It has been a difficult decade for Birmingham City. The anniversary of their Carling Cup victory over Arsenal in 2011 passed at the end of February. On that day at Wembley Stadium, it was hard to foresee the depths of desolation and misery the club would fall to in the years that followed. After those heady days, financial meltdowns, ownership arrests and points deductions became the norm at St Andrews. There hasn’t been much to shout about and even this season, under new manager Lee Bowyer, relegation to League One is a possibility. The one bright spark was the emergence of 16-year-old academy product Jude Bellingham last season.
Despite his age, Bellingham took the Championship by storm last season and was soon turning heads. Birmingham’s academy, which has since been disbanded, has produced Premier League regulars like Nathan Redmond and Che Adams in the past but it quickly became evident that Bellingham was on a different level entirely. He played 41 Championship games in 2019/20, scoring four goals and assisting two, enough to grab the attention of the elite.
Manchester United showed the teenager, who was yet to comprehend anything outside Birmingham, around their training ground. Chelsea were keen, while Arsenal and Liverpool were linked. Borussia Dortmund’s reputation for nurturing the best young players saw their name jump to the front of the queue. The example they had set with Jadon Sancho, the Englishman they plucked from Manchester City and turned into a superstar, was most pertinent.
In England, a pecking order is already in place for young players. Often, they have to earn their chance and wait their turn. At Dortmund, it became clear that Jude Bellingham, like Sancho, would be given a platform immediately.
He has played 22 times in the Bundesliga this season and is no stranger to the Champions League either. The education he is receiving has fast-tracked his game, just as it has Sancho’s. While he isn’t stealing the headlines, which are more often than not reserved for Erling Haaland these days, he is learning from the exposure he wouldn’t likely have been afforded elsewhere in England. Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale turned heads from an early age at Southampton, as did Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. None of them were thrown in straight away at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal respectively, and when they got their chance, it took time to fully grasp it.
If the European Championships’ postponement by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic has suited anybody, Jude Bellingham certainly fits the bill. Had the tournament taken place as planned, it would have come far too early for him. Even he and his coaches wouldn’t have been targeting it. But it is amazing what a few months at a progressive club like Dortmund can do.
Not only is Bellingham, who will turn 18 during the tournament, a genuine candidate for a place in Gareth Southgate’s squad, it could be argued he is in prime position having been called up for the most recent squad after making his debut last year.
The old adage that ‘if you are good enough you are old enough’ doesn’t tend to stick well in England. Perhaps fans in this country have been burnt by Sven-Goran Eriksson’s decision to include a 16-year-old Walcott in his squad for the 2006 World Cup. It is more than likely that, should Jude Bellingham get the call, comparisons will be made between then and now.
But there are a number of key differences between Walcott’s situation and that of Bellingham, looking beyond the fact that the latter is already in the England fold. Walcott’s inclusion seemed more about spectacle and shock value than anything else; it made great headlines and aided the goodwill in the build up to the summer in Germany but Eriksson had no plans to play him at all. He was a token pick ahead of genuinely in-form goalscorers like Darren Bent and Jermaine Defoe.
If Jude Bellingham makes the cut, it will likely be at the expense of another talented midfielder with plenty of clout — of which there are a growing number. Southgate has set out a plan to play with two holding midfielders, meaning that Bellingham will face competition from the likes of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Leicester City’s James Maddison if he is to make it. Judging on form, fitness and the latest selection, Maddison has more work to do if he is to make it to Euro 2020.
The fact that Southgate has options to choose from when it comes to midfielders who can change and control games is a huge positive. Bellingham is one of the most cultured, stylish and agile at his disposal and, while it is a stretch to suggest he will start in the first group game, his meteoric rise has placed him right in contention.
England may be reluctant to trust youth — Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney being obvious exceptions — and perhaps Aidy Boothroyd’s struggles with the under-21s suggest that Jude Bellingham could be of use to development squads. But should he make it to the Euros, it won’t be for a gimmick or even for him to gain experience. He’ll be ready to contribute.
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