The Tottenham midfielder didn't match expectations in the 2015-16 season - he smashed them. In less than 12 months, Europe's hottest young talent rose from League One to the Champions League and Euro 2016, and, as he tells FourFourTwo's James Maw, he's not done yet...
I didn’t realise how good it was until all the guys were talking about it in the changing room,” Dele Alli chirpily tells FourFourTwo while perched on the edge of a luxurious sofa. The water-cooler moment in question isn’t Netflix’s latest true crime brain-bender – no, he’s talking about a goal. Specifically, the goal he scored against Crystal Palace. Yes, that one.
“Obviously it was a great goal and I’m proud to have scored it, but I was surprised by the reaction,” Alli says with a shrug.
It certainly was a great goal. With Spurs toiling at 1-1, Alli controlled Christian Eriksen’s knock-down header with his first touch, used his second to loft the ball over his own shoulder and the onrushing Mile Jedinak, and then rifled a blistering volley into the bottom corner of the Palace net with his third.
“Me and one of the kitmen were doing a drill where you had to knee the ball over your head and volley it in,” the youngster explains, “so he was trying to take credit afterwards!”
“You can work on your finishing and whatever, but when you’re in the moment it’s all sort of natural.”
Some have called his strike the best goal seen at Selhurst Park since another prodigious English talent made a name for himself by scoring for the away side. David Beckham’s lob from the halfway line against Wimbledon back in August 1996 – four months after Alli was born – planted the 21-year-old Leytonstone lad into the nation’s consciousness. Alli’s goal, coming as it did in the age of videos going viral on social media, instantly made him an internet sensation the world over.
Alli remains modest when asked if his own Croydon cracker was better than Beckham’s. “Nope,” comes the reply, with a giggle and smirk that are fast becoming trademarks.
As alarming as it may sound to older readers, Beckham is no longer the primary reference point for young footballers across England. Becks left Manchester United for Real Madrid when Alli was just seven, and Spain for Los Angeles when he was 11.
“It was always more [Steven] Gerrard and Ronaldinho,” Alli explains when asked which players most influenced him in his even younger days. “A lot of kids my age loved Ronaldinho for his flair – you could see how much he loved the game. I can remember watching videos of him scoring overhead kicks and trying to recreate them myself, but never quite being able to do it.
“Steven Gerrard was someone I looked up to massively. I’d always try to copy him, right down to the boots he was wearing. It was his attitude on the pitch that stood out – you could really see how much he hated losing.
“The moment that stands out is the goal against West Ham in the  FA Cup Final. It was a great moment in a huge game, and a great finish too. It’s one of the first goals I remember seeing.
“I had a picture with him when I was younger, but I’ve never spoken to him. I think he’d probably be the only person that would make me a bit star-struck!”
The carefree showmanship of Ronaldinho and the chest-thumping, never-say-die attitude of Steven Gerrard – fittingly, it’s not a bad way to define the on-pitch persona of a player who may well be world football’s most exciting youngster.
“As a young player you get a lot of guys trying to kick you. I don’t mind.”
FourFourTwo’s meeting with Tottenham’s No.20 comes less than 24 hours after starring in a 3-0 win at Norwich. Despite playing only 45 minutes of that match, Alli again underlined his importance to Spurs’ push for a Champions League berth by opening the scoring in the second minute, tucking home the rebound after Christian Eriksen’s low strike had been parried by the Canaries’ goalkeeper, Declan Rudd.
The rise has been notably steep. Ten months previously, he had been playing at Port Vale, Fleetwood and Rochdale as his hometown club MK Dons battled for promotion from League One (successfully, as it turned out).
From his humble beginnings in the Milton Keynes suburb of Bradwell, football has always been at the forefront of Alli’s mind.
“My first memory is playing football with all the boys back home in Milton Keynes, outside my old house,” Alli says with a wistful grin. “They used to stick me in goal and just smash balls at me. To start off with, I wanted to be a keeper, but every kid wants to be a striker really, so eventually I moved upfront.
“I also woke up early on Sunday mornings to go downstairs and watch Match of the Day. The first live game I went to was Wimbledon – when they played at the hockey stadium in Milton Keynes – against Chelsea’s reserves. I can’t remember too much about it, though.”
