How ‘special’ Bellingham made Birmingham manager ignore senior players ahead of European double

Alex Spink
Jude Bellingham at Birmingham, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid
Jude Bellingham could soon be a European champion

Jude Bellingham could have a brilliant summer ahead of him with Real Madrid and England. Birmingham ‘played a part in the birth’ of a ‘special’ player.


December 2019. Birmingham City can’t buy a win and the manager calls a meeting of his team captains. Subject: Jude Bellingham.

Bellingham is 16 years old yet Pep Clotet, City’s Spanish manager, has something he wants his senior players to hear.

“We are in the middle of a bad run but we’re doing something really important here,” he tells his invited audience. “We are all part of the beginning of a fantastic player.

In the future it will be fantastic for you to have played a part in the birth of Jude Bellingham because he’s going to be special.

Clotet is telling the story on a bright evening in Barcelona two days before Bellingham’s Real Madrid take on Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Not everyone in the Catalan capital is going to be tuning in for that one given the enmity between Spain’s two biggest cities but Clotet, 47, won’t miss it.

“The captains thought Jude was too young to have a big role in the team,” he continues. “But I think I made them all see beyond that.”

Bellingham had already ousted Trevor Francis as Birmingham’s youngest first-team player and become their youngest goalscorer with the winner on his home debut against Stoke. After the meeting, the Blues would go 10 Championship matches unbeaten.

“I didn’t want to push him too hard too early because I wanted to make sure he made it,” says Clotet. “But Jude proved to everyone, me firstly, that he was ready for more and more.”

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Within months he was named EFL Young Player of the Season, completed a big money move to Dortmund and had his number 22 shirt ‘retired’ at St Andrews.

“Bundesliga player of the season last year, La Liga’s best this season, it’s an incredible story,” says Clotet. “And now this final, his old team against his new.

“His development has been massive but do you know, I always thought we would see his maximum potential once he found a club where the goal and aim is to win every game. I always thought there was no roof on his talent and Madrid has provided him with the stage to show that.”

Bellingham’s football is only one source of pride for a man who has worked in Spain, Sweden, Norway, Italy and Russia, as well as at Swansea, Leeds and Oxford.

“When I message him, speak or meet with him now, I still see the Jude that he was,” Clotet says. “He hasn’t changed a bit. I still see the same person.

“The fact he is a fantastic footballer doesn’t surprise me because he’s become the player he had to become. What is great is that it has not altered him.

“He still values the things he valued before. He’s still in touch with his old team mates. I can tell you those qualities are very much appreciated in Spain.

“Jude is under a massive spotlight at Madrid but he not only comes across as a wonderful player but someone who loves the club he’s at, who feels the history and honour of wearing the shirt, has a good relationship with the media and transmits the values of Real.

“He’s mature and humble, still wanting to learn, though there’s a moment soon I think he can even teach because, in my opinion, he is one of the most complete players in football today.”

Clotet expects the Spanish champions to land a 15th European Cup as “even their kit man has won more Champion Leagues than the everyone at Borussia!”.

He adds: “Madrid are so used to playing finals, to competing on this stage. They know how hard it is, at what point they have to focus. I don’t think we’ll see a nervous Real, but a very focused one.

“That makes them a difficult team to beat and Jude is a big reason I don’t see it happening. When Karim Benzema left so suddenly last summer it was a shock to Real losing one of the best strikers in the game. He left a big hole.

“But Jude came in and filled it with his goals and assists (23 and 12 respectively in all competitions). The bigger occasion the better he responds.”

Which begs the obvious question of what this shooting star from Stourbridge might achieve in an England shirt at the upcoming Euros.

“The next step for Jude is to transfer his Madrid performances, that mentality, into the national team,” says Clotet. “With the help of his team mates I think we’ll then see another dimension to England’s play.

“Championships are difficult to predict but I’ve been following Jude in the league here in Spain and he’s been becoming unstoppable for Spanish teams.

“That presence, in the Euros, has even more value. England of course have the ability to win it. They should definitely be looking to reach the final. That would be a fantastic achievement.”

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