"No-one can put more pressure
on me than I do on myself"
First game, a fine header - the match-winner, a new celebration.
All good. Dele Alli started 2018-19 as he had mentally sketched it, exiting St James’ Park on 11 August having been pivotal to Tottenham’s 2-1 Premier League victory over Newcastle.
Fast forward a month, and when Spurs hosted the League Cup fixture against Watford in Milton Keynes on account of their stadium setbacks, the midfielder wasn’t enacting the perfect script upon returning to his hometown, but more bending the encounter to his will.
Dele was given the captain’s armband and a warm, local-boy-made-good reception on the ground that groomed his talents, scoring twice from the penalty spot, including the decisive strike in the shootout.
“He was inspired by the occasion,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said post-match. “He was so excited beforehand, his energy was amazing. For him it was an experience that he will remember for all of his life - to be Tottenham captain and score two goals!
“Being a captain means a lot – it’s not just about wearing the armband. Dele spoke from the heart in his team-talk and I like that. I can’t tell you what he said but he was very good.
“I think he did very well. He is more mature and has more experience. When you are young, you do some crazy things, but he has grown up.
“He is one of the best in England and one of the best in Europe in his position.”
Things, however, were not idyllic for Dele in-between those fixtures and, since the 4-2 triumph over Watford on penalties, his situation has been fettering.
On September 8, the MK Dons graduate sustained a hamstring strain during England's Nations League loss against Spain at Wembley, which ruled him out for Tottenham’s defeats to both Liverpool and Inter Milan.
Dele returned as a substitute at Brighton, before owning the spotlight against Watford, but he aggravated the muscle problem and has been sidelined since.
He has missed five matches for Spurs - including the 4-2 Champions League disappointment at home to Barcelona and the careless 2-2 draw away to PSV - as well as the Nations League stalemate in Croatia and the acclaimed 3-2 victory in the same competition over Spain in Seville.
During Dele's absence - he could be in contention for Monday night’s blockbuster top-flight tussle against Manchester City - there has been plenty of noise about the security of his spot for both club and country.
‘Dele Alli debate: does Tottenham star deserve England place?’ read one headline, while former Spurs forward Garth Crooks warned that he “had better be careful – [Erik] Lamela is very capable of taking his place.”
Similar discussions have been amplified on social media, but Dele refuses to be distracted by the external chatter. “The biggest learning curves and points of development for a player is when things don’t go well,” he tells JOE.
“How you react to those times will help shape you, not just as a player but as a person as well. “The great thing about social media is that everyone can have an opinion, but it doesn’t mean you have to take in all the opinions.
“You place importance on the opinions that matter most and those are of the people who are working with you to reach the next level, or those who have been there through your journey and don’t just make judgements off your stats or a performance here or there.
“I’ve never paid much attention to pressure or doubt, because I think to make it at the top, you have to have a lot of self-confidence.
“If you’re shy and not sure of yourself, you won’t be able to show what you’re capable of and you can get found out very quickly.
“I came into the Premier League extremely determined to succeed and that hasn’t changed.
“I’m still hungry and still wanting to be the very best player I can be. I’m never really content. If I score one in a game, I want to score two in the next.
“I always want more, always want to achieve more so I never really stop and think ‘oh, I’ve done this.’
“I could score six goals in the next six games and there will still be some people who will have something bad to say.”
“Dele Alli is Dele Alli because of how he is”
The Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, in the shadow of Tottenham’s training complex, is blanketed by welcome afternoon sunshine.
Just past the six-lane running track and adjacent to the dugout, Dele deconstructs his trending celebration so a giddy youngster, who has won a Lynx Gold competition, can master it before they go through training drills.
“He’s got the world at his feet. And now it looks like he’s got the world at his fingers too,” laughs Les Gold, director of Enfield Town, the team that moved into the multi-use sport facility seven years ago.
The Spurs ace is well acquainted with the staff here and the unfiltered glow that offshoots from his presence is familiar too.
The stadium serves as a convenient location for Dele’s commercial and media commitments, but moreover, it is also where he regularly checks in on Aaron Greene, a close friend who is on Town’s roster.
Pictures of the England international proudly decorate the bar and reception hall of the club’s pavilion, where he is framed as a symbol of perseverance and possibilities.
“He had a tough, complicated childhood you know,” Gold highlights, “but he has grown into a really inspirational young man. We see that every time he comes round here.”
That description circles for a short while, partly as it conflicts with the characterisation of Dele that has seemingly been cast in concrete - ‘diver,’ ‘hothead,’ ‘troublemaker’ - and because it underlines a reality that is easy to skip past: he is only 22.
Still developing as a player and person, he often finds himself contorted into the narratives of an established plot. Dele offers that he is far from perfect, referencing “silly decisions” that have led to retrospective bans, but insists he is able to block out those who view him primarily through the outline of his flaws.
“If you know who you are, and the people you work with and live with know who you are,” he says, “then it’s easy to ignore it when someone who is outside that says ‘this is the person you are.’