Alli joined MK Dons as an 11-year-old, just three years after the club’s controversial arrival in the town. He turned heads instantly.
“My first real recollection of Dele was a fixture away at Norwich during his first full season with us,” Mike Dove, Director of Youth at MK Dons, tells FFT. “We had some really good, exciting players in that particular age group, but what made Dele stand out was how much he loved having the ball at his feet and the way he was always trying to do new things. He was always doing keepy-uppies or trying little flicks and tricks,” Dove says. “To me that isn’t really showboating. I see it more as players expressing themselves.”
That freedom of expression has clearly had some benefits for Alli, whose approach
to the game is akin to the ‘street baller’ commonly associated with the favelas or barrios of South America, rather than the quiet suburban sprawl of Milton Keynes. He’s bold, brash and adventurous. He takes risks and gets fans off their seats.
“Dele started training with the first team at 15,” MK Dons manager Karl Robinson reveals to FFT. “He has always had the ability to affect a game. Every level he’s played at, he’s played the same way, and been able to have the same impact. Not only was he unpredictable in some of the things he’d do with the ball, his work ethic was also phenomenal – he had an amazing ability to get around the football pitch. That’s maybe the thing people don’t talk about very much – his energy is ridiculous.”
The naturally athletic physique helps, of course, but that energy is borne out of an unadulterated enthusiasm for the game.
“I’ve always tried to enjoy myself playing football,” the youngster says. “Growing up playing a lot of football on the streets or on the courts, the nutmeg was always a thing that a lot of the boys tried to do. I’ve never wanted to take that out of my game. I want to enjoy and express myself, and that’s the way I try to do that.
“I remember, in one of my early sessions with MK Dons, they did this thing on a Friday where you’d vote for the worst trainer. I voted for Darren Potter because I’d nutmegged him in the session. Afterwards some of the boys told me to watch myself the next time we trained, but it was just a bit of a joke.”
The nutmeg has become something of a calling card for Alli. One stat-based Spurs account on Twitter has even been keeping a tally of the tyro’s trickery: at the time of writing, it’s 30 nutmegs. But with so many red-faced victims to choose from, who is Alli’s favourite?
“Luka Modric – it’s got to be,” he beams, recalling his bamboozling of the Real Madrid midfielder during a pre-season friendly in Munich. “When someone’s got a bit of flair, it feels a bit better to beat them.”
Beguiling a fellow playmaker or a tricky winger is one thing, but what about the game’s brutish defenders and midfield destroyers? Surely there’s a chance Alli could humiliate the wrong player and get a good whack for his troubles?
“A lot of [senior] players have had a little word with me because I laugh quite a lot on the pitch, just because I’m enjoying it. But it’s part of the game and you expect it. I don’t mind people trying to kick me.”
This is clearly a kid who knows how to have fun on the pitch. However, there’s another side to this particular coin. For every moment of magic, every seemingly impromptu flick or trick, there’s a flash of aggression, a glimpse of the fire within. Alli hasn’t been afraid to put himself about in his debut Premier League season, even squaring up to Norwich’s Russell Martin. And that’s the way it’s always been. MK Dons even brought a sin-bin system into their academy training sessions to curb the rookie midfielder’s enthusiasm. Their head of academy coaching, Dan Micciche – who is now working with the FA – came up with the plan and knows Alli better than most, having helped oversee his development from pre-teen to Football League Young Player of the Year.
“I used to get quite angry on the pitch,” Alli recalls of his early days, “so if I made a bad tackle or got a bit aggressive, Dan Micciche would say, ‘That would be a red card in a professional match’, and take me out of the session. That probably calmed me down a bit on the pitch. But I still play with a bit of anger.”
Mike Dove recalls Alli’s early signs of aggression: “The sin-bin system wasn’t just for Dele, but he’s got a competitive nature to him and we had to try and help him by giving him a little more structure and discipline. He had to know where the line was. Sometimes he’d have a little sulk if he didn’t get his way, or he’d be a little over the top with a challenge, so we had to tell him ‘this isn’t acceptable’.”
Although Alli and Dove both agree that the tough love dished out at youth level helped the youngster to keep a cooler head when things started to get heated, it by no means meant that he became a wallflower.
