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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.”

Having a level-headed gaffer who’ll impart timely words of wisdom is particularly useful for a young player still adapting to a whole new level of fame. Just for starters, his Twitter following has swelled from 120,000 to more than 300,000 over the past 12 months, with similar increases on other social media channels. He’s becoming a superstar.

“I’m still the same boy I was at MK; the thing that has changed is getting noticed more when I’m out and about,” Dele says confidently. “You get used to it. I’m happy to be in the spotlight – it comes with the job – and hopefully I can set a good example for youngsters.”

He’s certainly polite, and makes a point of greeting Team FFT upon his arrival, shaking us all by the hand. He is that kid at school your parents wished you were more like: smartly dressed, well-mannered, and better at football.

I’m still the same boy I was at MK; the thing that has changed is getting noticed more when I’m out and about

But not everything comes quite so easily for Dele. With this increased profile, he is now a big enough deal to fill column inches outside the sports section.

“It’s another thing that comes with the territory,” he says a little more sternly, the smile leaving his face for the first time. “You’ve just got to ignore it. Sometimes it can be stressful, but if you’ve got the right people with you, they help you to focus.”

It seems that the swift and humiliating conclusion to England’s European Championship adventure in France last summer held at least some of Dele’s focus for a good few months. The Three Lions crashed out at the hands of unfancied Iceland in the last 16 of the competition, having drawn two of their three group-stage games against Russia and Slovakia. And he tells FFT how the heartbreak of suffering such a momentous defeat that night saw him lose a little of that trademark swagger in the early months of the 2016/17 campaign.

“With the way the Euros ended, my confidence wasn’t quite as high as it was the season before.

“During the time we were there, I got to know the boys a lot more and everyone got on well. It was a good trip. But what happened at the end just ruined everything.”

Despite the way in which England exited the competition, he speaks fondly of his four weeks in France. This is a player and a man who’s not afraid to learn the hard way.

“The whole tournament was a great experience for me,” he insists. “That summer there were some of the best moments and some of the worst moments of my career, and it was a great learning curve for all of us. There were a lot of young players at their first tournament and it was a great chance to learn. It’s just important that we don’t let something like that happen again.”

He continues: “You just can’t take any game for granted. Every team poses a threat, so you have got to be ready and 100 per cent focussed in every international match. It’s hard to say what went wrong on the night. Building up to it, nobody could have expected what happened. Everyone was up for the game and everyone was hungry for it.”

In Dele, at least, that hunger is only growing stronger.

France was a good trip. But what happened at the end just ruined everything

When he scored his first Spurs goal in August 2015, he had no idea how significant it potentially could have been. The then-teenager’s brave diving header helped his new team to earn a 1-1 draw away at Leicester on the third weekend of the Premier League season.

It looked like two points dropped for the north Londoners – and seeing as they conceded the equalising goal just 90 seconds after the midfielder’s 81st-minute opener, maybe it was – but given that Leicester went on to win the title, on reflection it was hardly shameful.

However, had Spurs won, perhaps things would have been different. Had Leicester been beaten on that August afternoon at the King Power Stadium, perhaps Claudio Ranieri’s side wouldn’t have marched on to become champions for the first time in their history. Perhaps it would have been Tottenham who defied the odds. Instead, try as they might, Dele and Spurs couldn’t successfully chase down the fantastic Foxes.

“It was horrible,” he sighs, reflecting on a season that ended in disappointment for Spurs, despite their best-ever Premier League finish. That cheeky smile is long gone. “After the way we’d played all season, for it to end like that was hard to take. It’s horrible to be up there for so long and then not win the league, or get anything from the season. It’s important that we don’t let it happen again.”

The fact the Londoners felt so frustrated is a sign of how far they’ve come. Leicester’s feat overshadowed quite how much Pochettino and his young squad had accomplished. Without the spending power of Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea, Spurs had not only pipped their rivals to a Champions League spot, but romped to it.

Dele was a key figure. He grew in stature as the season went on, scoring in comprehensive wins over Manchester United (3-0) and at Stoke (4-0). These results and displays had Leicester concerned. A few months ago, the Foxes’ midfielder Marc Albrighton told FFT that he asked his friends to leave his house midway through Spurs’ emphatic win in the Potteries, such was his agitation at seeing his club’s title rivals play this devastating football.

It’s horrible to be up there for so long and then not win the league, or get anything from the season

With four games to go, Tottenham were in the form of their lives and five points behind Leicester, who still faced trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. They were very much in the hunt. Then West Brom, and Claudio Yacob, arrived.

