It was April 2021 when I first wrote about Jude Bellingham on these pages. I had seen him in action a few days earlier for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester City and was blown away.
The argument I made in relation to Bellingham was the need for time. He was 17 and obviously making rapid progress, but I was concerned that the expectation would be pushed onto his young shoulders and I didn’t want any clamor to be raised about the fact that he was central to England’s European Championship ambitions .
“If it were me, I’d take him out of the squad,” I said. “This boy has his whole career ahead of him and there could be spectacular results now if you take it slow. Let it flourish and in the end something special could happen.”
Bellingham ended up in the Euro 2020 squad but was treated conservatively and sensibly by Gareth Southgate, who gave him three substitute games en route to the final – eight minutes against Croatia and 22 minutes against the Czech Republic in the group stage and 25 minutes against the Ukraine in the last eight.
Here we are 18 months later from that column and again I just watched Bellingham play for Borussia Dortmund against Manchester City in the Champions League.
This time, my argument is much simpler: play him.
I still have to do a double take when I look at his age. He’s 19 and runs midfield in top-level games.
When I was 19 in the England squad I was trying to find my feet and not look like a scared rabbit but this boy is just amazing.
It wasn’t just his goal – the way he came to instinctively come into play – against City that set him apart. It was the way he used his intelligence and fearlessness to yell at people, boss them around and demand the best of them.
The words “could be” are no longer appropriate when talking about him. There is no ‘could be’ – Jude Bellingham is incredible already and he will be the heart of this England team for years to come and I can’t wait to see his progress.
This is his time. I have absolutely no doubts that he will play a central role in Southgate’s plans in Qatar – not only in his squad but also in his starting line-up for the opening game against Iran – and those two Nations League encounters are against Italy and Germany the perfect opportunity to see him flourish.
I can understand why Liverpool were so strongly linked with him this summer and why Jurgen Klopp is reportedly a huge admirer – there will no doubt be huge interest in any transfer window from now on.
He’s special and you can see him play for any team – whether it’s Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid or whoever.
Let’s all hope his progression for club and country is as phenomenal as we believe.
Gareth misses a trick with Maddison’s snub
James Maddison’s England career spans just 34 minutes in the 7-0 win over Montenegro in November 2019.
It has been almost three years since he last represented his country, but there are no signs his exile will end any time soon.
That’s such a shame. I would have loved to see him in this latest squad for the games against Italy and Germany and I think the Leicester midfielder played well enough to be included in the group Gareth Southgate picked.
Leicester were beaten 6-2 by Tottenham last Saturday but Maddison could not have done more to turn things Leicester’s way – he scored the goal just before half-time that sent them level.
He played as always, fearless and inventive, and that’s hard to come by in a fighting team.
Maddison has scored three goals so far this season. He scored 18 goals in 53 games last year and I’ve seen enough of him to be sure when I say his game is that much more mature. He can pick a pass and execute an excellent set piece. he works hard, runs miles and is always enthusiastic. But for England he is still overlooked.
Southgate has talked about so many things during his tenure for England and it is not a view that is meant to provide any sort of distraction. But I just feel like a trick is missed by not giving him an opportunity to see if he can transfer his talents to the highest level.
Admittedly, Maddison did himself a disservice when he was photographed in a casino in October 2019 when England played in the Czech Republic. Maddison had pulled out of the squad for that game after saying he was unwell and it wasn’t looking good – although he received his only England cap a month later.
At the time Southgate said Maddison had “learned a lesson the hard way” but as things stand I wonder if the England manager will see if there has been a move from a player who has so many different qualities.