“When I first stepped up into the first team at MK I was flying into tackles straightaway,” Alli explains. “[MK Dons captain] Dean Lewington told me I had to keep that in my game and not shy away from it. It’s not something I’m looking to change.
“As a younger player coming through, particularly in League One, you get a lot of guys trying to kick you. A lot of the senior players told me I needed to be tough.”
But does this mean streak (or ‘devilment’, as Tim Sherwood christened it on Match of the Day) actually give Alli an edge as a footballer?
“You could say that,” Alli muses. “But that’s just me. I like to just go out there and be myself. Sometimes I get carried away with things, but I’m young and I’ve still got a lot to learn. [Mauricio Pochettino and I] have hada few chats about it. Hugo Lloris has been a great influence on me at Tottenham and he’s spoken to me about it, too. He told me not to let that aggressive side fall out of my game, so I’m just going to keep being myself.”
Even if he has occasionally sailed a little too close to the wind as far as some Premier League referees are concerned, it certainly hasn’t done him much harm so far.
“As soon as I heard Spurs were interested, I didn’t have to think about it too much”
Mike Dove recalls a key moment from Alli’s nascent career. “I have a memory of Dele being a first-year apprentice with me and going to an away game south of London to take on a team who played with a really low defensive block,” Dove says. “He was playing deeper in midfield, with acres of space, and I could see there was no challenge for him. He was bored so he started doing things he wouldn’t have done if he was under pressure. That was when I realised we had to challenge him – we needed to start pushing him. I spoke to the first team-staff and said: ‘We really need to push this boy’. It wasn’t long after that he started to train with the first team.”
From that point onwards, Alli’s ascension from youth team to first team came at breakneck speed. His senior debut came in a televised FA Cup First Round tie away to seventh-tier outfit Cambridge City. He was just 16 years and 205 days old.
“He came on at that age in a game live on television, where we were under huge pressure to avoid an upset, and he played just like he would at the park with his mates,” Robinson tells FFT. By that, the MK Dons boss means the debutant’s first touch as a professional footballer was a cheeky backheeled pass.
“Karl said a few words to me about it afterwards,” Alli chuckles, “but he laughed at the end, so it was all good. Just before I’d gone on, he told me to go out and express myself, and that was how I decided to do it.
“Karl and I still speak quite regularly. I spoke to him recently before they played Chelsea [in the FA Cup]. He’s a great manager and a great person as well. He helped me with a lot of personal stuff. When you’re a youngster it definitely helps if you’ve got someone you can trust and talk to whenever you need to talk – someone to look after you, almost. Karl definitely did that when I was at MK.”
The bond between Alli and Robinson is a strong one, the 35-year-old Scouser proving surprisingly malleable when it came to facilitating his young star’s eventual desire to up sticks and test himself in the bright lights of the Premier League.
“We spoke most days about what was going on – how he was feeling, where he wanted to go, and so on,” Robinson says. “Then, on a Friday night at the hotel before an away game at Crewe – it was when he was starting to get kicked by opposition players and had started to become fearful, possibly for the first time in his life – he said to me: ‘I think this is time to get something done’. I just wanted him to be the best he could be.”
Things moved quickly – a recurring theme in Alli’s development. By the Monday evening he had signed for Tottenham, although he would remain at MK Dons on loan for the remainder of the season – at the player’s insistence, according to Robinson. Alli explains: “My family and my agent, Rob Segal, decided what would be best for me in terms of settling in at Tottenham, and planned it all carefully with both of the clubs. I let the people around me sort those things out.”
Thinking back to a saga that will have been unquestionably alien for a quiet 18-year-old, Alli shrugs. “I don’t really read the papers that much,” he says. “I knew what was going on, but I had great support and they didn’t let me get too carried away with things. Obviously it was hard not to get too excited at times,
but I didn’t really want to hear about the interest until it was really serious.”
The interest was not only serious – it was widespread. Spurs faced competition from Arsenal, Liverpool, Newcastle United and reportedly even Bayern Munich for the League One tyro.
