Playing with Jude Bellingham: 'He's probably the best in the world. It's mad'


Stockport County were inching closer to the League Two title in April and had just edged out AFC Wimbledon when match-winner Odin Bailey took to Instagram to post a photo of his celebration.

There was a notable reply beneath.

“Been seeing that finish hit that top bin for yearssss man,” it read. It was posted by Real Madrid and England star Jude Bellingham, who emerged from the same youth ranks at Birmingham City as Bailey.

Bellingham may have become one of the rising stars of the world game, winning La Liga and the Champions League with Madrid last season, but he hasn’t forgotten where it all began and who has been on the journey with him.

In fact, Bailey and fellow former Birmingham graduate Geraldo Bajrami, who will play for Burton Albion in League One next season, were special guests of Bellingham’s at Madrid’s final home league game of the season against Real Betis on May 25.

Bellingham has remained in touch with other former team-mates from the Birmingham academy. They have watched him break into Birmingham City’s first team at the age 16, join Borussia Dortmund at 17, and win two trophies in his debut season at Real Madrid after an initial €103million (£87m) move to La Liga’s champions.

At Euro 2024, he has twice inspired England with crucial goals: the winner against Serbia in their opening group game and a sure-to-be iconic injury-time overhead kick against Slovakia — although the lewd gesture he made afterwards may land him in hot water with UEFA.

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Bellingham’s former team-mates may not have gone on to reach the heights that he has, but they all shared the experience of learning the game alongside one of football’s world stars.

Defender Kade Craig, who now plays for Solihull Moors in the National League (fifth tier), joined Birmingham from Wolverhampton Wanderers when he was 15 and knew all about Bellingham’s growing reputation.

“I don’t think I ever played against him when I was at Wolves or anything like that but you always heard about him, heard his name floating around that he was a good player,” Craig tells The Athletic.

“When I joined (Birmingham) as an under-15, he was injured, so he was doing his rehabilitation. He was slight — very small and skinny — and then throughout the under-15s and under-16s, he just grew from one of the smallest to one of the biggest in the group.

“He put on a lot of muscle. Blues did a lot of gym work with him and went the extra mile to really help his physical development. He went in the right direction after that.

“It was as soon as I came in: you could see the way the club acted around him that they had high hopes for him.”

Jude Bellingham, Birmingham


Bellingham with Bailey (left) and Bajrami (right) at Birmingham in 2019 (Richard Sellers/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images)

To aid Bellingham’s development, the coaches at Birmingham would often play him in a higher age group. He played for the under-18s when he was 14 and the under-23s at 15.

Ryan Stirk, who joined Birmingham when he was 10 and now plays for Walsall in League Two, also remembers Bellingham as small in stature but big on talent.

“He was younger and he would always play three or four age groups up — but he was good and we knew he was good,” Stirk tells The Athletic. “He was quite small, but you could see he was technically miles ahead of a lot of the lads. In the under-23s, I felt like he played one game, came on and scored, and that was it. He went straight into the first team.”

Midfielder Aidan Finnegan remembers standing at Birmingham’s Wast Hills training ground with Bellingham and watching the first team train, the pair dreaming of the day they could join them. And in no time at all, 16-year-old Bellingham was in the squad.

“We would train on the pitches at the top tier, up the steps at Wast Hills and to your left, while the first team would train down the bottom,” recalls Finnegan, who now plays for Precision FC in Dubai.

“If we were training during the day when they were training, you’d see them around in the building, but we’d always try and watch the sessions. We would only catch the end bit of the session but we’d be watching just because we wanted to see what the first team were doing.

“Then Jude would be training with them. We wanted to know how Jude was getting on. Everyone was watching Jude. Firstly, because he was so good, but, secondly, because he was our mate as well. Ultimately, that was where we wanted to get to. It was great motivation for us.”

Bellingham, who joined Birmingham aged eight and became the youngest player to make his senior debut in August 2019, aged 16 years and 38 days — breaking club legend Trevor Francis’s record by 101 days — had stood out technically as he came through the age groups.

His team-mates recall a player supremely confident in his ability but down to earth away from the pitch. Yet Bellingham was a fierce competitor, even in training.

Jude Bellingham, Birmingham


Bellingham celebrates his first senior goal for Birmingham in August 2019 (Clint Hughes/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We got on but at the same time, it was a love-hate relationship,” recalls Craig. “Everyone else looked up to him, but because I hadn’t been there from an early age, he was someone I didn’t really know.

“We would get into each other during games but then we started to go on tours together as we got older, and stayed in the same room. Yes, he knew he was good and every top player has to have that self-confidence, but he is a humble lad too. That is probably why he has got so far: that self-belief.

