One of them honed his skills playing Gaelic football. The other would turn up for first-team training sessions and matches in school uniform.
Birmingham boys Jack Grealish and Jude Bellingham have taken different routes to stardom but are £100million players at the top of their game.
Grealish won the Treble with Manchester City and partied as though his life depended on it. As Grealish was cavorting on an open-top bus tour, Bellingham was busy signing for the world’s most famous club.
Less than four years after making his professional debut for Birmingham – in a League Cup match at Portsmouth in August 2019 – Bellingham has joined Real Madrid in a deal that could be worth £113m.
Those who mocked Blues for retiring his No 22 shirt after only one season of senior football are not laughing now. The mural on Cattell Road, a stone’s throw from St Andrew’s, depicts Bellingham alongside Trevor Francis, the first £1m player in the history of British football.
Jack Grealish may have called time on the post-match festitivites but the glory of his Treble win will endure forever
Jude Bellingham’s £113m move to Real Madrid is the culmination of a glittering teenage career
Both the history-making players were born and bred in Birmingham and similarities abound
‘I remember seeing Jude in the younger teams at Birmingham and straightaway I thought he could train with the first team,’ former Blues boss Pep Clotet – who gave Bellingham his senior debut – told Mail Sport in an interview in 2021. ‘As soon as I got the job, I brought him over.
‘At the time I said he was one of the most complete footballers I had ever seen. When I said it, I wondered if I had gone too far. Now, I think maybe I didn’t go far enough!’
Though Grealish’s talent shone just as brightly, he took a little longer to reach the top. The 27-year-old had a loan spell in League One with Notts County at 18 and did not establish himself as a Premier League player until 2019-20, when he captained Villa to safety.
While his performances that season – eight goals and six assists in a struggling side – might have surprised the wider footballing public, they were exactly what coaches at John Mitchels GAA club in Solihull, about seven miles outside Birmingham, had spotted in Grealish when he played Gaelic football as a teenager.
‘He was very courageous, very strong on the ball, not frightened of taking responsibility,’ club secretary JP Walsh told Mail Sport in 2020. ‘He was a big part of our under-age set-up but he had to stop at a certain point because Villa wanted to sign him.
‘Jack was superb at soloing (the equivalent of dribbling). People still talk about a goal he scored when he ran the length of the field.’
Coach Kevin McGinnity added: ‘You usually use your best players at centre-forward or in midfield, and Jack would start in midfield – but he would go everywhere.
‘When I watched him for Villa, it was identical to how he was in our Under-13 team. He held on to the ball brilliantly and was the most fouled player. He was clever, quick, always thinking – and a nice lad to go with it.’
JP Walsh watched Grealish play Gaelic football, which further helped his youth development
Bellingham comes from a very tight-knit family, all of whom were present at his unveiling
Grealish’s family have strong links with John Mitchels and like his England colleague, Bellingham has a tight support network.
Father Mark, who manages his son’s career, scored more than 700 goals for various non-league sides while working as a police officer and the family are Birmingham supporters.
Mother Denise lived with Jude for significant periods during his spell in Dortmund, while Jude’s younger brother – attacking midfielder Jobe – has joined Sunderland for £3million.
During his season at Birmingham, Bellingham had not turned professional and earned just £145 per week.
He was praised for his confident demeanour during his first appearance as a Madrid player and owes much to his education at Priory School in Edgbaston, in the heart of Birmingham. Combining his studies with football did not affect Bellingham, who immediately impressed experienced colleagues.
‘He was the best player in training every day,’ recalled defender Harlee Dean. ‘I’ve never seen anyone like Jude. He was a cut above.
His brother Jobe (right) is the latest family member to have signed an impressive deal, joining Sunderland in June aged 17
‘You get young players who come to train with the first team and you think ‘Oh, he’s good’, but then they lack a certain something – but Jude had it all. That’s what a top player is and he deserves everything he gets.’
The joy of Grealish and Bellingham is their contrasting approaches. It is hard to imagine the teenage Grealish thinking too much about rest and recovery.
Bellingham was a different beast. In a diary for the school website written when he was 13, Bellingham described linking up with England’s Under-15s.
‘I was glad to be tucked up nice and warm at the end of it, realising the importance of a good rest I drifted off,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t have asked for a better first day.’
It has appeared plain sailing from there, all the way to the Bernabeu. There have been a few more bumps in the road for Grealish, but Birmingham should be hugely proud of them both.