• Sáb. Jul 13th, 2024

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Jude Bellingham’s pathway to glory: An England star from the age of 14

Jude Bellingham’s pathway to glory: An England star from the age of 14

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Jude Bellingham turns 21 on June 29, and if England win their group at the European Championship, he will be in line to play in their last-16 tie in Gelsenkirchen the following day. If England do play in that match and he is selected, it will be his fourth appearance in a senior tournament knockout tie, in his third major international competition.


That rise is largely down to Bellingham’s unique talents and character, which would have flourished in any environment. But he is also perhaps the greatest example of the success of ‘England DNA’, a set of policies introduced to ensure that young players could step into the England senior team and never look back.

From Bellingham’s first involvement with the England setup at age 13, he followed a new pathway designed almost specifically for players like him, giving him experiences geared towards major tournaments.

It all comes back to decisions made by Dan Ashworth and Southgate, then manager of England Under-21s, more than a decade ago.

When Ashworth took over as the Football Association’s director of elite development in September 2012, his goal was to better equip young players for the demands of senior international football. Ashworth had studied successful national teams, and how easy it was for their youngsters to transition into the senior ranks.

What stood out was the quantity and quality of age-group international football those players had played, making for the smoothest transition possible into the seniors. He wanted to replicate that.

So in December 2014, six months on from England’s embarrassingly early elimination from the World Cup in Brazil after two of their three group games, Ashworth, Southgate and the FA’s head of player and coach development Matt Crocker launched ‘England DNA’, the principles that would be a ‘golden thread’ between England teams of all levels. This would be a new pathway for England players to follow, they explained, from their mid-teens through to the senior side. “The only thing that changes,” as Ashworth liked to say, “is the size of the shirt.”

Crocker, Southgate and Ashworth, right, announce ‘England DNA’ in 2014 (The FA/Getty Images)

This started with the creation of a new England Under-15s side. The pathway had started at under-16s level but Ashworth and his team wanted to go one year earlier, so players could get extra international experience before competing in Under-17 European Championships.

It was a big job creating this group.


The FA’s scouts would find the 75 best under-15 players in the summer, who would then train at Loughborough University in the East Midlands in three groups of 25. Just over a third of these would be released and the rest would go to St George’s Park, England’s main training base, in October in two groups of 20. Then they would come back in December as a squad of 20 to play their first game as England Under-15s. All of this was to happen under the watchful eyes of Ashworth and Southgate.

This was just the start of the process that helped set Bellingham on the path to becoming one of England’s most talented and exciting players in a generation — perhaps ever.

In the summer of 2016, the FA was putting together its next under-15s group and it decided to try something new.

England’s outstanding under-14s were pulled into the process, pushing them one year ahead to see how they would fare. There were four names in particular they wanted to try: Chelsea’s Jamal Musiala, Karamoko Dembele of leading Scottish side Celtic, West Ham United’s Amadou Diallo, and a 13-year-old from Birmingham City named Jude Bellingham.

Even then, Bellingham was no secret to the FA’s scouts. Its head of talent identification for youth development, Daniel Dodds, had been watching Bellingham since he was an under-six. He suggested to Kevin Betsy, the FA’s new under-15s coach, that he should go to see him play for Birmingham’s youth sides. And even as one of the smaller players on the pitch, he stood out to the coaches for his vision, awareness and ball manipulation skills.

The biggest test would be how Bellingham and the other 2003-born players would fare among the 2002-born generation (Cole Palmer et cetera). But he continued to flourish. In December 2016, this new cohort of England Under-15s played their first two games against their counterparts from Turkey at St George’s Park. Musiala, Dembele and Bellingham came off the bench in both games.

Bellingham’s international journey had begun.

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The following season, Palmer and the 2002 crop moved up to play at under-16s level but Bellingham and Musiala stayed for a second full year of under-15s football with Betsy’s group. One of Ashworth’s innovations was to keep the same cohort of players with the same coach as they progressed through the system, rather than having a new coach for every year group — just as a different England age group had flourished with Steve Cooper, winning the Under-17s World Cup in 2017.


It was all about integration and consistency. The FA staff knew that, of the 2003 generation, Bellingham and Musiala were the two standouts, youngsters who had the ability to make it into the senior side. They were roomed together, allowing them to build a bond of friendship and set a positive example for the rest of their generation.

The biggest change the FA introduced was who its teams played against.

When the under-15s side was set up, the FA wanted a broad set of opponents from around the world. So they would have double-headers against youngsters from Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands.

For example, in December 2017, a year after their under-15 debuts, Musiala and Bellingham combined in a 3-1 win over the Dutch. Musiala scored a hat-trick, with one of his goals set up by Bellingham.

Betsy coached England at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level (David Davies/Getty Images)

Then in April of the under-15 year, they would go off for their first international tournament — the Torneo delle Nazioni held in Italy.

