Jude Bellingham: Young. Good. And really cool.
It was another transfer for which Borussia Dortmund gained Europe-wide recognition. Jude Bellingham is widely regarded as the biggest talent of England's 2003 year group. "BVB's approach, but in particular the way in which they help young players to improve, made the decision very easy for my family and I," said the 17-year-old midfielder. He's a nice and level-headed lad – yet hard as nails on the pitch.
The surprise of the summer came in the post. Well-packaged and sent by registered mail to the new business address. Jude Bellingham travelled to Dortmund with all his luggage. But all those moving crates arguably paled in comparison with the small and delicate package that had been dispatched by the English Football League (EFL), which organises English professional football below the Premier League. The EFL issues awards for various categories each year – and this time Borussia were involved. Posing for an official photo in his Black & Yellow kit, Jude Bellingham stood holding two-football shaped trophies. One of the awards was for the "Young Player of the Season", while the other was for "Championship Apprentice of the Year". The Championship is the second tier of English football.
"Apprentice of the Year" – everyone would do well not to lose sight of this wording before they heap excessive expectations on Borussia's new signing from Birmingham. Attention! Listen up! Jude Bellingham has just celebrated his 17th birthday and his career is only getting started. Jude has always been the youngest. To play for the England U15s – at 13; to play for the U21s – at 17; and to be employed by Borussia Dortmund, for that matter. He even scored the final goal on his debut international appearance in the most important youth category, as England completed a 6-0 rout of Kosovo in a EURO qualifier. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the youngest English player to ever do so.
It is with affectionate pride that Jude Bellingham holds the two trophies in his hands at the training ground in Brackel. There is half an hour set aside for this interview, the first he has given since his sensational transfer from Birmingham City to BVB.
Jude Bellingham grew up in the small town of Stourbridge in the West Midlands – a catchment area for four professional clubs. Wolves, who are based in Wolverhampton, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa were each 20 kilometres away, but those clubs never interested him. "For Jude, there was never a doubt that he would play for Birmingham City," explained his mother Denise. "He went there as a seven-year-old and never wanted to leave." The Bellinghams would drive their son to training four or five times a week – initially, without any thought as to what level of football their son would one day play. "You don't send your child to football training with the plan that he'll one day turn professional," said Denise, who added: "He was having fun, that was the most important thing."
It was only when the 13-year-old Jude was called up for the England U15s and was promoted to the Birmingham U18 setup a year later "that it also became clear to us how talented he was". The Spanish former Birmingham coach Pep Clotet once disbelievingly recalled that for a relatively insignificant game against Middlesbrough, there were talent spotters from all over Europe sitting in the stands. All because of Jude Bellingham.
His father, Mark Bellingham, knows how the business works. He knows and loves football, even if he never played at the very top level. For more than two decades he was involved in non-league football; in the tiers below the four English professional leagues, a place where sliding tackles are still a universally appreciated element of the play and the grass is not quite mowed as effectively as the English stereotype might suggest. Bellingham the striker was feared on the pitches of Halesowen Town, Leamington and Stourbridge. He scored more than 700 goals over the course of 22 years – the last of which came in the spring of 2017, by which point he was already over 40. His team-mates still recall how Mark Bellingham would be the first to race to the showers after the final whistle and then head out to his car so that he would make it on time for his night shift. His main job was as a Sergeant with the West Midlands Police.
So what is so special about the footballer Jude Bellingham? Perhaps that's a question best answered with a story from last February. On a wet and cold Friday, Jude Bellingham's Birmingham travelled to Ashton Gate Stadium to take on Bristol. Not a game you would expect to remain in the memory. Until an incident that took place in the Birmingham penalty area at the start of the second half. Bristol took a corner-kick which was headed away and landed at Jude's feet. He was not in an overly auspicious position, facing his own goal and with two opponents behind him. Jude controlled the ball, feigned to go one way and then went the other, took a huge stride forward and played a diagonal pass with mathematical precision to initiate the counter-attack. It all looked like one fluid movement and was executed effortlessly.
