The making of Jude Bellingham: boy with Ronaldo haircut who became face of Real Madrid

Estimated read time 18 min read

This week Jude Bellingham offered a glimpse into the mind of a phenomenon by quietly admitting he had envisaged these days, just maybe not so soon. Little did he know, at the start of his teens, that one week training on the outskirts of Barcelona and another at the foothills of the Black Forest would provide him with something of a peek into the future. Birmingham City recognised the boy who joined at seven from Stourbridge Juniors would benefit from fresh challenges, different plains. They wanted to take him out of his ever-evolving comfort zone, though that was somewhere he rarely stayed long.

Birmingham sent Bellingham on a kind of footballing school exchange, to Cornellà and Freiburg, teams in Spain and Germany with whom they had links, to give him a taste of European football. On Saturday Bellingham will play in the continent’s grandest club match, when Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, his current and former clubs, duel for the Champions League at Wembley. It is a long way from his colourful early days in Birmingham’s pre-academy that Mike Dodds, who coached Bellingham during his first and last training sessions at the club, well remembers.

Jude BellinghamView image in fullscreen

“He’s going to kill me for telling you these things,” Dodds says. There were the kits Bellingham wore to training – Barcelona, Brazil, Juventus (Zidane on the back) and, of course, Real Madrid – the plain Kipsta football boots and a haircut born in 2002 even though Bellingham came into the world a year later. “He used to have the Ronaldo ‘R9’ haircut, where he shaved his head and had that little tuft of hair at the front,” Dodds says of Bellingham mimicking the Brazilian who also won La Liga in his first season at the club. “You could say it was fate, maybe? He used to turn up in a different kit every training session – you name it, he had it. He bounced around like Tigger.”

Alongside that sense of fun came a self-belief that means Bellingham has always held himself to sky-high standards. Dodds recalls Birmingham’s under-15s losing in the semi-finals of a tournament in the Netherlands, where Bellingham’s words stick in his memory. “It went to penalties and Jude missed his,” says Dodds. “Jude stood up in front of all of the players and apologised, which for a 14-year-old boy I thought was really mature. He said something like: ‘Top players step up in the big moments and I haven’t done that.’”

At that point it was still a case of jumpers for goalposts, blazers v non-blazers during lunchtimes on the playing field at the Priory School in Edgbaston, mixing it with boys four years his senior, the age gap and his wiry frame an irrelevance. Bellingham juggled excelling in his GCSEs with breaking into Birmingham’s first team, arriving and departing training in uniform. “He’d tear us a new one and then wander off to school,” laughs David Stockdale, the goalkeeper who sometimes took Bellingham to training from the then family home near Bromsgrove. Stockdale kept Bellingham guessing, one day picking him up in a “bucket-list car”, the next a transit van. “He used to say: ‘Are you going to put your chauffeur hat on?’ … I’d tell him to get his work clothes on if I turned up in the van. We’d have a good laugh. He’d moan that somebody didn’t give him a free-kick in training. He was cheeky, but he’s never been flamboyant – that’s what gives him his special edge.”

Brazilian legend Ronaldo and his unusual haircut at the World Cup final in 2002.View image in fullscreen

Odin Bailey shared Bellingham’s journey into the first team and visited him in Madrid last weekend, taking in their draw against Real Betis. Bellingham paid for Bailey’s flights and hotel. Bailey, who plays for Stockport, recalls Bellingham’s name being on the lips of the under-14s after a session in which a 10-year-old Bellingham nutmegged him. It was a similar story at first-team training. “Wring you inside out, flick it over your head,” says Harlee Dean, Birmingham’s captain at the time. “We would say to each other: ‘Look what he did to you today.’ Every day he was the best player: you wanted him on your team because he won every day.”

Birmingham accelerated Bellingham’s programme once he reached the under-12s. Until that point, Dodds says, he had effectively been playing with his mates with a smile on his face after formally signing as an under-nine. Dodds has also coached Bellingham’s younger brother, Jobe, at Birmingham and Sunderland, his current club. “Whether it be Jude going to Dortmund and Madrid or Jobe to Sunderland, every decision they made as a family was based on the boys’ happiness.” Bellingham played for the under-16s at 13, for the under-18s at 14 and for the under-23s at 15. Birmingham were mindful of striking the right balance between stress and support. “When he first came up he would try a lot of skills and it wouldn’t always come off but he quickly transitioned into knowing when to do it, when not to do it,” Bailey says. “The transition happened quite quickly, as it has in his first-team career.”

