di Martin Lipton

LONDON. It’s not just The Beatles who sing “Hey Jude”. Now it’s every major club in Europe. The copper’s son from Stourbridge has been on the wanted list of the great and the good for at least three years. And during that spell, growing up far from home in Germany, very much in the spotlight, he has been breaking the stereotypes on English players. Now Jude Bellingham is set to take the step onto arguably the biggest club stage on Planet Football. And while some big money moves for kids have looked like gambles, Real are ready to build their next decade around the teenager.

You don’t do that on a gamble, a hunch. Even Real Madrid would not take that sort of punt, spending €103 millions on a relative rookie with a bit of potential. No. Real are spending because they know that Bellingham, even at 19 (20 on next June 29th), is already the real deal. Ready to move on from Borussia Dortmund. Ready to dominate. Ready to wear the most famous club shirt in the game. Ready to conquer next autumn, as top favourite, the coveted Golden Boy Award after two “silver medals” in the last two years behind the Spanish duo Gavi&Pedri.

If there is a surprise, it is not that Madrid is calling. Only that the Bernabéu stage beckons while Bellingham is still young enough to be enjoying a gap year before University. But those who saw his development, from joining the schoolboy ranks at Birmingham at the age of just seven, are not at all surprised. They knew, even from the very start, that Bellingham was going to be something truly special. And his family knew that the start of the journey had to be at St Andrews, at “Blues”, a club which celebrated only the second major trophy in their history – the League Cup, secured with a stunning win over Arsenal in 2011 – by being relegated out of the Premier League three months later.

Mum Denise and dad Mark – a full-time policeman but also a “non-league”, semi-professional player with local clubs Halesowen, Leamington and Stourbridge – knew about the talent and desire. But for Bellingham it was not about playing for one of the Prem giants. Stourbridge, the one-time home of British glass-making in the industrial heartland of England’s West Midlands, was Bellingham’s territory. His club was the one that meant the most to him. Denise explained: “For Jude, there was never any doubt that he would play for Birmingham. <He went as a seven-year-old and never wanted to leave. He was having fun. That was the most important thing>.

From the very start, Bellingham wanted to play, to train, to learn. And from the outset, Birmingham knew they had unearthed a rare diamond on their own doorstep. Progress was rapid – and marked with a series of milestones. The youngest player to represent England at under-15 level when he was just 13, a feat repeated for other age group teams. And, of course, at 16 years and 38 days, the youngest to wear Birmingham first team colours. Bellingham broke the record set 49 years earlier by 70s boy wonder Trevor Francis, scorer of the winning goal for Nottingham Forest in the 1979 European Cup Final against Malmö and also English football’s first “£1 million man”. Francis, who spent five years in Serie A with Sampdoria and Atalanta, scored 12 in 52 games for England and managed at four clubs in a 15-year spell, remains a St Andrews legend.

But he has now been matched, if not surpassed, by a player whose first team career at the club lasted less than 12 months. Birmingham fans had been preparing for the moment for a while, the name of Bellingham on the lips of the regulars in the pubs around the ground in the city’s Bordesley district, the setting for the TV drama Peaky Blinders. Although he had only signed official terms with the club that summer, the previous season the then-15-year-old Bellingham had become a regular member of the official “travelling party” to games. And so, on August 6 2019, at Fratton Park, Portsmouth, Bellingham took the field, playing 80 minutes of a 3-0 defeat and wearing what has become his now recognised No 22 shirt.

Why 22? Mike Dodds, his youth team coach at Birmingham, explained: <We sat Jude down and told him we thought he could be a holding midfielder, a No 4. But we also thought he could run box-to-box, be a No 8. And we thought he could be a playmaker, a scorer and creator, a No 10. Then we added them together, four plus eight plus ten and said we think you can be a twenty two!>. By the end of that season, still months shy of being old enough to hold a driving licence in the UK, he had played 44 games, 35 of them starts, in what is arguably the most physically intensive league in Europe. And not out wide or up top, where you can rest at times. In the heart of the engine room. Where the tackles fly in. Where your physical and mental courage are constantly being tested. Where there is no room for shirkers. A bruising, abrasive, all-out footballing “war zone”. Many, even seasoned professionals, struggle in such a demanding environment. It can overwhelm them. Yet Bellingham, still growing in mind and body, embraced it with the natural aptitude of a duck taking to water, using his physique and strength to hold off bigger men, gliding into space, rotating the ball and also being prepared to drive on with it.