“As soon as I heard Tottenham were interested, I didn’t have to think about it too much,” Alli enthuses. “One of the biggest things about Spurs was the manager. When I was looking to leave MK, I looked for a manager that had the same sort of philosophy as Karl Robinson. As a youngster you’re looking to break through, and moving up to the Premier League was a big step so I knew it was important to find another manager who wasn’t afraid to play youngsters in big games.
“You can see the number of young players that [Pochettino] has brought through at Tottenham. I spoke to a couple of the boys there and they all said great things about him. It’s a massive club and I can definitely see us going forward, so it’s a great place to be.”
With the distracting business of a big-money transfer out of the way, Alli was free to return to leading his club’s promotion push. Sixteen goals from midfield earned the youngster a place in the PFA League One Team of the Year and helped the Buckinghamshire club into the second tier, much to Alli’s delight. “When I went back, there was a bit of banter – a few jokes, the kind of thing you expect – but it was really important that I got it out of my head that I was a Tottenham player. I was looking only to help MK get promoted, and thankfully we did that.
“Going back there, staying focused and working as hard as I could was a big thing for me, and a good way to repay them.”
"Hopefully one day I’ll be the perfect person who can cook, clean and wash up!"
“To be honest, before he came here, I didn’t really know him,” defender Jan Vertonghen admitted after Tottenham’s 3-1 win over Aston Villa in November, a game in which Alli scored his first goal at White Hart Lane. “But this guy has impressed everyone since the first day we met. I think he has a great future. Hopefully he stays with us for a very long time; he is a great player [and a] great guy.”
The Belgian hasn’t been the only senior member of the Tottenham squad singing his new team-mate’s praises this season.
“I started to follow him [after the transfer] and heard a lot of positive things,” captain Hugo Lloris told TalkSport in January. “In the club we only knew that we had a great English talent. But he deserves [the plaudits] because of his mentality, and if he keeps the same spirit he will be a great English player.”
So his new Spurs team-mates are clearly impressed. What about away from the action? Moving from the suburbs to the bright lights of London at such a young age can’t be easy, especially when you’re balancing that with your first season of top-flight football.
Despite admitting he has still never used a washing machine and is no dab hand in the kitchen, Alli seems content with his new life.
“It’s been good,” he nods. “I’ve had a lot of support that has made it easy to make the move, but I still struggle with cooking. I can do scrambled eggs but I have to use the microwave. I plan to learn, eventually, but they’ve got a great chef at Tottenham and he cooks me meals to take home.
“I’ve got a lot to learn – not just on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. Hopefully one day I’ll be the perfect person who can cook and clean and wash up,” he laughs.
“It’s quite intense in the Premier League, so I like to relax as much as I can. A lot of the boys at Tottenham are on Call of Duty at the minute – it gets very competitive. There are about 15 of us who play online: Jan Vertonghen, Toby [Alderweireld], Walks [Kyle Walker]... Nabil [Bentaleb] has just started playing, too, but he’s not that great. I’d say Eric Dier is the worst, though.”
The defender-come-midfielder raised in Portugal is, by Alli’s own admission, the butt of a lot of the Buckinghamshire boy’s jokes. Alli tells FFT that Dier is the club’s worst gamer, but also the worst dressed (“None of his clothes fit him”) and the worst dancer (“It’s horrendous; I’m trying to teach him”), and he recently began attempts – tongue planted firmly in cheek – to arrange a bout between 22-year-old Dier and Olympic boxing champion Anthony Joshua. Yet he also says his colleague in the Spurs midfield is his best friend at the club. “He’s a good guy and a great player,” Alli says enthusiastically. “We have been close ever since I joined. I think he’s going to be a friend for life.”
That bond has served the pair well this season. The duo both earned first senior England call-ups thanks to a string of fine displays as the deep-lying midfield two in Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 system.
However, Alli has also spent time further forward, acting as the team’s primary creative force – the No.10 tucked in behind Harry Kane. Where does Alli see his future? “I’m happy to play anywhere,” he tells FFT. “If I’m playing as the No.10 it’ll help me a lot for when I move back into the more defensive role.”
With both Alli and Dier thriving in north London this season, along with several of their young team-mates, it has become increasingly clear that Mauricio Pochettino has the knack of getting the very best out of promising young players. Ten of the 18 players to have made their England debut since the Argentine arrived in the Premier League in January 2013 have done so after playing for the former Espanyol boss at either Southampton or Spurs. But what makes him so good?