Jude Bellingham with football coach Mike Dodds.View image in fullscreen

Bellingham and Bailey went to the same secondary school, shone together for the under-23s and made their first-team debuts on the same night at Portsmouth. They joined the first-team’s tour to Portugal in 2019, indulging in the odd prank. “You know when you fill a bucket of water up and tilt it against someone’s door?” Bailey says. “We enjoyed doing it to people much more than we enjoyed it getting done to ourselves … we didn’t do it to any of the first-team boys because they would have got us back 10 times worse.” Before Bellingham left for Dortmund, the pair, plus Geraldo Bajrami, now of Notts County, regularly went for coffees or to Nando’s in Birmingham’s Bullring. “We were kind of like the three amigos,” Bailey says.

Good cop, bad cop

The flash of the camera, the flicker of the shutter, the sharpening of the focus. Bellingham is in the spotlight, talking in a training top bearing the club crest in front of a backboard of corporate sponsors. “I’d like to be a great player when I’m older and to do so you have to be able to test yourself against the best teams, the best players,” he says, with that infectious warm smile. The questions keep coming, only this is not his unveiling at the Bernabéu, when he stood at the lectern before his family declaring his £88.5m move to Madrid the proudest day of his life but a mock press conference inside a portable building at Birmingham’s Wast Hills training base in Kings Norton.

It was an exercise designed to give a 15-year-old Bellingham a flavour of what was likely to come. “We realised very quickly that we had a very talented boy and we didn’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Dodds says. Media staff played the role of good cop and bad cop as they quizzed him about his form and aspirations before asking some more probing questions. Naturally he took it all in his stride.

He discussed his next game, an under-16s’ final against Liverpool, which Birmingham won 8-4 after Bellingham scored four goals in 22 second-half minutes. “People talk about his talent and his talent is there for the world to see but it is his mindset,” Bailey says. “I remember when I started training with the under-23s as a 15-, 16-year-old and it is very easy to go into your shell, when you’re playing against bigger boys and you don’t know the lads properly. The fact that those sorts of things don’t faze him is a massive part of his success.”

Until Bellingham had a huge growth spurt towards the end of his time with the under-16s, he had been dwarfed by bigger and stronger opponents. As the skinny teenager morphed into a young man he worked hard on an individual gym programme, on single-leg stability, sprinting and agility exercises. “He gained muscle, his legs went double the size and he kicked on massively,” Bailey says. “You could see it in how he really started to get away from opponents.”

Jude Bellingham plays a youth game for Birmingham in 2015.View image in fullscreen

Bellingham scored the winning goal on his under-23s’ debut at Nottingham Forest and a few months later a peach at Fulham, having feinted to shoot with his right foot, reducing two defenders to all fours, before bending a left-foot strike into the opposite corner. His coaches had seen that movie before. “Doddsy named it The Bellingham Chop,” says James Brayne, Charlton’s first-team individual coach who spent a decade working in Birmingham’s academy across two spells. “We saw it across every age group: he did it in the foundation phase, he’d be dribbling in the [indoor] dome, beat three or four players, chop inside and go and find the back of the net and score. When he does it for England or Real Madrid, it doesn’t really come as a huge surprise. You know it’s going to happen but you still can’t stop it: that’s the magic of him.”

Bellingham made his first-team debut aged 16 years and 38 days, surpassing Trevor Francis as Birmingham’s youngest player. On the night at Fratton Park, Bellingham’s first touch set the tone. The manner in which he plucked a high ball out of the air prompted the academy staff in attendance to look at each another and draw the same conclusions. “It was: ‘Yeah, he’s going to cope no problem,’” says Brayne. In a brilliant documentary charting his rise, Bellingham tells the story of how, aged 12, he made sure to position himself front and centre when the opportunity arose to have a photo taken with Francis so he could look back on it in the event he were to break a record set in 1970. Francis, who died last year, considered the interest Bellingham showed a sign of respect, in sharp contrast to youngsters who “look upon you as has-beens”.

Bellingham’s first goal came against Stoke, a deflected strike, after which he slid on his knees in front of the Tilton Stand. He had replaced the injured Jefferson Montero after 30 minutes. “The game was a bit tough and I saw Jude about to come on and I remember turning around to one of the players going: ‘I’m not sure if we need this right now,’” says Dean. “He proved me wrong, came on, scored the winner and the rest is history.”