Birmingham’s coach for that season was Spaniard Pep Clotet, who went on to both Brescia and Spal and is now with Torpedo Moscow in Russia. He recalled: <I told the other players that it was going to be a season they’d remember for the rest of their lives. I said them: You’ll be able to tell your grandkids that you played with Jude Bellingham in his first season>. That debut campaign brought four goals but two years or more of experience in the space of nine months. Priceless. Bellingham played all over the park, as good in a defensive role as he was bombing forward. As for dead balls, set-pieces, corners and free-kicks – he took the lot, wanted that responsibility. His passport said he was 16. His performances suggested 28 or 29 and in his prime. The one certainty, even then, was that – unless he suffered an injury – it would be just a one-year stay at his first love.

Manchester United were keen. Beyond keen. United, quite literally, deployed everything in their armoury. Come to the training ground and meet Sir Alex Ferguson. Tick. Hang around, we’ve got Eric Cantona flying over from France to tell you why you should sign for this club. Tick. Oh, yes, let’s go to Old Trafford. Yeap, that is Harry Maguire. He wants to show you round the place, let you see what it’s like. Tick. Yet to no avail. Bellingham had already decided he wanted to spread his wings. A chat with Jadon Sancho, who had made a similar journey to the Ruhr from Manchester City, confirmed the initial thoughts, even when Bayern Munich came in with a last-gasp offer to try to seduce him away from Dortmund’s grasp. He resisted the temptation. His mind was set on Dortmund. At St Andrews, though, there was pride, nor disappointment. Bellingham remained a huge favourite, with fans and staff alike. He behaved properly, signing shirts for supporters, remembering the names of the people who made the club tick.

Even more unusually, in an age when players only really care about themselves, Bellingham genuinely put Blues first. Bellingham could have run down his contract, entitling Birmingham only to a meagre compensation payment for developing him. Instead, he made it clear he would only go if there was a good fee involved, and a sell-on clause too. It was a tough few months. A home defeat to Derby – in front of empty stands in that Covid summer – was his final appearance and Bellingham was almost in tears as he addressed the fans to apologise for a close shave with relegation. He said: <The overall feeling is devastation. We’ve let the whole club down, the name of the club. It wasn’t good enough. It’s my club. I’m a fan and I’ll be supporting wherever I am. I’m so sorry I couldn’t lift us>.

The ultimate symbol of the impact Bellingham had made came in the immediate aftermath of his departure. Birmingham announced that the club had “retired” the 22 shirt in honour of the youngest. It is the sort of gesture clubs occasionally make for players who have served a career, not a solitary campaign. But we are talking about Jude Bellingham, a generational talent. Even so, it seemed a step too far. And you suspect the player himself would have felt it was a little too much. Birmingham were going one way. Bellingham, though, was already off in a different direction, the £23m transfer fee a figure that would make a huge impact on its own. Not, though, as big an impact as Bellingham was about to make in the Bundesliga. Serenaded by his new team-mates with that Beatles track on his first day at Dortmund’s training ground, Bellingham was an instant hit. It helped, no doubt, that coach Lucien Favre had a phalanx of young stars at his disposal – not just Bellingham and Sancho but Erling Haaland and American Gio Reyna.

Also, in truth, that while dad Mark stayed back in the English Midlands, where younger brother Jobe, born in 2005, has already followed him into the Birmingham first team, mum Denise moved with him to Germany. And at Dortmund, there were older heads, too, in the form of Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Raphael Guerreiro, players who knew what it took to keep the kids on the right track. Not that they had too much work to do with Bellingham. He saw Dortmund as a vital next step in his development. In an interview with the Dortmund club website, Bellingham said: <The Premier League is the wealthiest in the world and attracts the best players on the planet each year. But that doesn’t exactly make it easy for young English players to get a look-in domestically. It’s possible to take the next step overseas. The Bundesliga is, perhaps, the league closest to England in terms of its physicality> .