It was a high-quality competition with a better range of opponents — the hosts, Mexico, Japan, Portugal, the United States — than England would normally face, and it was intense, with five games in a short space of time, and penalty shootouts, precisely the sort of experience the FA was keen to offer its players. “One of the biggest issues we had was that what the clubs were providing was better than what the national team was providing,” Richard Allen, by then the FA’s head of talent ID. “We had to up our game.”

But there was an issue. Bellingham was coming back from an injury. The England coaches were in regular contact with Birmingham about how best to manage his workload, but there was no doubt that he had to go. “It was never in question not to take him,” Betsy says. “For Jude to experience a tournament abroad with England was a big thing.

“It didn’t matter if Jude came on the trip and only played 20 or 30 minutes. It was a case of, ‘What’s the long-term plan for him? He needs to be on the trip’.”


It was all about familiarising Bellingham and his team-mates with international tournament football. While many competitions came into the schedule, some had to go, which is why England withdrew from the all-British Victory Shield in 2015.

It used to be that England Under-16s players would start their competitive international career facing Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in an autumn round-robin, shown live in the UK on Sky Sports. But when Ashworth and his team were revamping the programme, they decided to pull out. “We were very concerned about the first time you played for England, you’re making your debut on Sky against teams who just wanted to kick lumps out of you,” Allen explains. “It was about going into more meaningful competitions.”

There were plenty of those to come in Bellingham’s year with England Under-16s. But that period was also hugely important in terms of his individual development.

The England coaches knew there was only so much that they could do on the training pitch in the limited time available to them. So part of the new England programme was working on leadership skills. Allen describes it as a “complete revolution” of what coaches would do with young players, focusing on independent learning and players owning their own development.

The days of coaches simply sitting the players in a classroom and talking to them about tactics were over. Instead, players were asked to lead meetings instead.

“We wanted to develop more leaders within the pathway,” Betsy says. “We gave them the opportunity to communicate with their peers.”

After every game, the players would be put into meetings where they would divide into groups to analyse aspects of England’s performance and then present the results to the squad. Bellingham shone in this environment as much as he did on the pitch.


“Jude was always challenged to speak and communicate in front of the group, he was excellent at that,” Betsy says. “He was a leader, even at a young age.”

Richie Kyle was one of the coaches along with Betsy and remembers Bellingham in the same way: “Jude would just stand up with a piece of paper and say, ‘We didn’t do that well’, ‘We should have done that better’; it was unbelievable, how confident and aware he was of the game. It was ridiculous how confident he was in the classroom. All of the group looked up to him because of it.”

But then Bellingham was always preternaturally mature, from the moment he joined the England system. He acted well beyond his years, cleaning up other players’ plates and cups after team meals, and extending a welcome to any new boys joining the group. Betsy and Kyle highlighted how Bellingham’s maturity is a testament to the work of his parents in raising him.

“The biggest thing was the sheer confidence that I’ve never seen in a 16-year-old before,” Kyle says. “It was like speaking to an adult, every time you spoke to him. The way he treated staff, with a confidence someone in their mid-twenties would have. You felt he could sit and have lunch with you and talk about life. He was the most mature lad in the group by a country mile.”

So it was no surprise that Bellingham wore the captain’s armband on his England Under-16s debut, the first of two away friendlies against Croatia in July 2018. Over the season, captaincy rotated between a few of the group’s senior players, but it was always clear that Bellingham was the leader of the pack.

Bellingham wore the England captain’s armband for the first time aged 15 (Jamal Musiala/Instagram)

The focus on individual development also extended to where Bellingham played on the pitch.

The issue was that he was so implausibly good that he could excel in any role in midfield. When Birmingham gave him the No 22 shirt, it was because he could play as a No 10, a No 8 or a No 4 (the position now generally known as a No 6). His preference might have been as the No 10, but Birmingham wanted to give him broader horizons than that —and so did England.


FA staff were keen not to pigeon-hole players, but they also wanted to give players experience in positions where there was a clear pathway up to the senior team.

For example, this is why Bukayo Saka played left-back for England Under-15s and Under-16s, before it became clear his future would be in the forward line. The coaches felt there might be more opportunities for Bellingham with the full England side in either the No 6 or No 8 role, rather than as a No 10.

He was deployed in almost every possible midfield position in almost every formation. “We didn’t play him in the higher positions as often as he would have liked,” Betsy says. “We thought to mix his positions sometimes would be better for his long-term development.” Bellingham didn’t score in his eight appearances for England Under-15s and Betsy says that it “played on his mind a little bit”. But eventually, the goals started to flow.

After those Croatia friendlies in the July, England Under-16s won a UEFA Development Tournament at St George’s Park in August, beating Scotland and Turkey — Bellingham’s first taste of international silverware.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jude Bellingham (@judebellingham)

There was more to come in the October, when England went to France for the Val-de-Marne tournament, a four-team round-robin held in the Paris suburbs every autumn. This was precisely the sort of prestigious competition Ashworth and company wanted England to focus on. They only started entering it in 2015.