An uphill struggle

His journey has not been all high-fives and hugs. Some of the barriers were intentional, carefully positioned hurdles to serve as tests. “It is easy for people to think it was just this meteoric rise and this completely linear process – and it was to a degree – but what I always tried to do was to create a real uphill struggle for him,” says Dodds. “I’ve always said I think failure is a really important ingredient for success. We were always striving to make it really difficult for him, to challenge him and almost put speed bumps in his way.”

One of those saw Dodds purposely underpower and outnumber Bellingham’s team in a session. The opposition comprised a stronger group and Bellingham’s side a few triallists. The net result? “He didn’t talk to me for three, four, five months,” Dodds says. “Jude looks back to that period and realises now what I was trying to do with him. It must have felt like: ‘Why are you doing this to me?’”

It was not easy for Dodds either. “I realised: ‘I need to make sure I get this right,’” he says. A conversation with Bellingham’s mother, Denise, was priceless. “She gave me complete autonomy, complete trust from the family. ‘Just relax, be you, at the moment you two are clashing but if you be completely authentic in this period, he’ll come back to you and you’ll be really close.’ Everything she said has happened.”

The role of family in Bellingham’s rise cannot be overstated. Bellingham speaks every day to Jobe and their parents split their time between Sunderland and Madrid. Denise, regarded as the rock of the family, is based in Spain, father Mark is in England. Denise also joined Bellingham in Dortmund, where he became friends with Giovanni Reyna and Jadon Sancho, among those to have been in touch about the final. Then there are the ticket requests.

Jude Bellingham celebrates after scoring against Stoke City, on his home debut, in August 2019, to become, aged 16 years and 63 days, the youngest player to score for Birmingham CityView image in fullscreen

Those who know Bellingham comment on his emotional intelligence. There is the story of him making sure a girl in his class at Hagley primary school felt included. Bailey cherishes the moment Bellingham sprinted from the opposite side of the pitch to congratulate him on his first goal for the club. Earlier this season, in Madrid’s victory at Arandina, Bellingham gave a blanket to a shivering ballboy. After an England game in Hungary, where Bellingham was targeted with abuse, he asked Chris Powell, then part of Gareth Southgate’s staff, about his experiences of racism. “He wanted to learn about the history, what somebody like myself had gone through,” says Powell.

England expectations

Kevin Betsy can picture the model professional who captained an England Under-17 squad featuring Jamal Musiala to the Syrenka Cup in Poland. It was the little things: punctuality, picking up litter, clearing plates and cutlery after dinner, helping the kit man by putting socks into the laundry the right way around. Then there is the calm but driven personality on the pitch. “His willingness to learn and absorb information is unbelievable,” says Betsy, who handed him his international debut and is now an assistant at Cambridge. “He wants to understand: ‘Why are we doing this move? Why should I use this part of my foot?’ He wanted to be excellent at everything, whether it was playing table tennis, [the video game] Fifa with his teammates or Teqball in the gym before training.”

Bellingham will be at the forefront of England’s attempt to win Euro 2024 in Germany this summer, having made three substitute appearances at the last European Championship, which ended with an agonising penalty shootout defeat at Wembley. Bellingham, who turned 18 during the tournament, played about an hour in total but made a lasting impression on Southgate in training. “He was always the talk of the coaches’ room,” Powell says, puffing his cheeks. “‘What about Jude today?’ Every session he left you open-mouthed. You heard his name every day: ‘Well played, Jude. Well done, Jude.’ And it didn’t change him … The next thing he’d be talking about Birmingham or something run-of-the-mill.”

The way Bellingham consoled senior teammates after the defeat by Italy also struck staff. “When we walked around the pitch, he was beside himself,” says Powell, now the assistant manager at Sheffield Wednesday. “It was almost like he played and missed a pen. I thought: ‘He’s invested, he’s well and truly into this.’ I think he thought: ‘I want a bit more.’ He was one of our best players in Qatar [at the 2022 World Cup] and the Euros, I think, will be quite special for him.”

Jude Bellingham heads home to score England’s opener against Iran at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.View image in fullscreen

Bellingham first represented his country at under-15s, playing up a year alongside Musiala, with whom he shared a room. Initially he played in a ­4-2-3-1 as a holding midfielder with the Football Association conscious they were short of No 6s to succeed Jordan Henderson in the long term. Equally England, Betsy says, felt he could play as an attacking midfielder “with his eyes closed” but the deeper role gave him defensive responsibilities and experience building attacks.