Bellingham assessed, wisely and rightly, that he could mature there, gaining Champions League experience as well, but without – Germany has become a one-club league with Bayern’s dominance – the huge pressure of expectations. Favre swiftly admitted he had been blown away by Bellingham.  Within weeks of his arrival in Dortmund, the coach was conceding: <It’s so easy to work with someone like Jude, with such a talent. I like the way he handles the ball, how he defends it. He gives us a number of tactical possibilities and he has such a fantastic presence, technical skills and a feel for space>. Such testimonials do not come lightly or easily. But Bellingham was already flourishing in his new environment, recognising a city with the same core values that he had grown up surrounded by in England. Critically, too, he found those same values on the pitch. Determination and commitment, a willingness for sacrifice himself for his team-mates.

It did not take long for the German media and fans to see what those Birmingham supporters had known. Bellingham missed just one of Dortmund’s 34 Bundesliga games, making a further 17 appearances in other competitions and forcing his way into the England squad for the delayed Euros. That was an inevitable move, too. Gareth Southgate had long been aware of the fledgling talent, merely waiting for the right time to bring him into the fold. Only Theo Walcott and a certain Wayne Rooney had made their debuts at a less-advanced age than the 17 years and 136 days Bellingham had behind him when he came on for Chelsea’s Mason Mount in a friendly against Ireland in November 2020. Covid meant that Jude had the chance to taste a major competition at the very outset of his career, setting a platform for the future. England’s Wembley shoot-out disappointment at the hands of Roberto Mancini’s Azzurri was a blow, of course. Bellingham, though, returned to Dortmund even more self-assured as a player, with a role as stand-in captain signalling his importance.There were issues under new coach Marco Rose, whose reign lasted a solitary season.

Bellingham, too, became embroiled in some of the dressing room turmoil, blazing rows with full-back Nico Schulz and experienced Belgian Axel Witsel occasions when his frustrations boiled over. Indeed, his four-letter fury at Schulz, leaving the defender in no uncertain terms about his deficiencies, went viral. Schulz has not played a single minute at Dortmund this season. That attitude, perhaps unsurprisingly, hacked off some of his team-mates who did not take too kindly to being put in their place by a kid who could still have been at school. But Rose suggested he needed “more” of Bellingham’s “anger” in his squad, not less. And this season, an unprecedented campaign with a huge World Cup hole at its centre, there has been a great deal more from Bellingham in Germany. He has added goals, galloping forward to score 13 by the start of May. Assists, too, seven by the same stage of the season. A player clearly and demonstrably growing, evolving, adding facets to his game that were not there before without losing any of the things that made him so impressive in the first place. And also, the extra experience of that month in the desert, another challenge not just accepted and met head-on, but passed with flying colours. While it was obvious that Bellingham was going to be the future of the England team, it was not a given that he would prove the present as well.

Indeed, even last summer, his performances for Gareth Southgate’s side had been, at best, mixed. Yes, there were impressive cameos, moments where the promise was evident. But at that delayed Euro 2020 tournament, Bellingham’s three appearances – against Croatia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine – were late on in the games and off the bench. Bellingham was very much fourth in the midfield hierarchy, behind West Ham’s Declan Rice, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and the surprise wild card of then-Leeds scrapper Kalvin Phillips, now at Manchester City. He might not have liked it – indeed, privately, Bellingham is understood to have felt he was being held back and that he should have been granted a more central role in the team. But that was more about the over-confidence of youth. Southgate did not feel he was quite ready for that level of expectation, although the England coach knew it was a matter of when, not if, the time would be right.

Even so, aside from a stroll in the mountains of San Marino at the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign, he had to wait for the opportunity he was demanding. Bellingham’s first proper competitive starts came in last summer’s dreadful Nations League campaign. England did not win a single game of their four matches, losing twice against Hungary, including a 4-0 hammering at Wolverhampton – just a short bus ride from the town where he was born – when Bellingham’s display was, in truth, tired and disappointing. But there was an understanding by Southgate that Bellingham was still growing, still very young and that the demands of a long season had caught up on him. Even so, it needed injury to Phillips and doubts over Henderson, to leave the door open for a starting place in Qatar. Bellingham simply bulldozed through it, forming an instinctive understanding with Rice, validating Southgate’s faith and demonstrating that he was a man in a boy’s body. His header against Iran, rising higher than anybody to float the ball into the top of the net, was his first England goal – it remains, for now, his only strike for the Three Lions. But while that settled any nerves, what was more striking was just how naturally at home he appeared to be. There was no apprehension, no self-doubt, no concerns. Jude was simply able to ooze class. Controlling the tempo of the game, easing himself away into space to look up and keep the move going. It was not the sort of approach that is the norm for English players, brought up on the helter-skelter raucous passion of the Premier League.