“But he is a funny lad. At the age of 15 and 16, he was just like everyone else. A great player and high hopes for himself but in the room he was just like everyone else, playing blackjack, cards, Uno, PlayStation — just one of the lads.”

“When we were younger and we’d have to go and watch the under-18s or the under-23s, he would always be with us,” adds Finnegan.

“He was very confident in his ability on the pitch but he was so humble — and that is not just me saying that to make him sound good. It was stupid things, like when we were kids on the bus and we had sweets, he would be the first to share them.

“He was a good player and a good lad. When you see people like that doing well, it makes you feel good about yourself.”

Stirk recalls that even when Bellingham was promoted to Birmingham’s first-team squad, he was still present around the youth squads.

“He was still in our changing room because he was too young,” he says. “He would come in and even after he had scored for the first team, he would be in our dressing room for training. There was no special treatment.

“He is a great lad. He always just wanted to play football. He would have a laugh and joke with us in the changing room, but he was serious about his football and always wanted to win. I think you can see that even now. He just wanted to be the best player — and he was.”

Bellingham certainly stood out, and while that might have meant his team-mates could be overshadowed, they knew they had a match-winner in their ranks.

“We used to play in midfield together and it was good,” says Stirk, who make his first-team debut at Birmingham in May 2021. “He can do all of it. I used to just give him the ball and let him do his thing; give him the freedom to go and play. It was good to watch him grow as a player and a person.”

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Bellingham’s former team-mate Ryan Stirk (left) now plays for Walsall (Barrington Coombs/Getty Images)

“Obviously, you want to play with the best players growing up, and I was able to do that,” says Finnegan. “It was really good to go and play with him because you knew he could change a game. There are lots of memories, thinking back now, of games where they’ve been so close and he’s edged it for us. Whereas, without him, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get through the game.”

It wasn’t just at Birmingham that Bellingham was turning heads. He was even playing in higher-than-expected age groups for England.

“When he was going away with England, he was the best there,” says Craig. “He was skipper, so he must have been doing well there as well. He went a year up as well at England, along with Jamal Musiala (who played for England up until under-21 level). Everyone could see what he had, but the speed in which he has done it has surprised me.”

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When Bellingham joined Borussia Dortmund in 2020 for £25million, he became the most expensive 17-year-old in football history and now, at age 21, he has already won titles with Madrid. While his Birmingham team-mates knew he was destined for a good career, they have been taken aback by Bellingham’s rapid rise to the very top of the game.

“It’s unbelievable to see what he is doing,” says Finnegan. “I knew he was going to do well, but you don’t really think he’s going to do that well. You think of a club like Real Madrid, the size of it and what he has been doing there; he is a world-class player.”

“When I played with him in the under-16s, you could see he was leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else,” adds Craig. “I knew was going to be a top player but what has surprised me most is how quickly he’s done it.

“Credit to him because, every step he has taken, he’s gone in the right direction. He’s never let anything get to him or ever folded under the pressure. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s just carried on getting better and better.

“People always ask what it was like playing with him. To see someone you have played with achieve that, it makes me think ‘Why can’t I go and achieve more in my career?’. He gives me aspirations because he has achieved so much at a young age.”

Even his closest friend, Bailey, has admitted he has been surprised by the heights Bellingham has already reached.

“I think even as somebody that knows Jude personally and still keeps in contact with him and speaks to him quite a bit now, I would have never thought he would hit the heights that he has,” Bailey told the Keep Right On podcast.

“Honestly, it’s fair play to him because it’s not just the confidence but the self-belief that it takes to get to that level.

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Bellingham won La Liga and the Champions League in his first season at Real Madrid (Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

“It seems as if everything is so seamless for him, you know: his debut, his first goal, becoming a regular in the Championship to his move to Madrid via Dortmund,” adds Tate Campbell, who also came through the age groups and went to school with Bellingham.

“It just seems like naturally he takes it in his stride and I’d probably say that’s his biggest strength: not getting intimidated by the pressure.”

Bellingham may have left his former team-mates behind in terms of his stratospheric rise, but he has remained close to many of them. Now his former team-mates look on with a sense of pride to see their old friend scaling the heights of the game for club and country.

“It’s weird because I’ve known him since I was a kid and to see him on TV for England and Real Madrid is a bit surreal,” says Finnegan. “I just see him as a normal lad — which he is. I think that’s what he would want people to say about him as well.

“I don’t really see him as this massive superstar, just because I’ve grown up with him and had known him before he was that. It is just Jude doing well.”

“We could see that he was going to be a good player and to see what he’s done, it’s just mind-blowing,” adds Stirk. “I think about it: he’s probably the best in the world. It’s mad.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Jude Bellingham – who else?

(Top photo: Fabian Strauch/picture alliance via Getty Images))





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