“After I got sent off for Tottenham [against Gent at Wembley last February] in the Europa League, there was all this talk about my temper, for example.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 11 and there has never been a problem in my career for sending offs. “Then I got that red and it was ‘oh, he loses his head a lot’ or ‘he’s got a discipline problem.’ That’s when it’s most important to stay true to who you are and don’t start thinking ‘they’re saying this so I’ve got to change the way I play.’”
Dele possesses what Dan Micciche and Karl Robinson, who coached him at MK Dons, title “an edge” that needed to be slightly distilled - but that also helps him ignite as a big-game player. There were issues with fiery in-game outbursts, easily curbed by sin-binning exercises of one minute on each occasion.
The verdicts from those who worked with Dele at the Buckinghamshire club provide brush strokes of a determined, ballsy kid that could do more than most with a ball, but still had a bigger appetite than most to improve.
Pochettino mirrored such findings, labelling him “a little bit naughty - in a good way” with “a brilliant brain.” The Argentine has also aided the No.20 with how to channel his aggression “in context.”
Like those before him, Pochettino has eschewed changing Dele, understanding that the midfielder’s “identity and character” are instructive to his footballing mould.
He is what he is because of who he is.
Away from the pitch, Dele - who disassociated from the Alli surname in August 2016 due to feeling “no connection” with it - is polite and polished with a jaunty coating.
He also possesses an automatic partition that only seems to retract if he is in the company of those he unreservedly trusts or in an environment that allows for it.
Given that his body language, every word, and his reactions can be scrutinised to the point of becoming national news, it is easy to understand why the player’s default setting is circumspect mode.
Moreover, Dele’s small circle and guarded nature is instinctive given a fractured childhood that he has mostly kept unspoken, but which has coloured tabloid spreads courtesy of revelations from his estranged parents, Denise and Kehinde.
As Pochettino once explained: “He is very sensitive, very intuitive and because he comes from a difficult background, you can understand that when you’re with him.” The 46-year-old’s care for Dele goes far beyond his football education.
In Brave New World, a book that chronicles Tottenham’s 2016-17 season, Pochettino shares his concern over the inner turmoil of a youngster that didn’t grow up with much, but is now a magnet for so many who want in on what he has worked hard for.
“His WhatsApp photo of a cartoon of a boy surrounded by people who all want a piece of him suggests that he needs to be surrounded by the right people,” the Spurs boss detailed.
“I often think about that WhatsApp photo. John McDermott [Tottenham’s academy chief] says that when the trough is full, the pigs come from all over to feed. “The coach used to be the dominant voice, but now the player listens to so many others, especially those who promise the world.”
Dele cites a strong support structure at regular junctions throughout the interview that direct him away from distractions, opportunists and disparagers, helping funnel his focus on football and his private life.
Harry Hickford, his best friend and manager, also manifestly serves as an anchor. The pair have been inseparable since attending The Radcliffe School, with their relationship initially centered around the game, before it morphed into a brotherly bond.
Dele moved into the Hickford home aged 13, with Harry’s parents, Alan and Sally, all but legally adopting him. They became his axis then and remain so now, with Dele’s gratitude to them unmistakable.
It could be seen at the World Cup in Russia, where his journey through the tournament very much belonged to the Hickfords as well.
Coaches, too, have been crucial to the two-time PFA Young Player of the Year's success and Pochettino’s voice is rightly one of those augmented for him.
The manager has preached that Dele should be shepherded by the backroom team’s expectations of him rather than that of pundits, the press, or social media commentators.
The player with over 150 appearances for Spurs reveals, though, that he has no critic more merciless than himself.
“In my first two seasons, I scored 10 goals in one and 22 in the other, so it does influence what people then expect from me,” Dele says.
“No-one can put more pressure on me than I do on myself. I always expect so much from myself, so if things don’t go well or don’t go quite right, I’m the first one to criticise myself.
“If you have good, honest people around you - family, friends, coaching staff, team-mates - then it’s easy to focus on what matters rather than what everybody else is saying.
“The most important thing is knowing you can do better and listening to those that want help you achieve that.”
Dele’s elevation from being a much-vaunted teenager at Dons to an elite, established star for Tottenham and England has been breakneck.
Greater expectations and acerbic judgement are standard accompaniments to such prosperity, but the effort that goes into it is often glossed over.
In an April 2016 column for The Telegraph, Steven Gerrard - Dele’s footballing idol - had predicted him being quickly shifted from Best New Thing status into the Must Do More bracket.
“Playing football is never more enjoyable or less stressful than when you first come to the fore,” Gerrard wrote.
“When you make an impact at an early age for club and country it feels like everything is going your way and the whole world is on your side. You wish this feeling could last your whole career.
“You pick up the paper and read a different article every day saying how fantastic you are. Your club and international manager are asked to talk about your qualities every week so you can be presented as an emblem of a bright future. Ex-England players such as myself will write columns expressing their admiration and high hopes.