By then the FA were well-versed in his talents, from the then technical director, Dan Ashworth, to Southgate, who delivered talks to Bellingham’s age group, and others, during international camps. His first taste of Wembley came as a ball boy and Bellingham made his international debut there against the Republic of Ireland in 2020, doubtless with Dodds’s words still ringing in his ears. “Every single time Jude went away with England I’d say: ‘Don’t be like everyone else.’”

Madrid via Dortmund

When Bellingham landed in Madrid, the closest thing to a hiccup was that the No 22 shirt he had worn for Birmingham and Dortmund belonged to Antonio Rüdiger. By now, the story behind Bellingham’s favoured number is well-travelled: Dodds felt Bellingham could operate in-game as a No 4, No 8 and a No 10 so added those numbers together and developed the concept of being a No 22. “Like most kids he wanted to score goals but I just felt he was doing himself a bit of a disservice,” Dodds says. “Every time we reviewed his games it would be: ‘Were you a No 22 today? The No 22 was so significant to him; it was part of his development programme from 12 or 13. We spoke about being a No 22 probably two or three times a week for the best part of four or five years.”

Jude Bellingham in 2021View image in fullscreen

His move to Germany was bold – in keeping with his personality on the pitch – but calculated. Manchester United were among his admirers – they rolled out the red carpet to try to seal Bellingham’s signature by introducing him to Sir Alex Ferguson, Eric Cantona and Bryan Robson – but the family knew Dortmund had the makings of the perfect destination. “His game has matured, his all-round game is much more refined,” Dodds says. “Credit needs to be given to Dortmund and Madrid because they’ve allowed Jude just to be Jude.”

Birmingham’s decision to retire Bellingham’s number, driven by the then chief executive, Xuandong Ren, was widely derided but does not seem quite so excessive now. Bellingham’s final game for Birmingham, against Derby, was behind closed doors because of the Covid pandemic. Afterwards Bellingham sat on the St Andrew’s pitch for more than hour, much of which he spent sobbing. He and Jobe grew up Birmingham fanatics. “If they could have been there 24-7, they would,” says Brayne.

Now Bellingham is enjoying himself in Madrid. “He’s living his dream,” Dodds says. “The way things are going at the moment, I don’t see him ever coming home, he’s that happy and settled.” Life has changed – he is the face of global commercial campaigns – but he hasn’t. “He knows if he goes into Madrid shopping it will just be carnage. But he can’t do those things. Sometimes I talk to him and I’m thinking: ‘You do know you’re Jude Bellingham?’”

A Birmingham mural to Jude Bellingham and the man he replaced as the club’s youngest player, Trevor Francis.View image in fullscreen

Bellingham has not forgotten his roots. After winning La Liga, he sent Dodds a message saying: “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” When Dean recently asked him for a shirt to raise money for charity, he responded by sending him three: one for charity, one for Dean’s young children and one for Dean himself, signed: “Harlee, to my first skipper, thanks for everything. Best wishes, Jude.” “Even better, his dad hand-delivered them,” Dean says.

A recent FaceTime call speaks to Bellingham’s humility. “He was chatting to my kids and the next minute a few players walk past,” Stockdale says. “I said: ‘Where are you?’ He said: ‘Oh, I’m at the training ground.’ I said: ‘Jude, you’re going to have to get off the phone.’ All of a sudden players were waving at us. The kids were like: ‘Oh my God.’ Jude was like: ‘It’s fine, it’s just Vini [Vinícius Júnior].”

The Spanish lessons are bearing fruit, evidenced by his typically measured speech at their La Liga trophy parade at Plaza de Cibeles: “One more great match at Wembley … Hala Madrid!” He has absorbed the city and culture, to the point of celebrating in the language, roaring “vamos” even when playing for England. “He’s got into that life, like he did in Germany. He lives and breathes it wherever he goes,” says Stockdale. “He’s speaking German, Spanish – and Brummie.”

Bellingham recognises the heights he is scaling but talks to friends about turning out for Madrid as if playing with his mates. “He’s now a Madridista,” says Powell. “He’s won the league, now he wants to win the Champions League, which is something Real ultimately feel they own: it’s their trophy, that’s how they see it. But Jude has just taken to Real Madrid as if he’s just joined a Sunday League team, it’s just amazing how he’s carried himself amid all the adulation, and hopefully it will culminate in him getting his first Champions League winners’ medal. Basically, he is born to do it … he’s flourishing on the biggest stage.”


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