Jude Bellingham – who else?

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WHO ELSE? That’s what Jude Bellingham asked, euphoria and adrenaline flowing through his veins after his acrobatic stoppage-time goal pulled England back from the brink at Euro 2024.

They had been staring into the abyss, 1-0 down to Slovakia, out of ideas, very nearly out of time. In the fifth of six minutes of added time, Kyle Walker hurled in a long throw — so often the refuge of the desperate — Marc Guehi flicked it on and, with England needing a hero, Bellingham took a step to the right and then leapt and contorted his body to rescue his team with an outrageous scissor kick.

He landed with a bump and, almost in the same movement, charged away in celebration, eyes fixed on the crowd, and then slowed right down. Then he said it, just before Harry Kane, Declan Rice and the rest of them arrived on the scene to mob him: “WHO ELSE?”

Bellingham’s celebration was impassioned and sustained (Emin Sansar/Anadolu via Getty Images)

He said it again 20 seconds later, once his team-mates had dispersed. It seemed like the Real Madrid midfielder’s answer to the “I’m him” phenomenon in NBA basketball, the exultant yell of the alpha male in a team sport, the superhero who drags his team out of the mire — as he most certainly did on Sunday evening in Gelsenkirchen.

There was so much to unpack in the immediate aftermath of that dramatic equaliser.

Bellingham made a yapping sign with his hand as if to signify people had been talking too much. He moved away from the throng and stood with his arms out, like Christ the Redeemer. He pointed to his crotch — which he later said was not directed at his opponents but “an inside-joke gesture towards some close friends who were at the game”.

He spoke about his immediate celebration in the post-match news conference, once Kane (who else?) had completed the turnaround with a thumping header just 53 seconds into the half-hour of extra time, earning England a quarter-final meeting with Switzerland in Dusseldorf next Saturday.

“The adrenaline gets you,” Bellingham said. “But it’s a combination of a lot of things. Playing for England is an enjoyable feeling, but it’s also a lot of pressure. You hear people talk a lot of rubbish. It’s nice that when you deliver, you can give them a little back. For me, football, being on the pitch, scoring goals and celebrating is my release. It was maybe a message to a few people, but a very happy moment, full of adrenaline.”

Bellingham was asked what “rubbish” he was referring to. “You know what I mean by the rubbish,” he said. “Like I said, playing for England should be one of the most proud things of a footballer’s career but I feel at times it’s quite difficult. There’s a really high, intense pressure. The fans expect a lot from us, regardless of what happened in recent tournaments (or) years and years ago.

“You have to take it personally a little bit. We work so hard at this game, we come in and train every day so hard to try and put on performances for the fans. Sometimes it doesn’t go well, sometimes it feels like it’s a bit of a pile-on. It’s not nice to hear but you can always use it for moments like that. It’s nice to kind of throw it back to people, I suppose.”

It was a fascinating insight into Bellingham’s psyche because, throughout a burgeoning career that has taken him from Birmingham City to Borussia Dortmund to the Bernabeu while emerging as one of the great hopes of this England team, all while only turning 21 the day before the Slovakia game, he has been praised almost unstintingly. His reputation has soared so high so quickly — and done so away from the tribal tensions of the Premier League — that it is hard to recall many players who have been embraced so enthusiastically and so unquestioningly by English fans and media alike.

Bellingham’s acrobatics rescued England (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Bellingham and his entourage must recognise that.

It is why, a few days before this tournament began, he and Adidas were so excited to release a commercial that cast him as the saviour of the English team after all those decades of disappointment. In the advert, he was the young man carrying a nation’s hopes on his shoulders and changing the (Beatles’) record at last: “Hey Jude, Don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better”.

That type of marketing campaign invites a certain pressure.

Even some of the game’s greatest players have struggled at times under the burden of a nation’s hopes and expectations. But this is a guy who, at 20, has won not just the Champions League and La Liga in his first season at Madrid but also the Spanish league’s player of the season award.

Against Serbia, in England’s opening game of this European Championship two weeks ago, he underlined his reputation as someone who thrives on pressure, opening the scoring with a bullet header and producing an all-action performance in midfield until he tired in the closing stages as they held on for a 1-0.

But then came arduous matches against Denmark and Slovenia in which he appeared far less comfortable with the burden that comes with his talent and his status — and his role within coach Gareth Southgate’s system. He looked annoyed with himself and exasperated by his team-mates.

For the first time as an England player, Bellingham’s performances have attracted scrutiny. Some fans and media alike suggested he should have been left out against Slovakia, in the interests of team balance. It hasn’t been the “pile-on” he implied, but it might have felt like it to a player who is accustomed to unconstrained praise and who did not seem to have thrived since “taking it personally”.

Wayne Rooney, another who found pressure thrust on his shoulders at a young age in the England team, said last week he recognised some of the tell-tale signs.



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Rooney, speaking on the BBC’s Football Daily podcast, even pointed to Bellingham’s lack of media activity in Germany, given that he is a) part of the England team’s leadership group and b) such a confident, eloquent interviewee. “What’s the reason for that?,” the former Manchester United forward asked. “As one of the iconic players now for England in the squad, he should be fronting that. That tells me that he’s probably not quite right in the tournament.”

That perception grew during those matches against Denmark and Slovenia, and much of Sunday’s game against Slovakia. For long periods, he looked low on energy and inspiration.

Southgate freely admitted afterwards that he had given serious consideration to substituting both Bellingham and Kane in the closing stages of the 90 minutes “because they looked out on their feet 15 minutes from the end” and “you’re looking at them and thinking, ‘Should we be refreshing that position?’.” But, he added, he had kept them on because “you know they’re capable of doing the things they did”.

Southgate said he had thought about replacing Bellingham and Kane (Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

“Who writes your scripts?,” a reporter for the match’s UK broadcaster ITV Sport asked Bellingham afterwards.

“I do,” he replied.

It called to mind an article in online football magazine The Blizzard years ago in which Scott Murray wrote about English football’s fixation with all-action midfielders (Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard) who specialised in the type of match-winning escapades seen in the Roy of the Rovers comic strips.



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Murray felt it created a reliance on individuality, on players feeling the need to “grab games by the scruff of the neck” — a phrase Southgate used about Bellingham on Sunday — and to try to win the match on their own, sometimes at the expense of cohesion.

It is remarkable how many such moments Bellingham has produced in his young career, notably with stoppage-time winners for Madrid in both of last season’s Clasico fixtures against Barcelona in La Liga. He is a different type of player, but he has that Robson/Gerrard ability to seize a game, with time running out, and to try to bend it to his will.

Eventually, after what had been a difficult 90 minutes, Bellingham did that in Gelsenkirchen. Southgate spoke of how the player’s “character and his personality create moments that can change a big game”.

Not just character and personality, but bloody-mindedness, intelligence, instinct, athleticism and, of course, skill. He isn’t immune to pressure or, it seems, to criticism, but the weight of a nation’s hopes and expectations might feel a little lighter again.

Bellingham will look forward to that quarter-final against Switzerland with renewed confidence, feeling that this tournament is still, after all, his to seize and shape just the way he wants to. Because if not Bellingham, then who else?



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(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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