“You’re walking on air into the training ground, desperate for the next game, craving a chance to go up against the best.
“There will come a time when he finds it far more challenging; where he feels he is being singled-out for harsh treatment; where the carefree attitude of being a teenager with nothing to lose is replaced with a sense of responsibility he has to deliver every week; and where he feels he’s done well in a match, but not quite performed as spectacularly as many wanted, and is fending off criticism.”
Dele, who as a seven-year-old was trying to outwit men in the tightest of spaces at Heelands Courts, who couldn’t pay a £1 training fee at times, and who had to deal with not physically maturing as fast as his team-mates between 14-16, presses home the grind behind his glorious rise.
“I love playing football and to be able to do it as my job is beyond a dream for me, but it has taken a lot of effort to get here,” he says.
“Making it as a professional and reaching the Premier League is not an easy thing to achieve. I have a lot of friends from academies who unfortunately it didn't work out for, and that’s a reminder to me not to get complacent.
“Despite coming to the Premier League when I young, I always felt I was ready for the step, I was excited to challenge myself and I believed I could establish myself as a regular.
“At first it was ‘woah, look at the kind of players I’m playing with and against,’ but now it’s like I’ve been here ages and that I deserve to be here. It feels like things have happened quickly, but not when you think about the process since I was 11 - there have been a lot of big decisions and non-stop hard work.
“Football is, and will always be, my top priority. Pretty much everything I do has to somehow help my football develop as much as it can, whether it’s the decisions about what I eat or what else I can work on. Because it’s such a big focus, it’s helpful to have other interests to relax with.
“I love playing PlayStation and games like Fortnite and Call of Duty while chilling with my friends after a hard day of training, because it helps with the recovery process and just to clear my mind. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a footballer and it took a lot of sacrifices to make it happen.
“It’s all about finding a good, healthy balance. I’m only 22, I have friends, I like having a good time with my friends. I also know that there are kids who look up to me and that we’re in the spotlight and have to set a good example.
“It’s still only the very beginning for me, there is a lot I am determined to accomplish.” Dele admits that while he has grown better at dealing with defeats, they remain a tough aspect to overcome.
“There are times where you’ve lost a game and you’re so upset and sad and angry at things not working out the way you planned and prepared for,” he relates.
“It’s hard to escape those feelings, but you have to be a 24-hour professional. Even though it’s tough, you have to learn to turn it around, which starts by thinking about things differently.
“When you’re younger, it does take a few days to get over a defeat and get it out of your system, which could end up affecting the next game.
“But at this level, you can’t afford to be stuck on a result or performance. I don’t want to say you have to put it behind you, because you have to learn from the experience, but you can’t allow it to be part of the focus during the next game or in the build-up to it.”
While he can be unsparing in his self-assessments and is uber serious about his career, Dele has not ceded his root love of the game.
“I still enjoy the same elements of football I did as a kid and that’s very important,” he says.
“I never want to lose that happiness and excitement in my game, it’s a big part of the player I am.
“When I was young, I lived off street or cage football and nutmegs, for example, were one of the trademarks - the thing you were desperate to pull off.
“Obviously, you can’t just try to execute nutmegs in the Premier League all the time, but there’s still that spark when I manage to do one.”
Dele’s blend of flamboyance and functionality on the pitch has drawn the admiration of Real Madrid, but that kind of attention is not of interest to him at the moment.
“When you’re playing for a club like Tottenham and you’re doing as well as we have been, with the talent we have, there’s always going to be transfer rumours,” he reasons.
“I don’t pay attention to them. I’ve got a great manager and great team-mates and I’m continuously improving here.
“We’ve got such a great team, everyone gets on so well so it would have been sad for anyone to leave. We’ve been working together for a few years now and have such a strong understanding, so I still think we can hit new heights as a team.”
That is an arduous objective given the advancement of an already formidable Manchester City, Liverpool's restoration through the hands of Jurgen Klopp, as well as the positive transitions of Chelsea and Arsenal under Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery respectively.
“It wouldn’t be as enjoyable if it was easy,” Dele jumps in. “I love the challenges, the really difficult away games - in my opinion, the fact you’re never really guaranteed anything against any side makes the Premier League the most competitive in the world.
“Whether it’s at the top of the table or at the bottom, it’s a battle.”
And it’s Tottenham’s opponents on Monday that are the benchmark according to him.
“City are a great team with a top manager and players. They had a remarkable season last time out and are the defending champions, so they’re definitely the team to watch.”
Spurs’ record in big-six duels has been severely deficient under Pochettino, but they could do with the availability of their big-game player at Wembley.
Dele has twice scored against City to complement his goals against Chelsea (3), Manchester United (2), Liverpool and Arsenal.
Pep Guardiola, however, may prefer not having to plot the nullification of who he regards as “one of the most fantastic players I have ever seen in my life.”