NXGN x Euro 2020: How Bellingham became England’s great young hope
By Ronan Murphy
After England play their final Group D game against Czech Republic at Wembley on June 22, the Three Lions squad will likely be celebrating qualification for the Euro 2020 knockout stages.
They may even take the opportunity to let their hair down a little and have a drink before their last-16 encounter, which could be up to a week away.
Except for any non-drinkers and Jude Bellingham, that is.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder is not legally allowed alcohol, as the youngest member of the England squad does not turn 18 until June 29.
At 17, he is one of the youngest players at the European Championship, but nobody could argue that he does not deserve to be there.
Bellingham has always been ahead of the curve.
When he was just 14, he was playing with Birmingham City’s Under-18s side, while when he made his breakthrough into the Blues’ first team, he was still a scholar, earning just £145 ($205) a week, as he was too young to sign a professional deal.
Bellingham was also just 13 when he made his England U15s debut, coming off a bench which also included Jamal Musiala, who will represent Germany at this summer’s Euros after switching allegiance to the country of his birth.
After two substitute appearances against Turkey at the end of 2016, he returned to the squad a year later and was named captain. This is when he first came onto Borussia Dortmund’s radar.
“He caught our eye as an England U15 international at the end of 2017, and we then followed him again at the other internationals three months later,” Borussia Dortmund chief scout, Markus Pilawa, tells Goal.
“There, the good impression (he had made) was more than confirmed, and we saw him get even better. From then on, things took their course.”
After Pilawa heard of Bellingham’s impressive international performances, he decided to take a look at the teenager himself, travelling to watch Birmingham’s reserve side, where the precocious midfielder was already taking charge of players years older than him.
“You wouldn't believe it, but when I first saw him live at a Birmingham City U23s game, he was still relatively slight and physically average at best.
“So he didn't stand out because of his physical abilities, but because he was the captain and already exuded the sense of responsibility on the field that we see here with us now.
“In other words, he took on incredible responsibility, had charisma and personality, was courageous and fulfilled certain leadership criteria. He had a feeling for how the game has to be ordered in central midfield and an incredible work rate.
“He wants to pick up the ball as a six, bring it forward as an eight, but in the end he also wants to be in the penalty area and finish. That is also the background to his shirt number 22: it is made up of the four, the eight and the 10; the four in England is the six here in Germany.
“It means that he wants to internalise all the elements of the game in central midfield - and that's exactly what we saw in him and impressed us enormously. He dominated in midfield with a calmness and lots of contact with the ball; he controlled the game.
“Later, he started to grow even more and build up muscles, so the components of physicality and power were added.”
Dortmund tried to sign Bellingham as a 16-year-old, even before he made his Birmingham debut, but he turned them down as he wanted to break through at his boyhood club before moving on.
Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City also came calling, but Bellingham’s head could not be turned.
He pushed for his chance at St. Andrew’s, staying behind late at training and asking his coaches to play him in different positions so he could improve his all-round game, while also working on his weaknesses.
When manager Pep Clotet eventually picked him in the starting XI for Birmingham’s Carabao Cup tie with Portsmouth in August 2019, he was ready. He was not out of place, despite playing alongside and against players more than twice his age.
He became City’s youngest-ever player at just 16 years and 38 days, before a month later breaking the record for the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer.
Mike Dodds is the head of the professional development phase programme at Birmingham, and helped bring through players such as Nathan Redmond and Demarai Gray, as well as Bellingham. He recalls how Bellingham was able to make an instant impact because of both his ability and his belief.
"When he started playing with the senior team, he fitted in because players recognise good players,"Dodds told Goal.
"If you go into a first-team environment and you're a good player, there's a respect there. I think once he got the opportunity in the first team, the players thought 'this boy is decent,' and that's why he fit in so well.
"When they saw they could trust him, they forgot about his age. He just becomes another player. Once you've got the combination of being a good player and being able to trust them, then age becomes irrelevant.
"When you put players of that age in that environment, they can surprise you. But you have got to give them the opportunity first. Birmingham gave him the opportunity and playing 44 games at 16 is just phenomenal."