“He tells you how it is, and we have that kind of relationship where you feel you can talk to him about anything,” Alli reveals. “It’s really important, particularly for a youngster, to have a manager who not only has faith in you, but who you can speak to about whatever you need to.
“Obviously it’s still early stages at Tottenham – I’ve not been there that long! – but you can see all the players really trust him. He doesn’t just want to make everyone the best player; he wants to bring them out as a person as well.”
Not that Alli has ever needed too much help when it comes to the mental side of the game.
“We had a guy at MK to help with stuff like that,” he says, “but I didn’t see him much because I’ve always been quite confident in my own ability. I’m very different off the pitch to what I’m like on it, though – I’m not quite as fiery!
“You have to be confident in yourself. You can’t be scared when you go out there. It can be quite daunting, especially for a 19-year-old moving away from home and into London, but you have got to be strong, believe in yourself and express yourself as much as you can. You don’t have to believe you are the best, but you definitely have to believe that you can become the best. I want to be as good as I can be and achieve as much as I can.”
“I can’t get carried away. I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve made it yet…”
But could those potential achievements include this season’s Premier League title? February’s 1-0 win against Watford – in which Alli created the winner 176 seconds after appearing as a second-half substitute – saw Spurs move second in the table.
It was followed by that tenacious 2-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium. In a season where it seems anything could happen, could one of those things be Spurs finishing top of the pile?
“We’re still quite relaxed about it,” Alli says. “It’s not impossible, but we don’t want to get too carried away – that’s when things can go downhill. We’re a very ambitious squad, we have great depth, so anything’s possible – we just need to win as many games as we can.”
But it’s not just success at club level that should be in his sights.
“I didn’t really expect it, to be honest,” Alli says of his first senior England call-up, for October’s Euro 2016 qualifying double-header against Estonia and Lithuania. “We were in Monaco the day before our Europa League game there, and the manager [Pochettino] took me to one side and said: ‘Would you like to go away with England Under-19s?’ It’s an honour to go away with your country at any age group, so obviously I said I would go. Then he said: ‘Actually, I think you are going away with the senior team’. He just wanted to see my reaction!
“I didn’t want to think about it too much until after the Monaco game, but it was a bit hard to keep it all in.”
Typically unfazed, Alli says he was “excited rather than nervous” when thrown into the mix after 88 minutes of England’s 2-0 win over Estonia – his full debut for his country. Similarly, when the ball fell invitingly to his feet some 25 yards from goal in the friendly against France a month later, the youngster wasn’t at all flustered – despite the fact his club captain and friend, Hugo Lloris, stood between him and a first international goal.
“It’s another one of those things – it just happens in a moment and you don’t really think about it until afterwards,” Alli says. “As soon as it dropped to me I knew I was hitting it, and fortunately I caught it cleanly and it went in. Hugo and I had a joke about it afterwards. Obviously he was happy for me – he’s a great guy and he’s helped me a lot since I came to Tottenham – but it did make it a bit sweeter to score against him. I’ve not mentioned it to him in a while, actually. I’ll drop it in again soon.”
Given Alli’s impressive form this season, a spot in Roy Hodgson’s squad for Euro 2016 looks a near-certainty, injury permitting.
“I’ve thought about it a number of times,” Alli says of his potential summer sojourn to France. “But I can’t afford to get carried away. If I want to get picked I’ve got to keep my place in the Tottenham team, and keep trying to improve. I need to work on my left foot – that’s one of my biggest weaknesses. I’m staying after training with a few of the boys and doing some long and short passing to work on that.”
So quickly has he pulled up a seat and made himself comfortable at football’s top table, it is to Alli’s credit that he remains level-headed. Not that he isn’t hugely ambitious.
“I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve made it yet,” he tells us. “I’ve still got so much to achieve. I’m extremely grateful for everything that’s happened so far, but I’m still just looking to improve. In the next five years, I want to be a regular starter for England and I want to win the Champions League. “With Spurs, of course.”
Photography: Shamil Tanna
Special thanks to Impact Sports Management
This interview originally featured in the April 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe.