Long read: Dele Alli interview – "I focus on the football; not getting wound up as easily"
There’s excitement in the air as FourFourTwo awaits the arrival of April 2017’s cover star. Will he be in a good mood today? Will he take direction from our photographer? Is he as fun-loving and carefree as we’ve been told? As soon as the star of the show bounds into the north London studio, each question is answered with a resounding ‘yes’. And he didn’t do his business in the corner of the room, either.
“Hugo is well-trained,” says Dele, who, you will have noticed, also happens to feature on our cover, alongside his family’s beloved pooch. “Well, if they are training him to chew all my shoes, anyway.”
Hugo is indeed immaculately behaved, despite a reputation for gallivanting off to chase squirrels around the leafier corners of Buckinghamshire. He is also well-turned-out, having spent the previous afternoon at the poodle salon and been bought a special primping brush to ensure he looks his best for his first-ever photoshoot. This is his day, after all.
“He was stealing my limelight,” Dele says with a laugh, and just the tiniest hint of jealousy, once the interspecies photocall is over. “He’s the family dog. He lives back in Milton Keynes, but comes to visit me now and then. Every time he leaves, I notice my trainers are chewed up!”
Of course, it isn’t just the 18-month-old King Charles Spaniel/Shih-Tzu cross – not named after Tottenham captain Lloris, since you ask – who benefits from being well-trained. Dele is thriving under the tutelage of his manager at White Hart Lane, the demanding Mauricio Pochettino.
“Sometimes you take your foot off the pedal a little bit, but he’s always there straightaway to make sure you know that everyone is fighting for a place, and that it’s just as easy to come out of the team as it is to get into it,” the 20-year-old says of the Argentine. “He wants you to give 100 per cent all of the time. He wants the intensity that you see us playing with in matches all of the time. As soon as he sees you coming off it in training, he will tell you straightaway. You can’t get complacent.”
Not that the Milton Keynes native could be accused of standing still. It’s one year and five days since FFT last met up with the Spurs schemer, but so much has happened in the past 12 months that this chat feels long overdue.
He has helped Tottenham to their joint-best league finish since 1963, played in his first major tournament with England and made his Champions League bow, all before his 21st birthday. He and his teams may not have had everything go their way in that time, but as the man himself is quick to tell us, he has learned a heck of a lot from those setbacks.
“I feel much more mature now,” Dele confesses, making himself comfortable on the very same sofa from which he spoke to us a year ago. “I’ve grown up a lot and am experiencing new things on and off the pitch.
“Fortunately, I have some good people around me to help me grow into a better person – my family, the people around the club and the manager. If you ever step out of line, he has a word with you. If he sees you have got a problem or thinks something’s wrong at home, he’ll speak with you about it.”
The reverent tone with which he refers to his manager speaks volumes for exactly how much he believes the former Espanyol and Southampton boss has done for his football career. And the talented youngster has come a very long way in a very short space of time.
Twelve months after being named in the PFA’s 2014/15 League One Team of the Year and as the Football League’s Young Player of the Year for his role in MK Dons’ promotion to the Championship, he was named PFA Young Player of the Year for scoring 10 goals and providing assists for nine more as Tottenham finished third in the Premier League. In 2016/17, he's won it again.
If you ever step out of line, he has a word with you. If he sees you have got a problem or thinks something’s wrong at home, he’ll speak with you about it
In December, he played his 50th top-flight match, as Spurs won 4-1 at Southampton. In that match he scored his 15th and 16th Premier League goals. He also provided 10 assists in that time. These tallies compare favourably to those of the most iconic English midfielders of the Premier League era in their first half-century of matches; Paul Scholes (16 goals, two assists), Frank Lampard (five goals, two assists) and Steven Gerrard (two goals, three assists). Even Cristiano Ronaldo only managed six goals in his first 50 English league football outings.
“[Pochettino] has helped a lot since I’ve been at Spurs,” says Dele. “If I’m ever down, he can tell straightaway. He sees it in your face. For me, the important thing is that he doesn’t just look at what is happening on the pitch; he looks at what’s going on off the pitch, to make sure everything is going well for you. And if you ever have any problems, he’s always there to help.”