It was a stark reminder of just how young the player who now looks likely to fill Jordan Henderson’s boots at this tournament actually is. ‘I have to talk to his dad in order to talk to him, on a child protection basis,’ said Gareth Southgate. ‘Yet he is a first-team player who is playing at a massive club in Europe.’
If the England manager wants to have a quiet chat with Jude Bellingham, he will need parental permission, at least until halfway through the tournament, on June 28, when he turns 18.
England have had teen stars before: Michael Owen was 18 when he scored the goal of the tournament at France 98 and Wayne Rooney also 18 when he shone in Euro 2004.
Jude Bellingham is in contention to start England’s opening game against Croatia at Wembley
Bellingham became England’s youngest starter in their warm-up victory against Austria
But Bellingham, at 17, is technically a child. And while Rooney, one of Bellingham’s heroes, and Owen play in forward positions, where speed, finishing and impulsivity are all vital and favour youth, Bellingham is a key cog in midfield, where cerebral qualities and experience are important.
He’s unlikely to feature against Romania. On Saturday he remained indoors training to manage his load. Yet last week against Austria he barely put a foot wrong and is in contention to start against Croatia next Sunday at Wembley in England’s opening Euro game. If he does, he will be England’s youngest-ever player in a tournament at 17 years and 349 days.
It came as no surprise to those who watch him regularly and therein lies another difference from the Owen-Rooney phenomena. They were teen stars whose every move in England was magnified by media; Bellingham’s progress is under the radar to many, quietly bossing midfield at Borussia Dortmund, having taken the same route Jadon Sancho chose and deciding playing time was more important than the Premier League riches.
‘Week in, week out he gets the responsibility to run the game for a team which was in the quarter-finals of the Champions League,’ said Jan Age Fjortoft, the former Middlesbrough striker and now Norwegian TV journalist who watches Dortmund every week. ‘It’s rare that the team accepts that.’
Bellingham and Sancho were key to Dortmund’s German Cup win this season and their qualification for the Champions League. English viewers will have doubtless seen him shining in their Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City.
‘This is a 17-year-old, come from Birmingham, into Dortmund, where they want to challenge for the title and the Champions League and they give him that responsibility,’ said Fjortoft.
‘On the football pitch, it’s nothing to do with age or whatever. He’s fully accepted at Dortmund. In his position he can go as far possible, he can go all the way. The position Jude is playing, he can run the game from there.
Bellingham pictured with Birmingham City legend Trevor Francis when he was a kid
Bellingham has impressed since joining Borussia Dortmund from boyhood Birmingham City
‘In Germany they use numbers to define players, he’s a No 6 or a No 8 or a No 10. And the good thing about Jude is he can play in any of these positions, he has an overview of the play, he can play behind the strikers. He is so versatile.’
Indeed, though he is No26 in this squad, when he initially joined up with England he was No22, his Dortmund number chosen because it is the sum total of No4 + No8 + No10. ‘One my old Birmingham coaches, Mike Dodds, he always challenged me with it,’ Bellingham told the FA website.
‘You’re good at 10, you’re good at 8 but how many midfielders, especially English ones, can do all three [and play at No4 as well]. I don’t want to see you do just one when have the attributes to do it all.”
So I took that with me and will hopefully carry it all the way through my career.’ That said, given a choice he would play No8. ‘I like tackling and getting stuck in. With the No8, you can dictate play and be involved in everything.’
Bellingham’s maturity stands out. Leaving England at aged 16 to join Dortmund would have been a challenge at the best of times. During Covid it has meant being apart from his dad, Mark, and brother, Jobe, 15, who is still with Birmingham. Mark is a police officer and a striker in non-League, scoring more than 700 goals for Leamington, Stourbridge and Halesowen Town. His mother, Denise, shares an apartment with Jude in Dortmund, in his words, ‘keeping me grounded’.
Southgate was impressed when watching how he interacted with fans at Birmingham as a 16-year-old. ‘I couldn’t believe some of his interactions with the fans there, at the age of 16, 17,’ said the England manager.
‘Not many players have the confidence to go and get the fans going and get them roaring behind the team when they’ve just scored and that was significant in showing the level of his thinking and his comfort in going and putting himself out there to do that.
His progress at Dortmund has been faster than expected and he has warranted his call-up
‘I’m very, very impressed. We’ve got to make sure that we look after him, that we help with that education and help with that development. We’ve got to protect him at the right times but he’s going about it in the right manner.’
For Bellingham it just seems to come naturally. He loves Birmingham City, looks for their results first on a Saturday, with Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish winding him up on Instagram this week about his loves of the Blues. ‘Coming through the ranks and into the first team, you’re one of their own, a fans’ favourite and you carry the expectations of the city, or the blue half, on your back,’ said Bellingham. ‘I loved every second of it.’ This is not a teenager shirking challenges.
‘I couldn’t be more impressed with him as a human being,’ said Southgate.
‘His parents have done a fantastic job. He’s got humility, good manners, confidence and a lovely way about him. I’d say he’s further advanced [as a person] than his football even.’
Southgate’s England are big on the lineage of their national team history. So when a player starts his first game, he is presented with his cap, often by an England legend. With Covid restrictions that was not possible for Bellingham, who was starting his first game against Austria last Wednesday.
So Henderson stepped in, made the speech and handed Bellingham his cap in a dressing room ceremony. The Liverpool captain, the most experienced player with 58 caps, was the obvious choice, one No8 to another.
Yet Bellingham may be stepping into those shoes as early as next weekend.
Jordan Henderson handed Bellingham his cap and the youngster could fill in for the veteran