The youngster emerged as a 16-year-old and quickly became the club's biggest asset
Jude Bellingham joined Real Madrid from Borussia Dortmund for more than €100 million in the summer. The German side, meanwhile, had signed the player in 2020 from Birmingham for around €30m, making it the most expensive transfer in history for a 17-year-old. Three years after leaving England for Germany, he will play his first clásico against Barcelona this Saturday at Montjuïc.
But every story has a beginning and, in Bellingham's case, his story begins, as far as professional football is concerned, a little before September 2019. One of the people who experienced it first-hand as the British club's sporting advisor, Andrés Manzano, who is also the general manager at Cornellà, a club with which Birmingham have a close relationship, explains.
"We went to see an U23 team play against a senior team," Manzano told SPORT. "I remember, after 10 minutes, I asked for the first time how old the No.7 was. They told me 2003. I thought it couldn't be and I was embarrassed to ask again for fear that they would think I didn't understand English, but I ended up doing it. The academy director repeated again that he was from 2003. Then I realised that the player was from another level."
"The first day I saw him play I had to ask twice what year he was born. And yes, it was 2003"
The response from the heads of the Birmingham youth team commented aloud that Manzano had not discovered anything, that Jude was the captain of the England U16 team. However, he continued to think that "[Bellingham] was of an exceptional level. I've been working at Cornellà for many years and I've seen Messi, Xavi and Iniesta play and this player is top-level." From there, the English team began to work on an individual plan for Bellingham to reach professional football.
The following season the idea was for him to do the pre-season with the first team, although the coach at the time, Garry Monk, didn't see it clearly. Fortunately for Jude, the club decided to change coach and Josep Clotet arrived, "with whom we had been lucky enough to work at Cornellà some 10 years earlier", explains Manzano, who is clear that "everything was much easier because we agreed on our analysis."
So Bellingham did pre-season and, from then on, he began to be part of the first team dynamic. In fact, nobody could move him from there.
"Pep was used to working with young lads and the first chance he got, he put him on," Manzano continues. "He made his home debut against Stoke City and scored the winning goal."
It was a somewhat fortunate goal, as Manzano's match report says, but "it shows that this type of player is touched by a magic wand."
Bellingham was 16 when he scored his first Championship goal. From then on, despite his easy adaptation to professional football, "we spoke to the family to explain that the idea was for him to play about 500 minutes over the whole season."
That was September.
"The figure was too low because he ended up playing 2,200 or 2,300 minutes. He played practically the whole year in the Championship and most of the games as a starter," Manzano adds.
"It was clear that he was here to stay and he was an important player all season," says Manzano, who, yes, recalls that sometimes he had to be stopped: "He had an excess of desire and it was difficult for him to reach the end of games, so he ended up playing less than he probably deserved for quality, but as he matured, because he is a very receptive boy and eager to help, to improve, he was taking on a more important role in a senior team at just 16 years of age."
His progress was so enormous that he began to arouse the interest of many teams, among them, above all, Juventus and Manchester United. Manzano does not hide the fact that "from the club, I'm not going to deceive you, they looked favourably on him going to Manchester because in the end it is a closer club and you could have a series of exchanges, but he and the family decided that the best option was Borussia Dortmund. And I think he was right."
Time has also proved him right. From there to Real Madrid is another story, but nothing would be the same without the supervision of those who were by his side when he was just starting to emerge as a teenager at Birmingham.
"I'm sure he's going to win the Ballon d'Or," Manzano concludes.
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