes of just how important he is to the Football Club,” Dodds emphasised. “Not only is up there in terms of his ability as one of the best if not the best Birmingham player alongside Trevor, but he’s also played his part in ensuring the long-term security of the Football Club.
“Jude was in the Academy for the best part of a decade and in terms of his development as a person, that was contributed to by a number of people from Mark Sinclair, the Head of Education, to Kristjaan Speakman who was the Academy Manager at the time. A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for the part they’ve played in his journey.”
Indeed, Bellingham's journey is one that is going places.