16 years old.
Jude Bellingham is just 16 years old. He won't be 17 until England are preparing for the European Championship this summer. Yet such is Birmingham's faith that their prodigious young talent is a sure thing, he has already collected 1,502 Championship minutes this season (at the time of writing). The hype is real.
And hype there is. Manchester United have allegedly emerged as a legitimate transfer admirer, with £15m, £20m, even £25m fees being proposed for a kid who, under FA rules, can't even sign a professional contract until June.
Discussion about his ability always focuses on his maturity, his personable nature and, of course, his boundless, untapped talent. Bellingham is also represented by his family, who are rightly protective of him and are appreciative of the relationship they have cultivated with Birmingham. All parties are confident of his continued progression.
This all sounds like a consummate example of how a young player should be handled by everyone around him. So what could go wrong?
Manchester United. Manchester United could go wrong.
When looking at Bellingham's statistics - it's even visible from his heat map - we see a player who is still finding himself, working through the possibilities to find out which position he will eventually settle into. He has been deployed in centre midfield, he's been deployed on the left, deployed on the right, and even as part of a two-pronged strike-force. It's testament to his all-round ability that he has performed well enough in each position to earn his manager Pep Clotet's trust.
“He has been watched since he was 13 or 14," Clotet said after his recent display against Cardiff.
"For the Middlesbrough game half of Europe was here [scouting]. He is used to it and I am used to it. It’s his club, he is living a dream that comes from the work that he and a lot of people in the academy put together to reach this level.
“I do have the feeling that Jude will stay. He is very happy here and he knows it’s one of the right steps for his progression. He has played more than 20 games for us and that has a value.”
Sensible words from a sensible coach, but the economics mean that Birmingham, who made a £37.5m loss in the 2017/18 and who sold Che Adams to Southampton for £15m in the summer of 2019 to offset more losses to come, means that a bid anywhere near what has been proposed would likely have to be accepted. And that means if Bellingham is forced into a decision, then he needs to think very clearly and calmly about whether Manchester United offers him the teaching platform to grow from this impressive base.
It's largely a waste of time to cycle through Bellingham's data at this stage given his lack of a defined position, though he does have a goal contribution (four goals and one assist so far) every 297 minutes. He does like to progress the ball forward wherever possible, but there is a clear estimation of the options available, a sharpness of thought, and an understanding of the team dynamic that places him ahead of many of his peers.
Yes, he sometimes makes the wrong decision and yes, he can drift in and out of matches. But, again, he is 16. As Clotet alludes to, he is learning his trade in one of the top 10 leagues in Europe and making an impression in doing so.
All of which is why a move to a dysfunctional Manchester United would be, quite simply, a disaster. At the moment, United are not a club that can give young players the environment in which they can thrive succeed. They may well be integrating some of their own at the moment, with Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood breaking through while Marcus Rashford has came to the fore in a team not doing well, but there's only so many developing players a club still in transition can handle.
What is Bellingham going to learn playing with first-teamers not much older than him, in an environment lacking leaders without a defined playing style or a coach with the level of experience to develop new talent?
If, as Clotet claims, half of Europe are watching, then if Birmingham do need to sell then there will be a whole manner of options that would suit better. Becoming embroiled in a maladjusted set-up when emanating from such a calibrated upbringing, and switching from featuring in a stature-building league to fighting for a position on the bench.
Football is jam-packed with prodigies who were expected to progress from illustrious beginnings - Michael Johnson at Man City, and the Everton duo Michael Branch and James Vaughan, youngest ever Premier League scorers in their times, spring immediately to mind. There are a thousand more who also made the wrong move at the wrong time and will look back with regret.
Bellingham doesn't need to rush a single thing. He'll move when he is good and ready. And he needs to realise that move to Manchester United, at this moment in time, is a threat to everything he wants, and hopes, to be.