Jude Bellingham’s first manager Pep Clotet explains to Sky Sports News the teen’s incredible 15-month journey from his Birmingham debut to first England call-up.
Bellingham could become England’s third-youngest player if he features across the international break, having been called up to replace James Ward-Prowse ahead of their games with the Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland.
His debut would come barely 15 months after he made his first senior appearance, against League One side Portsmouth, in a Carabao Cup game wearing the shirt of his boyhood club Birmingham City, and in the process becoming the youngest player in the club’s history.
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His route to the first team had been impressively fast, but no great surprise to his then-manager Pep Clotet, who was first taken aback by the quality of the midfielder while watching him feature for the club’s academy a year earlier.
Bellingham was immediately moved up to the club’s U23 side where, in what was no huge surprise, he scored on his debut and continued to excel, before soon beginning to attract attention from further afield.
Still six months from his first-team bow, his name first entered the public eye when was featured in FourFourTwo‘s ’50 most exciting teenagers in English football’ in February 2019, but inside St Andrew’s, there had long been excitement about his huge potential.
“From the first time I saw him for the U18s, straight away you could see he had an incredible talent on him,” Clotet told Sky Sports News. “You could see he was a huge complete player already, and obviously his level and talent was above the level he was playing.
“I wanted to test his skill, and his level, higher up the ranks, so when he started to train with the U23s you could see he was performing in the same way as when he was in the younger age groups.”
Temperament beyond his years
Weeks after Bellingham became the latest England-born prospect to sign for one of Europe’s biggest teams, Borussia Dortmund, earlier this year, head coach Lucien Favre would say: “With someone like Jude Bellingham, I don’t look at the date of birth.”
Barely 12 months earlier, only one question mark remained over the teenager’s talent – how would he handle the mental and physical pressures of the senior game?
Succeeding in U23s football was one thing, but England’s Professional Development Leagues have long been tainted by accusations of being uncompetitive and a pale imitation of ‘men’s football’.
Clotet, still conscious Bellingham had barely finished his GCSEs, was nonetheless keen to see how this undoubted talent would hold up against players bigger, older, and wilier than the 16-year-old – especially given the club’s off-field issues and transfer funds at a premium.
That would have to mean exposure to the professional game, and within weeks of signing a two-year scholarship in July 2019, he was on the plane to Portugal as part of Birmingham’s pre-season training camp.
“As soon as he started to train with us in the first team, and when he properly joined us for pre-season last season, he was very quick to mix with the professionals and train at their level and he physically adapted very, very quick,” Clotet said.
“He was able to perform with the talent he had alongside the physical demands as a professional. You could see straight away he was going to be a big player.
“I never hesitated on giving him a debut, or pushing his career forward, because I thought he was ready. When he made his debut in the League Cup against Portsmouth, it was a chance to test him against a League One side in a competitive game, and he was up to the level.
“He was one of the most important players in our team on that day and he performed very, very well.”
Bellingham was introduced to the St Andrew’s crowd only weeks later as a first-half substitute in their Championship game with Stoke – and ended a matchwinner after netting Birmingham’s second in a 2-1 win.
“You could never think he would come through that quickly,” said Clotet. “But I always had in my mind he would become one of the first-teamers, and help us not only to perform on the pitch but also become a very strong player for linking a very divided club at that moment.
“I’m happy that this vision happened, you need a little bit of luck as well, but it all went like that and it helped to have one of the best seasons for Birmingham because it’s not easy in the circumstances that team had to bed in a player of such a huge talent that is able to achieve now what he is achieving.
“That was my vision, and what I saw could happen, I saw it in him.”
Where would he fit in best?
England have largely deployed a 3-4-3 formation since the start of this season, often with two defensively minded midfielders in the middle of the park.
Bellingham played a large part of his one senior season at Birmingham, before moving onto join Borussia Dortmund last summer, as part of a two – but Clotet feels a 4-3-3 would best suit his undoubted talent, which has seen him since become the German club’s youngest ever goalscorer – and perhaps this week, one of England’s most youthful debutants.
Clotet said: “In my opinion, his best position is in a 4-3-3 as an offensive midfielder. He feels very comfortable offensively, in a position he’s able to attack the box, but you must ensure as a manager he has the freedom.
“He has a very good skill in hiding his movement so can get out of situations and find his way into a shot or cross.
“When a player drives the ball forward, he is normally very focused on the ball but Jude gets out of space. He’s able to see what’s around him, without the need to be constantly watching what’s happening on the ball because his skill is massive.”
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