Those are traits you might come to expect from a player in his late 20s with a few hundred games under his belt. But not from a 16-year-old who was only promoted from the U23s a few months earlier. Jude Bellingham possesses something that no professional footballer can train. A blend of intelligence and speed of thought, combined with a fearlessness that he would have probably never honed quite as well anywhere outside of the Championship. England's second tier demands every ounce of energy players can muster and is played over 46 rounds, with fixtures fulfilled in a constant Saturday – Wednesday – Saturday rhythm (perhaps with the odd game on a Friday for variety's sake). Jude Bellingham made his debut in the division last year. Aged 16 years and 38 days, he was the youngest player in Birmingham City's history.
Praise from Lucien Favre
There were further unforgettable moments from his final match in a blue shirt, and perhaps with the passing of time they will become the overriding memories of that day. On the BBC website, there is still a photo of Jude's farewell appearance at St. Andrew's Stadium. In it, he is standing next to a stocky man with a thick beard and a thinning scalp. The caption reads: "Jude Bellingham (right) was making his last appearance for Birmingham after signing for Borussia Dortmund this week." There was not a word about the stocky man standing to his left – a player by the name of Wayne Rooney.
At the turn of the Millennium, Rooney was to English football what Bellingham is now: the hottest young prospect around. He made his Premier League debut for Everton at the age of 16, represented England for the first time at 17 and at 18 was part of the star-studded squad at the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup – the guy won everything there was to win with Manchester United. Now in the twilight of his career, Rooney is having one last hurrah as an player/assistant coach at Derby County.
Jude Bellingham did not take much time to endear himself to his coach. He was actively involved in the the very first goal in the first summer friendly against SCR Altach, doing the part that Lucien Favre likes most. "Balleroberung" (winning the ball) was the first German vocabulary Favre used in accent-free German when he embarked upon his Bundesliga adventure in Berlin 13 years ago. So after his first quarter of an hour in Black & Yellow, Jude Bellingham did what a good student does to impress his new teacher: he intercepted a sloppy pass 20 metres from the penalty area and fed it to Erling Haaland, who in turn teed up Gio Reyna for the opening goal. Lucien Favre was full of praise afterwards: "He won the ball back very well! He senses when he should leave his position and go forward."
Welcome to Dortmund, Jude! When you played for England for the first time at the age of 13, you had to write an essay about it for school. Back then, your lovely new shirt with the Three Lions on the chest and your name on the back made quite the impression on you. And nowadays? What would you write about your first days at BVB?
Ah, that's an interesting question! Well then: I've been given a very good reception in a very nice city. Dortmund reminds me a bit of Birmingham: a former workers' town with very nice and relaxed people. The stadium has obviously made the biggest impression on me. Sensational! I knew about it from photos and seeing it on television, but it looks even more phenomenal when you see it up close.
The team gave you a nice little serenade to welcome you...
Yeah! Hey Jude by The Beatles – superb idea, the first thought that came to my mind was: how on earth did they manage to persuade the lads to do that. I then returned the favour in the dressing room and sang "So Sick" by NeYo for my initiation. Not particularly well, I fear.
We'd love to hear that! Is there a recording?
Unfortunately! Jadon Sancho recorded it with his mobile phone. But believe me, you don't want to hear that!
You seem to be in close contact with Jadon. If you believe what has been written, he personally persuaded you to move to Dortmund.
That was made out to be a lot more than it really was by people on the outside. I had a brief and nice conversation with him; he's a really nice person. But he never really had to persuade me, it was a decision that I had already taken myself. But I've obviously followed his career progression very closely over the course of the past three years. Jadon has developed into a fantastic player in Dortmund and in the process he has demonstrated to all the other young English football players that it is also possible to take the next step in your career overseas. The Premier League is the wealthiest league in the world and attracts the best players on the planet each year. That doesn't exactly make it easy for young English players to get a look-in domestically.
Is your dedication to your profession something you learned from your father?
Could well be. When my dad does something, he does it properly! He's very proud of his work and would never do it half-heartedly. He never put pressure on me and always said: Do what you think is right! He was a footballer himself and a wonderful finisher in front of goal, but he never believed he was good enough to try his luck as a professional. He's still playing now at senior level (Editor's note: "Old boys") and has lost a bit of speed, but he's still got a superb first touch.
Did you never want to follow in his footsteps and play in attack?