England began against the hosts — the France side featured future Manchester United signing Hannibal Mejbri — and within eight minutes, captain Bellingham had put them ahead, bursting into the six-yard box to convert a Musiala cross from the left. Goals from Charlie Patino and Louie Barry helped secure a 3-1 win. Two days later, England also beat Austria 4-2 and they finished with a 4-1 defeat of Japan.


It was a significant moment for the 15-year-old.

The FA knew Bellingham’s club career at Birmingham meant that he did not have the same experience of routinely winning youth trophies someone from, say, the Manchester City or Chelsea academy would have. Its staff were determined to provide him with opportunities he might not have in the club game.

“There were certain tournaments that we would highlight and say, ‘Jude is going to be captain for his own development and experience’,” Betsy says. “He’d never won a (club) trophy at youth level. For Jude to experience it at England Under-16s or -17s as captain, that’s an important achievement for him.”

Next up for Bellingham was another UEFA Development Tournament at St George’s Park, this time in February 2019. Again there was a high standard of invited opposition. England beat Norway 2-1 and France 4-0, then drew 2-2 with Brazil, in front of a watching Southgate — but the big prize was in the April, a return to France to compete in the Tournoi de Montaigu, another prestigious competing pitting England’s youngsters against the best in the world.

England started against Argentina, losing 2-1, missing a last-minute penalty that would have rescued a draw, then beat Ivory Coast 5-0 and Portugal 3-1. Bellingham was fantastic in the latter, seizing control of the game, and scoring England’s second, wrong-footing a defender and finishing powerfully with his left foot.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jude Bellingham (@judebellingham)

That opening defeat to Argentina meant that England did not reach the final. But they did face Brazil in the third-place play-off, where they produced their finest performance yet. They dominated from minute one, and Brazil grew so frustrated they had two players sent off. England won 4-0, Bellingham laying on goals for Dembele (with a perfect outside-of-the-boot pass) and then Musiala.

“That was a game where, technically, the group was at a really high level,” Betsy says. “We knew how to manage the game against Brazil. Historically, they have the ball, but it was the other way around with that group. It was a fantastic team performance, probably one of the standout games that the group put together.”


Bellingham was already the leader of that squad and a brilliant midfielder. But across his under-16s season, he added something else to take his game to the next level: he started to grow.

Physicality was not part of his game until late and, in his first few years in the England setup, he was not as strong as many of his peers. “He was a late developer, physically,” Betsy says. “Smaller than a lot of the other players in height, with no power or strength in his body yet. He didn’t start growing physically until late in his under-16s year.”

By the start of the 2019-20 season, having just turned 16, Bellingham was readier than ever for men’s football.

Then manager Pep Clotet brought him into the Birmingham first team, and he made his senior debut in a Carabao Cup tie away against Portsmouth in the August. For England, he started that season with the under-17s. They were scheduled to have their European Championship in Estonia the following May.

Preparation for the tournament began in Poland. England entered the Syrenka Cup, an annual tournament that had been running since 1986. Their first game was against Finland, and Bellingham scored in a 5-0 win. Then it was Austria in the semi-finals, and he scored again in a 4-2 victory. And then it was Poland in the final: a 2-2 draw, after which England won 3-1 on penalties.

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A post shared by Jude Bellingham (@judebellingham)

England had been working hard on their penalties for years, making sure to take them after every international fixture, whatever the result, just to replicate that feeling of taking a penalty by yourself with the rest of the team arm-in-arm on the halfway line behind you.

Even then, Bellingham stood out for how he would run over to team-mates to comfort them if they missed, just as he did when Harry Kane missed against France late in the 2-1 defeat in the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals. And that September day on the outskirts of Warsaw, Bellingham’s England won the shootout and won the cup.


Just before that, he was presented with a shirt that had ‘THE BEST PLAYER’ on the back, to mark out his exceptional performances over the week. “Jude was the best player on the pitch by a country mile,” says Kyle of that tournament. “He was better, stronger and quicker than everyone else. At that level, at that age, you stand out like a sore thumb.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and the global lockdown meant that European Under-17 Championship in May 2020 never happened. So the Syrenka Cup was Bellingham’s last time playing for Betsy and with that age group.

The following season, he was briefly promoted to Aidy Boothroyd’s under-21s, becoming their youngest ever player in the September at 17. He made four appearances before being fast-tracked to the seniors in the November, making his debut off the bench against the Republic of Ireland.

He was playing for Southgate and being readied for the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 the following summer, which would be his first major international tournament at any level. But he had been preparing for life in the England senior side, working towards a place in Southgate’s team, since he was just 13.

(Top photos: Getty Images, Instagram)