WHEN Jude Bellingham left Birmingham City, aged 16 and having made 44 first-team appearances, the club retired his No 22 shirt.
As a life-long Bluenose, I heard a fair bit of stick flying around about that decision.
And I had to admit I thought, ‘****ing hell, he’s only been playing for nine months!’
But when you see Bellingham now dictating games for Borussia Dortmund and looking so assured in the England midfield, you realise that this kid is genuinely special. He is absolute mustard.
Midway through last season, he was being strongly linked with Manchester United and I spoke to a couple of mates on the coaching staff at Birmingham about it.
I thought it might be a bit too soon for him to make such a massive move — but those guys who worked with him said: “Absolutely, 100 per cent, he would go to United and play straight away.”
In the end, Jude moved to Dortmund, deciding that youngsters are far more likely to start more big matches in the Bundesliga than in the Premier League.
The same route taken by another English kid, Jadon Sancho, who was in Watford’s academy as a schoolboy.
Both have been proved right. Would Sancho be playing regularly for Manchester City, even now, had he stayed at the Etihad?
Bellingham has already played 35 times for Dortmund, he was outstanding in the Champions League last-16 victory over Sevilla, and now gets to face City in the quarter-finals.
Gareth Southgate was impressed by Sancho’s decision to go to Germany at 17 and soon rewarded him with an England call-up.
It’s now the same with Bellingham.
Southgate has been so impressed with Bellingham that he pulled him out of the Under-21s — as he clearly wants him in his squad for this summer’s Euros.
Now you get to see plenty of 16 and 17-year-old kids with immense talent.
They may have the feet but, at that age, they rarely have the footballing brain to be involved in a first-team squad — not Bellingham, though.
This kid has incredible maturity. The way he can take in information, with so little experience, is seriously very rare.
The first thing you notice about Bellingham is his athleticism — he is 6ft 2in and he gets around the pitch so well. That is important for an elite modern midfielder, it’s the first thing that any scout or manager will look for.
But then there is this arrogance — in footballing terms, not in terms of his personality — which comes from an in-built sense that he absolutely belongs in an England shirt and in a Dortmund shirt.
He knows he belongs and, clearly, his very experienced team-mates realise he belongs too.
Bellingham is so comfortable on the ball and has a great eye for picking a pass.
I was hoping he would start in England’s opening World Cup qualifier against San Marino at Wembley on Thursday.
And, yes, he was playing against part-timers. But he also really impressed when he came on at half-time, for his second senior cap, and perhaps Southgate will start him against Albania tomorrow.
There is still great pride among Birmingham City fans about him, even if some thought it was a bit much retiring the No 22 shirt.
That move was taken to ‘inspire’ future academy players, although the club’s youth system is also being controversially restructured as they look to save money.
Blues are currently in a relegation fight in the Championship. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that, if Bellingham had remained, they might have been fighting for a play-off place this season instead.
Like Jack Grealish at Aston Villa, everything went through Bellingham — he was ‘The Man’, even though he was still a boy.
Jude comes from Stourbridge and they say he is a great kid, who was at Blues from the age of eight.
There was a serious buzz about him — and well before he made his first-team debut soon after his 16th birthday.
And the buzz is now being fully justified.
The Midlands is becoming a real hotbed of talent. The academies at Villa, West Brom and Coventry, where James Maddison developed, are all excellent set-ups.
You might have seen Aston Villa’s academy kids holding Liverpool for an hour in an FA Cup tie, when their first-team squad was entirely ruled out through Covid, and they have some serious players.
Louie Barry, who scored against Liverpool, and actually started in the Baggies’ academy is a real prospect.
Birmingham fans have not had too much to shout about lately — but to see ‘one of our own’ playing for England at the Euros would certainly cheer us up.
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