I am 21, you do dumb things sometimes
Spurs star Dele Alli has the football world at his feet, but being in the spotlight off the field has been a much steeper learning curve
It is just minutes before Dele Alli is due to arrive for his first extended newspaper interview as a Tottenham Hotspur player, when Mauricio Pochettino walks up the stairs at the club’s Enfield training base. “You’re here for Dele?” asks the Tottenham manager. “You know, I just said he’s the best 21-year-old footballer in the world.”
And with that, Pochettino, who made the claim in his weekly press conference, disappears through the double doors that Dele, as he wishes to be called, soon breezes through with a wide grin.
Dele is polite, relaxed and articulate, and quickly offers up an insight into the humble beginnings from which he developed into one of the best young footballers on the planet.
Growing up in the Bradwell area of Milton Keynes meant Dele could take little for granted – particularly money – and, describing how he got into football, the England international said: “From U-9 to U-11, I played in a Sunday league. Before that, there was this scheme where you had to pay £1 to train and I used to do that. But I wasn’t able to pay it and in the end they let me do it for free.”
When it was put to Dele that money must have been incredibly tight, he added: “It was. When you come from where I came from, there were a lot more important things to spend a pound on than football training. Obviously, for me at the time, I thought it was all that mattered.
“But for families who are struggling, it’s not the case. They need a lot of support. But when you are nine or 10, maybe the vision of your parents isn’t the same as what it is for you.
“There is a lot of pressure on the parents with a kid who wants to become a professional footballer. There is a lot of responsibility, having to drive them around everywhere.”
Asked which football boots he wore during his formative years, Dele said: “I thought they were nice! I was lucky. When I was young, I had quite big feet, so the older lads in the area used to give me their hand-me-down boots. They looked after me.”
His upbringing perhaps explains why Dele feels a keen responsibility to give something back. The evening before this interview, he had missed watching Chelsea’s Champions League defeat by Barcelona to launch a new Tottenham Hotspur Foundation programme that aims to help reduce levels of crime and anti-social behaviour in Haringey, north London.
The Tottenham Hotspur Community Football League run in partnership with the Metropolitan Police and Haringey Council, allows U-14 teams to compete every Friday evening at the Duke’s Academy in the shadow of the new Spurs stadium.
Dele was mobbed by teenagers at the event while he posed for photographs, signed autographs and talked to the organisers and those who will benefit from the project.
“Playing for Tottenham in the Premier League, you get a lot of opportunities to help out other people and, for such a good cause, it was definitely worth going to,” he said.
On the subject of how he has acclimatised to being a hero to so many youngsters, he added: “You grow into it. At the start, it was a bit crazy, but now I am used to it and it’s all about giving something back.
“Like I said, we as players have such a great opportunity to help people and make a big impact.”
Despite his willingness to help others, Dele acknowledges he is not always an angel on the pitch and laughs at the suggestion he has become a pantomime villain among opposition supporters.
There was an early sign of the devilment in Dele’s play, when, in one of his first Tottenham appearances, after making the move from Milton Keynes Dons, in a pre-season tournament, he nutmegged former Spurs midfielder Luka Modric while playing against Real Madrid.
Since then, his development and rise has been meteoric. Before turning 21 last April, Dele had chalked up more goals and assists than Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age.
Dele scored his 10th goal of this season against Bournemouth last weekend and is now only eight short of chalking up his half century in all competitions for Spurs.
“I feel like I’ve been playing for a long time now, but I think a lot happened to me really quickly,” said Dele.
“There’s moments where you step back and think ‘how can this have happened to me?’
“I’ve been working for it since I was a kid and there’s been a lot of decisions I’ve had to make, and it’s all been to do this and put myself in this position.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised, I’m confident in my ability, maybe I was surprised by how quickly it happened, but it’s always been my aim and I’ll keep working hard to achieve even more.”
With the highs have understandably come some lows. Red cards in key games against West Bromwich Albion and Gent, England’s European Championship failure, the middle-finger salute that earned him an international ban and, most lately, accusations of being a diver.
“Nobody wants to be labelled as a cheat,” said Dele. “It’s an opinion and everyone has a different opinion. I get into the box a lot and round the box, and I’m an attacking player and I get fouled a lot.
“There are some that look bad. It’s different when you are in the action.
“The one at Crystal Palace, that’s the one I saw a lot of reaction to. I was running through and at the time, all that was going through my head was that I didn’t want to step on the ‘keeper.
“But when you watch it back and people start saying things, it can look a lot different. That’s why I think it’s important that players, not just about diving, about other stuff too, that you don’t get too involved in it and just focus on what you are doing and listen to the opinions of the people you trust.
“I think we live in a world now where everyone has a chance to have an opinion and with social media, everyone’s opinion can be seen,” he added. “It’s important that I don’t get drawn into that, don’t look at it, don’t read it or start to believe what people say about me.
“I am 21 and you do some dumb things sometimes, and it’s all part of learning and improving, and turning into a good person and that’s what I want to achieve.”
What will make Dele even happier is to win his first piece of silverware with Tottenham, who face Swansea City in the FA Cup quarter-finals today.
Having gone close in the Cup and in the Premier League, he now wants to go all the way.
“We all want to win trophies and to achieve something as a team,” said Dele. “There is no point coming so close like we have the last two years, you know second place almost feels as bad as finishing bottom.
“You want to win, so I think we need to.”