Some say he is ‘the best player on the planet’ of his age. He made his debut for the England U15 team at just 13 and clubs all over Europe have been targeting him for years. Now it is Manchester United prepared to spend big on Jude Bellingham. But what exactly is it about the Birmingham City midfielder that makes him quite so special?
At the age of 16, his transition to the senior game has been seamless. The touch and the class are apparent but he has coped physically too – putting in plenty of tackles – and handled the mental side of the step up impressively well. All the signs are that he is someone who is going to maximise his talent – and that maximum looks higher than most.
Speaking to Birmingham boss Pep Clotet last month, he could not have been more effusive in his praise of the youngster. His excitement at Bellingham’s potential was palpable.
“What I have seen in Jude is that the more games that he has played the more difficult it has become for me to see a ceiling in his performances,” Clotet told Sky Sports.
“I just get the feeling that he is getting better and better.”
Even during his short time in the first team, there has been progress.
“He is more used to the league and more used to the position that he is playing,” added Clotet. “He is not just focusing on playing. He is focusing on helping us to win. What has surprised me a lot is how strong he is mentally to cope with all of this. He never gets down. Every little mistake is just an opportunity for him to learn. He is so impressive.”
Birmingham have been well aware they have a unique talent on their hands for some time and the club deserves huge credit for their handling of Bellingham’s development both before and after his breakthrough into the first team. His transition has not been by luck. It has been a carefully thought-out process in order to help him along each step of the way.
“We planned it well with Jude,” said Clotet.
“We started him in a position that would suit him and release some of the pressure on him, as a kind of false winger. Slowly we moved him into the midfield where he could gain more confidence. Now we are playing him in his position in a more advanced role. It took some careful planning to make sure that he would make it.
“Everyone has helped with every detail to make sure that he can do it.”
Progress in the academy
The planning began in Birmingham’s academy.
Bellingham joined the club’s U8 setup and while there have already been opportunities to leave – with interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs – Birmingham have been able to make great play of the pathway that they provide their academy players.
When Bellingham became the club’s youngest ever player against Portsmouth in August, breaking Trevor Francis’ record, he was just one of 13 academy players in the squad.
- Hear Bellingham discussed on the latest Sky Sports EFL Podcast
- Download here to listen to it later!
- Subscribe via iTunes | Castbox | Spotify
Speaking to Birmingham’s academy manager Kristjaan Speakman last season, he discussed the challenge that a Championship club faces in trying to persuade players to choose Birmingham when they have so many other options. Opportunity is everything.
“You can see it at the moment with the number of boys who are deciding to go to European clubs,” Speakman told Sky Sports. “We felt that was something that has been on the horizon for a number of years and we have used that to argue that coming to Birmingham over someone else may give you a better opportunity of reaching your dream.
“We always centre it on that. We are not in a position where we can offer the financial rewards of some of the big Premier League clubs. But what we can do is take that young boy who dreams of playing in the team and help him see that dream through. There are not many academies around the country that have been able to do that.”
There is no doubt that Bellingham was given his chance earlier than most. He had only just turned 16 when he made that debut at Fratton Park. He is the youngest player to feature in either of the top two leagues in English football and does not turn 17 until the summer.
These have not been token minutes either. There have already been more than 1500 of them in the Championship this season. As Clotet pointed out, Bellingham has had more than a taste of the action. He has emerged as an important player in the Birmingham team.
“Now the fans have one of their own on the pitch and I think there is nothing better than seeing a player who has been developed completely at your club make it through to the first team. And making it properly too because it is very easy to give minutes to young players. Playing them when you are sure they are going to make it is different.”
Emphasis on development
Perhaps Bellingham’s early breakthrough can be seen as inevitable but it also reflects Birmingham’s more open-minded approach to development. He has not been held back.
Speaking to Stuart English, the club’s head of coaching, he had an interesting analogy to explain their attitude to player development – one centred on the needs of the individual.
“In the past with coaching, it was too easy to treat everyone the same,” English told Sky Sports. “We talk about a motorway. We are all going in the same direction but there are four lanes in this motorway going at different speeds.”
Bellingham is in the fast lane but there have still been attempts to ensure that he has been provided with a more rounded experience. His education remained a focal point long after a career in football became an inevitability because of his obvious talent.
A student at Priory School in Edgbaston, he has continued with his BTEC programme and even took on an additional sociology A Level in his own time. There have been charity initiatives in Kenya to keep him busy too. Mark Sinclair, Birmingham’s head of education and player care, has described him as an “excellent role model” for others.
It all fits with Birmingham’s ethos.
“We have a huge emphasis on education,” Speakman told Sky Sports.
“If a parent is bringing a talented young boy into our programme and they are passionate about him having a brilliant football education but they don’t want it impacting on his academic education then they might find our model is really good. We might be able to recruit someone over a category one club because of that.
“Being a category two club you are more susceptible but we have not found that to be a massive negative. Some of our audit scores for coaching have been the best around.”
Allowing talent to thrive
English believes that one of the key aspects of a good coaching programme is not getting in the way of talent. Providing information is important, of course. But only by encouraging freedom of expression can young players really begin to fulfil their potential.
“We have a lot of highly talented players, but we need to keep improving to ensure that, as coaches, we are not harming them or stifling their creativity by putting them in a box.
“That’s my biggest gripe.
“The players who stand out are generally the ones who can do something different or find their way out of a situation that they should not be able to find their way out of. More often than not, that isn’t something they have been taught, it’s something that they have been encouraged to figure out for themselves rather than told how to do it.”
There is no doubt that Bellingham has the intelligence to do that. The question now is whether he is already prepared to take the next step in his development.