Edin Terzic made Jude Bellingham captain but Gareth Southgate probably won’t. The England manager’s experience of leadership dates back long before the time when provided the nation with rather more moral guidance than seemed to come from Downing Street.
He captained each of his three clubs. He was given the Crystal Palace armband at just 22, though even that looks positively ancient when a teenage Bellingham was the Bundesliga’s youngest ever captain and was skippering Borussia Dortmund in the knockout stages of the Champions League, albeit because Marco Reus and Mats Hummels were not starting.
But the fundamental reason why Southgate is unlikely to anoint Bellingham may simply be that he could yet leave after Euro 2024, when Real Madrid’s newest Galactico will only have just turned 21; stay until the 2026 World Cup and the chances are that Harry Kane will still be first among equals, perhaps closing in on Billy Wright and Bobby Moore’s shared record of 90 games as England captain.
And yet it is easy to imagine Bellingham leading his country in the future; the same, admittedly, could be said of his midfield sidekick Declan Rice. But when Southgate looks at his team, he sees many a leader, even if Bellingham is the only one born after Wayne Rooney made his England debut.
“He’s definitely got leadership qualities,” Southgate said. They were demonstrated at Hampden Park. As Scotland were beaten 3-1, Bellingham scored one goal, created another and played a part in a third. The first signs it may be his night came as God Save The King met with a predictably hostile reception.
“The biggest thing for me is his personality,” added Southgate. “We knew our anthem would be booed, we talked to the players about taking energy from that. We wanted to prepare them. But I’m looking at him stood in the line and I know what’s coming. That’s the sort of thing that makes the difference: the mentality of the player.”
Undaunted, Bellingham is a big-game player. And yet a leader can also be a follower; Southgate is impressed that a potential great has attached himself to a couple of grizzled full-backs, in Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier.
“The great thing in this group is our senior players are such good leaders, we’ve got six or seven who are incredible,” Southgate said. “The two full-backs who played are incredible characters for us, real unsung heroes, and they set a brilliant leadership example around the place.” Trippier captains Newcastle. Walker currently has the City armband. For England, each has normally been in the ranks, though Trippier has twice begun international matches with the armband. Southgate feels each has an influence, however.
“Where he’s bright enough is to attach himself to those sorts of characters,” he explained. “The people you mix, the people you hang around with in life, probably are a good indicator of where you’re going to end up. He’s really savvy at that. I think his whole life and how his family have looked after him have given him a great start but there’s still a lot to go.”
If it offers lessons in leadership, Bellingham can absorb plenty.
(The FA via Getty Images)
The Dortmund dressing room included Reus, Hummels and Julian Brandt. At Real, there is the potential to learn from Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and David Alaba.
There is also the probability that a cosmopolitan career path will produce other benefits. “I think the biggest thing is he’ll be opened to different life experiences that are going to help his game,” said Southgate. “You can work with world class players in some English clubs but the club he’s at the expectation, it’s the biggest club in the world. He will be learning from some outstanding players. Playing against different tactical systems, different sorts of problems.”
Bellingham’s role at Real is also something new: at the tip of a midfield diamond, in a striker-less system, with added responsibility for scoring.
“He’s got a lot of freedom there because he’s got three really athletic midfield players behind him,” Southgate said. “So for most of the season they’ve been playing without a No.9 so he’s been the one making the [runs into the] box.”
Increasingly, Bellingham is the player who ticks the boxes. The shirt he long wore – No.22 – was famously because he could be a 4, an 8 or a 10. He operated as a 10 for England in Scotland; at times he is more of a false nine for Real while wearing the No.5 jersey that was once Zinedine Zidane’s.
If it has become part of his destiny, he may become a player to follow in the footsteps of Wright and Moore, David Beckham and Kane. But not just yet.