Bellingham, not just against Iran but in the rest of the tournament, especially in that agonising quarter-final defeat to France – in which England’s best performance against a “major” nation in years went unrewarded – was the embodiment of calmness in possession and intelligence in attempting to get the ball back. If he had been wearing a France shirt, he would not have looked out of place. There haven’t been too many occasions when you would have said that about England’s youngsters over the past few years. He felt the pain of England’s exit. As deeply as any of Southgate’s players – except, perhaps, the crestfallen, self-blaming Harry Kane. But even then, in his eyes you could sense a determination to come back and be better, stronger, even more desperate to succeed and put the record straight next time. 
For Bellingham, though, there was now an extra factor – the desire to start actually winning things, to get some medals round his neck, parade with silverware. That, perhaps, has conditioned his likely move this summer – and the destination, too.

Watching Bellingham during “Der Klassiker”, Dortmund’s vital clash at Munich at the start of April, it was obvious that he was becoming frustrated with being part of a team of nearly-men. Dortmund’s horror start – keeper Gregor Kobel gifted Munich three in the first 20 minutes to give Thomas Tuchel the perfect debut as coach – saw Bellingham bellow his anger, screaming in undisguised indignation at the unacceptable and costly errors. There was a sense of him looking around, seeing too many players who were happy to settle for second best, who did not truly believe they could cross the line first. At one point in the second half, furious at not being found unmarked at the far post, he almost booted the upright out of the ground. Kicking it that hard, he might have broken a bone in his foot. And while Bellingham was the one Dortmund player willing or able to take the game to Munich, even he started to lose interest towards the end, attempting tricks in the middle of the park, no longer straining every sinew to get back. It felt like a decisive, determinant, day. The day he had made up his mind to leave.

Not that Dortmund would have found it easy to keep him, even if Bellingham had not been ready to move on. Money talks. The sort of money that Real, Liverpool or City were willing to offer shouts, with ear-splitting intensity. And Dortmund are a selling club. Certainly ever since they were bailed out financially by Munich from the threat of a catastrophic financial implosion in 2003. Bellingham knew about Hummels and Robert Lewandowski, had seen Haaland and Manuel Akanji depart, knew that Julian Brandt would next. You can only stay there for so long. During the World Cup, he had been “love-bombed” by Henderson and Liverpool team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold, the pair seemingly sent on a search and rescue mission by Jürgen Klopp aimed at persuading him to move to Anfield. At some stage, too, you feel it is inevitable that Bellingham will listen to the siren calls from home and play in the Premier League. After all, he can probably earn more there. But it does not have to be now. It can be then. What is evident is that he will not be cowed by the prospect of walking into the Bernabéu, a stage for kings to strut across.

Real have restored their position as the kings of Europe over the past decade, a success built on the midfield platform of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.Nothing lasts for ever, though and the Madrid hierarchy have been planning for the future over the past few seasons. They have already acquired France’s two most talented midfield prospects, in Eduardo Camavinga – so versatile he can star at left-back as well – and Aurélien Tchouaméni. Now they want Bellingham to complete a trio capable of becoming the bedrock of the club until 2030, the new modern prototype fusion of physicality, energy, passing range, perception, drive and creativity. Everything Bellingham has shown over the past four seasons is that the evolution will be swift and compelling. His fearlessness is backed by talent. Real are, as they have always been, a winning machine. It is an obligation, not an ambition. In a two-club league, when the other team has just walked away with the domestic title, that becomes even more the case. That means extra demands, for sure, on any player coming in, especially one with a transfer fee as big as the one on Jude’s back.

Yet nobody who has seen Bellingham develop has a single scintilla of doubt that he will be up for the challenge, will see it as a spur to his own growth. He is ready, utterly ready, for what comes next. His target is simple: to become, without any doubt, the best midfielder in world football. A lofty ambition for a kid from Stourbridge. But Bellingham is not just a kid from Stourbridge. As The Beatles said: <Hey Jude, begin, you’re waiting for someone to perform with. And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do, the movement you need is on your shoulder>. And in his legs, body and brain. The performance is natural. So is the quality. It’s only just beginning, too. There is so much more to come.