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Ace Bellingham has perfect act to follow in Non-League hot-shot dad

Jude Bellingham has just landed a move to European giants Borussia Dortmund – his dad Mark had a successful Non-League career Pic: PA Images

By Chris Dunlavy

As a student at Wolverhampton University in the mid-nineties, Mark Bellingham would routinely skip lectures to turn out for Chelmsford City.

“I used to blame everything on football,” the striker confessed. “But, to be honest, I was just lazy.”

Today, it is not an accusation anyone could level at the 44-year-old. By day – and often night – Bellingham tackled criminal gangs on the streets of Birmingham in his role as a sergeant with West Midlands police.

In between, he forged a career as one of Non-League’s most fearsome poachers, scoring over 700 goals for the likes of Halesowen Town, Leamington and Stourbridge.

Along the way, he even found time to mould his sons into future superstars. Jude, the eldest at 17, has just landed a big money move to Borussia Dortmund after starring in the Championship for Birmingham City.

“Honestly, I don’t know how he did it,” says Jason Cadden, who was Leamington manager when Bellingham hit 48 goals to secure promotion to the Southern Premier in 2009.

“Evening games, the full-time whistle would blow and you’d see Mark sprint off the pitch. He’d jump in the shower, get in his car and start his police shift at 10pm.

“To juggle his job, his family life and yet still do what he did on the pitch – it’s full credit to him as a person, really. And he played into his forties!”

Pinning a definitive figure on Bellingham’s goal tally is difficult, but 700-plus – at roughly a goal-per-game – is broadly accurate.

In the 2005-06 season alone he netted 61 times as Stourbridge won the Midland Alliance, shattering the previous league record of 40 goals.

“Mark is probably the most prolific scorer I’ve worked with in the Football League and Non-League,” says Gary Hackett, who played as a winger for Aberdeen, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Peterborough United before managing Bellingham at Halesowen.

“I’ve played with some fantastic finishers. Keith Edwards and people like that, who had unbelievable records. But Mark’s goal ratio, his instincts in the box – nobody will get anywhere near him. He was phenomenal.”

Originally from Essex, Bellingham’s early career was peripatetic. A debut for East Thurrock in 1994, a move to Chelmsford, a relocation to the Midlands followed by a £10,000 switch to Cheltenham.

The latter yielded a Southern Premier title and a trial game for Leyton Orient in which Bellingham opened the scoring after 30 seconds.

Yet playing in a national division – and persistent misuse as a target man – quickly wearied Bellingham.

So in 1997, armed with the realisation that football would never be anything more than a weekend diversion, he joined Halesowen, settled into the semi-pro lifestyle and embarked on a scoring spree that barely slackened in 20 years.

Mark Bellingham celebrates reaching 700 goals – son Jude Bellingham is now aiming for his own prolific career

Though his greatest successes came at Stourbridge and Leamington, the likes of Sutton Coldfield, Bromsgrove Rovers and Paget Rangers were also represented with distinction.

“I was a player at Halesowen when Mark first arrived,” recalls Hackett. “He was only 19, young and innocent. But he was a goalscorer even then, and nothing really changed.

“He was quick and strong, but lots of strikers have that. What set Mark apart was his nose for space. He knew where the ball would drop, and I don’t think you can coach that. It’s instinct.

“He worked on percentages. He knew that if he kept getting in the right areas and kept taking shots, he’d score a lot of goals. If he missed one, it didn’t faze him. If he missed ten it didn’t faze him. His confidence never dipped. Mentally, he was immensely strong. He could be totally innocuous for 90 minutes, but in the 91st and 92nd, he’d get you two goals.

“And he always stressed how important it was to be fit. Because in the last 10-15 minutes, when everybody was getting tired, he was still going strong. I never took him off, because I knew that in those last 15 minutes, he’d be at his most dangerous.”

Cadden, who signed Bellingham when the striker was 33, agrees. “It wouldn’t take him long to get fit in pre-season,” he says. “And even if he was half-injured, you played him. Mark wasn’t a player you left on the bench.”

Both men are also united in their conviction that Bellingham had the capacity to play professionally.

“When we went up to the Southern Prem, I worried about the step up,” says Cadden. “But Bells scored in the first game against Farnborough, then got a hat-trick shortly after. He made it look simple. I’m sure he’d have done the same in the Conference, League Two, maybe even higher.”

Hackett adds: “He could have played much higher. For sure. Especially when you take into account that he’s suffered some bad, bad injuries.

“Three cruciates – at least – and he’s still playing in vets football now.

“But Mark is a highly intelligent lad and he probably realised that his prospects were better in the police. He loved playing football, but his job came first.”

Bellingham himself always downplayed his prowess. “I’ve always said I’m not that great a player,” he told The NLP in 2016. “I think I owe my team-mates over the years a lot more than they owe me.”

And it is that humility, says Hackett, which will steer his sons through what seems certain to be a life in the limelight.

“On the pitch, Mark wasn’t an incredible team-player,” laughs the 57-year-old, who lives in the same village as Bellingham and remains a good friend. He was very single-minded and that could be frustrating at times. Off it, though, he is a very nice guy. Very polite, very respectful. He didn’t cheat any of the clubs he played for.

“Joe and Jude are going to be phenomenal footballers you can guarantee those lads will have their feet on the floor, even if they are playing in the Champions League. Mark is just so well balanced and his kids are exactly the same.”

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