Midway through the 2019-20 season, Bellingham was approached by teams once again, with Birmingham even turning down a £20 million ($28m) bid from Manchester United on deadline day of the January transfer window.
He instead stayed until the end of the campaign, winning the EFL Young Player of the Season award, but Birmingham knew they could not keep Europe’s elite away any longer.
Arsenal entered the race, while both United and Dortmund resumed their pursuits for the teenager. Sir Alex Ferguson even gave Bellingham a personal tour of United's Carrington training base, but that was not enough to persuade him to pick the Red Devils over BVB.
"The record Dortmund have got with young players in recent years is unrivalled in European football,” Bellingham admitted after his move to Germany.
“Weighing all that up and the people we met there, the stadium and fanbase, it made me fall in love with that club as well.”
Part of the attraction of Dortmund was the fact that they had been interested even before Bellingham became a first-team player at Birmingham.
“We were among the first to get hold of him, and wanted to get him on his 16th birthday, when he was still the small, lanky player,” Pilawa explains.
“We already believed in him then, and not just when he played in the Championship. I think he was impressed that we didn't join in at the end, when it was obvious to everyone what a great talent he had.
“We built a good relationship of trust with his family, his management and him. We gave him a clear plan and a profile of his strengths and weaknesses, where and how we see him fitting in, and why his profile fits us and the composition of our midfield.
“We told him: ‘You will have a lot of competition in terms of quality of players, but your advantage is that we don't have your profile in the squad, so you will definitely get playing time with us.’
“At Birmingham he was also used on the right-hand side and as a nine-and-a-half. But we told him: ‘You are not a six or a winger with us, you are clearly our eight.’ In the end, it was a damn tough fight because the competition for him was immense.”
A lot of the young players Dortmund sign can take a while to break into the first team, but having declined the opportunity to take a summer break and impressing in pre-season, Bellingham was chosen to start in their opening fixture of 2020-21.
Half an hour into his debut, he became Dortmund’s youngest ever goalscorer, en route to a 5-0 DFB-Pokal victory against third-tier Duisburg.
He followed that up with another start in the opening Bundesliga game of the campaign, and has not looked back since.
He won the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month Award for September and went on to play 45 times in all competitions for Dortmund, including 10 games in the Champions League, where he broke Phil Foden’s record to become the youngest English player to feature in the tournament.
Dortmund expected him to make an impact, but did not think it would happen so quickly.
“We were reasonably sure that he would get enough playing time in his first year. But I admit that we didn't know how confidently he would handle his situation,” Pilawa says.
“There was Covid, the gruelling Championship season until the end of July and the mental strain of the relegation battle with Birmingham. He only had seven days off as a young lad and then arrived here with no holiday and a bit of the pressure of the high transfer fee.
“So there could have been problems at the start of the season, but he surprised us there as well. We wanted to give him more breaks, but he didn't want them.
“He is just so clear in his head and has such a strong personality, that in the end his development almost did not come as a surprise. But, initially I thought he would only be involved fully in the second half of the season.”
Similarly, his path up the age groups with England has been rapid. Just four-and-a-half years after making his U15s debut, he is heading to the European Championship.
Bellingham’s rise has been so quick, he skipped playing for the U18 and U19 teams, and went straight from U17 to U21, where he did not last long before being promoted once more.
In November, Bellingham became the third-youngest player to feature for England’s senior international team, behind only Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney.
Unlike those players, he is not expected to be among the goals for his nation, but instead has drawn comparisons to midfield generals who have dominated for club and country.
“Of course we knew that he would end up there [with the England senior side] sooner or later,” Pilawa continues.
“But we thought that he would take the U21 route for a year beforehand. But just as he skipped a developmental stage here, he did the same in the national team.
“Before he came to us, he was compared to Frank Lampard. There may indeed be parallels. These comparisons with Lampard, also with Steven Gerrard, are obvious and I can understand them. Jude, like these two, has a strong personality, and the position he plays is also similar. But he is his own character and his own brand.”
After being named as the fifth-best teenage footballer in the world on Goal’s annual NXGN list back in March, ‘Brand Bellingham’ is sure to be on display this summer, as the teenager brings his all-action performances to Euro 2020.