Did you know, I was actually a forward in my first few years at the academy. No wonder, after all I had seen my dad score goals so often and always really enjoyed the atmosphere at non-league matches. When I was a young boy, I obviously really wanted to be like him! But over the years, I then began to realise that I could make better use of my qualities in midfield. But that doesn't necessarily mean I can't score goals from this position!
Did the fact that Birmingham were in the second tier make your early entry to professional football easier?
The year in the Championship was the perfect start for me. Technically speaking, the league is definitely not as good as the Premier League or the Bundesliga. But it does demand everything of you physically, I really benefited from that. Not to mention the fact it was a fantastic experience for me to play for the club I had always loved as a young boy.
You wore the shirt number 22 in Birmingham, which you now wear at BVB too. Probably just because it was free?
No, no, there is an actual reason, that's why it was so important for me that I'd also be able to have this number in Dortmund. Let me explain it briefly. The coach in Birmingham wanted to send a message to me that my position on the pitch could not be pinned down so easily. For him, I wasn't a number 10, an 8 or a 4, but all of them together. Which adds up to 22! I felt that this was a really great recognition of my footballing abilities and I'm very grateful for that!
In Birmingham, you predominantly played on the left flank.
Yes, but not exclusively. I also played on the right side and in the middle, sometimes in defensive midfield and sometimes in attacking midfield. I feel comfortable in different positions and I believe I can play at a good level in all of them.
"Dortmund was the right decision"
How difficult was it for you to leave Birmingham?
Very difficult! The final game of the season against Derby County was a very emotional moment for me. It was the right decision to go to Dortmund, because who gets that opportunity – especially at the age of 17? But in my eyes, Birmingham was and is more than just a normal club.
Wayne Rooney was your big role model when you were a young kid. Did the encounter with him make your departure from Birmingham that little bit easier?
I wouldn't put it like that. It was obviously a very special occasion that I got the chance to play against him. I've always admired him, his style and his ball control a lot. But that doesn't mean that I was entirely focused on him in that game; there was too much at stake for that. You mustn't forget that we were still in contention for relegation at that point; a horrible thought!
Despite losing 3-1, you were spared that fate on your farewell appearance.
That's true, but I was still so cheesed off that I would've never even thought of asking Wayne for his shirt. He said a few nice things to me after the match and wished me all the best for the future. That means a lot to me!
Like you, Wayne Rooney began his professional career at 16. Now he's 34, and perhaps he's put his body through a bit too much over the past few years. His records show that he's had 25 injuries in total. As a professional footballer, how can you guard against wanting too much too soon?
I think that in that sense too, the high physical demands of that year in the Championship helped me a lot. I believe I know my body very well and know how to interpret its signals accordingly. I know what I can demand of myself and when I need to drop down a gear. Fortunately, I've not had a serious injury so far.
You played 44 games for the first team last year, as well as making two appearances for the U23s and three international appearances for the England U18s. Wasn't that a bit too much?
Let's put it like this: it was a very intense season, in every respect. And I didn't get a proper summer break either. I was moving to Dortmund. But I could hardly wait to see the players and the coach. No worries, I feel very good!
You made an impressive statement in the first game with your tackling: Hello, I'm Jude Bellingham! And this is my way of playing football!
You could say that! It's commonplace in England to try to show your opponent as early as possible who he's up against. I'd already played a few passes and I was feeling comfortable; it was about time to get stuck into the first tackle! That's an important part of my game, winning the ball back as deep into the opposition half as possible. The fact that it culminated in the very first goal of the season made it all the better!
And it won't have done any harm to your self-confidence either...
Good point! I know what I'm capable of and I wasn't scared of the challenge here. But if you are able to implement some of your plans on the pitch so quickly, you realise that things can work not just in theory. Yeah, such a small achievement was very helpful at this early stage!
On 22 July 2020, he celebrated beating relegation from the second tier of English football with Birmingham City. Eight days later, he began pre-season preparations for the 2020/21 campaign with Borussia Dortmund. "Jude Bellingham opted for BVB and the sporting prospects we were able to offer him with total conviction," said sporting director Michael Zorc, adding: "He has enormous potential, which we will continue to develop together with him over the coming years. He already boasts astonishing quality with and without the ball, and has a strong mentality to boot."
Author: Sven Goldmann
Photos: Alexandre Simoes