THERE can’t have been many better places to watch Jude Bellingham’s emergence as a World Cup star than the canteen at Birmingham City’s training ground.
At the club where England’s new midfield sensation started his career — and with some of the players who helped to mould him.
Myself and the rest of the Blues players had just finished our first day back at work after a nine-day break when England kicked off their campaign against Iran on Monday.
Although I’m a lifelong Bluenose, I didn’t join the club until after Jude left but it was an education to listen to those lads who knew him well, talking about his development.
I was watching the game with senior pros like Harlee Dean and Lukas Jutkiewicz, who played alongside young Jude during his one full season as a first-teamer at St Andrew’s.
And when Bellingham powered home that header to open the scoring and went on to produce a phenomenal all-round performance, there wasn’t a hint of surprise from any of those players who knew Jude well.
They did not just think Bellingham was going to be good, they simply KNEW he was going to be great.
This was a kid who used to train with the first team either side of school lessons.
At the age of 15, he was making hard-nosed professionals look stupid with his talent in training.
He’d routinely take the p*** out of them in a way that few kids would get away with — and then casually say, ‘Right, back to school . . . I’ve got science next’.
But there was something about young Jude’s character that meant those senior pros did not resent him being the best player in training before he’d even made his first-team debut.
There was a humility, an intelligence, a respect and a thirst for knowledge which made him stand out.
We’ve all seen very talented kids but talent is not enough. Even at 15 or 16, this boy had an incredible maturity.
When Jude won a thunderous tackle en route to England’s sixth goal — finished off by another Brummie, Jack Grealish — there were a few comments in the Blues canteen about that.
Jude was always going to win that 50-50 challenge because he’d played in a struggling team in a relegation battle.
And some of those players around me had told him in no uncertain terms that you win every tackle or you won’t be in the team next week — and that this club could have been relegated to League One.
Guys like Harlee and Lukas helped to make Jude the player he is.
He has got more natural talent than any of us, of course.
But without that remarkable will-to-win, instilled in him at Birmingham, he would not have bulldozed his way into the England starting line-up the way he has done.
One of the few Blues players who wasn’t watching the Iran match at the training ground was Jude’s younger brother Jobe, who’d gone straight home after training to watch with his family.
Jobe has come off the bench in the majority of our matches this season and made his first start against Sunderland recently.
He has a similar stature to his brother — he’s only just turned 17 and he’s 6ft 3in and still developing physically.
Jobe is very proud of Jude but he has his own journey ahead.
For me, as his captain, and the rest of the team, we go out of our way not to mention Jude too much. Jobe’s got to be his own man and I believe he will be a very fine player.
On Monday, I was in the canteen, while some of my team-mates were in the gym watching and their TV screen was a few seconds ahead of ours — so they all erupted before we’d actually seen Jude’s header go in.
At the moment, though, it felt as if the shackles had come off for Jude as an England player.
It was his first goal for his country, and the first goal of England’s campaign in Qatar.
He just seemed to say, ‘Right, I’ve arrived’ and he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck.
One of my team-mates said Jude’s goal reminded him of Michael Owen scoring against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup — one of those ‘wow’ moments when a young player announces himself.
I disagreed. I think it will be more significant than that. Owen was a wonderful player as a youngster, a Ballon d’Or winner no less, but once he started having hamstring injuries, he was never quite the same player.
Jude is going to be England’s main man for a decade or more.
Because he is playing for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, there’s been an element of Jude travelling under the radar with a lot of England fans.
But this season, he has developed into a proper goalscoring box-to-box midfielder, scoring nine times for Dortmund.
When Jude leaves Dortmund, quite possibly next summer, most of the world’s biggest clubs are going to be interested and, for me, the bidding can start at £150million.
He is in the Kylian Mbappe bracket — as good as that.
You might remember that when Jude left Birmingham for Dortmund in 2020, the club retired his No 22 shirt.
Many scoffed at that, and I thought, ‘Hang on, that’s a bit much’.
But then I wasn’t at the club when Jude was emerging.
Those who were there just knew how special he was going to be.
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