On a tense Monday evening at White Hart Lane, Spurs’ No.20 was fouled three times in the opening six minutes, twice by Argentine midfielder Yacob, and it was clear that he was becoming frustrated. “There were a few things that happened [early in the game],” he tells FFT. “But everything was building up. With us chasing Leicester, it was a massive game.”

As the contest came to a boiling point midway through the first half, Yacob shoved Dele, the Spurs man swung an arm, and headlines were made. “Dele Alli appears to PUNCH Claudio Yacob as Tottenham’s title dream is dealt a major blow,” read the Mirror’s back page splash. It was hardly a punch that would make Anthony Joshua wince, but it was a punch nonetheless, and enough to earn the Spurs man a three-match suspension.

“It’s something I regret,” Dele says solemnly, looking back on an incident that finished his season, on the night that his team’s Premier League title push effectively came to a halt. “It was a mistake. But sometimes you need to make mistakes in order to learn the lessons from them. Obviously I was disappointed not to be playing [in the final three matches of the season], but I have learnt from it and it’s helped me to grow as a player and as a person.

“I’ll never stop wanting to win; I have just learned to control it a bit better. I focus on the football; not getting wound up as easily. After that incident, I think some people thought they could wind me up.”

There was certainly a period when it seemed as if he had made himself a target. It’s not too hard to imagine opposition managers instructing their most conniving player to try to get a rise from the Spurs hotshot. So is that cause for concern for the man himself?

“I’ve got everything under control,” he says, giving FFT a fixed, steely gaze. “You expect things like that to happen, as people do everything to try to win the game. I’m not bothered either way.”

He certainly didn’t seem particularly bothered when, in the first half of Tottenham’s home match against Middlesbrough in February, Boro keeper Victor Valdes twice pushed him in the face. It looked for all the world like one of those moments where Dele’s competitive streak may get the better of him. But he shrugged it off, walked away and helped his team to a crucial 1-0 victory. “It was in the heat of the moment,” he says of the set-to, nonchalantly. “Things got a bit heated. I just had to stay calm – I didn’t want to do anything to get yellow-carded. Hopefully that’s a sign that I’ve matured!”

Pochettino is clearly convinced his young charge is growing up fast. When quizzed about potential future captains in a press conference last month, the Tottenham manager claimed that the youngster had “the personality and the character to become a leader in a few years”.

The ongoing trust that Pochettino has placed in the midfielder has been a key facet of their relationship. He threw his new signing into the mix 77 minutes into the opening match of last season – at Old Trafford, no less – before giving him a first start only five weeks later at Sunderland. Dele then started 35 of Spurs’ next 45 matches in all competitions before that ill-timed suspension, despite it being his first campaign playing above the third tier. It has been a speedy elevation, and he is more than a little grateful for his manager’s show of faith.

“I owe him a lot of thanks for the way he’s helped me to settle in, and for the opportunities he’s given me,” he says. “Everyone trusts the manager and wants to work for him. I think you see that on the pitch.”

I focus on the football; not getting wound up as easily. After the Yacob incident, I think some people thought they could wind me up

Tottenham’s players, Dele included, clearly have a lot of affection for their Argentine manager – affection that's reciprocated in the form of bear hugs and fatherly slaps on the back. The White Hart Lane boss displays a near-constant disposition of tenderness, which can border on ‘cuddly’... at least in public.

“He can switch,” Dele laughs, almost nervously. “You don’t want to get on the wrong side of him. He’s showed me and Eric [Dier] clips of him when he was playing at Espanyol: some were of him scoring goals, some others were of him clattering people.

“He is relaxed, but if you’re not putting in the work, or if your attitude isn’t quite right, then he’ll tell you about it.”

Pochettino’s impact in north London has been as telling as that of any player. Since his appointment in May 2014, the 45-year-old has transformed the Lilywhites in a way not even the most optimistic Spurs fan, or even the chairman Daniel Levy, could have imagined.

The 2013/14 season had not been a happy one in N17. High player turnover had led to a fractured squad with training-ground cliques and some players who seemingly lacked motivation. Tottenham’s Premier League campaign featured a 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea, 4-0 and 5-0 losses to Liverpool, and 5-1 and 6-0 hammerings by Manchester City.

Pochettino quickly set about disposing of the bad eggs, ending up with a smaller, more driven, more disciplined group of players. Spurs have a united squad (“Everyone helps each other out; you can talk to anyone about anything,” says Dele), and they also have statistically the best defence in the league. They’re harder to beat than they have been at any point in the past 30 years, and Pochettino’s dedication to his craft – he was a defender, remember – has made all the difference.

“Whenever you arrive at the training ground, he’s there, and whenever you leave the training ground, he’s there,” Dele gushes. “You can see how hard he works. And tactically he is fantastic. It’s amazing how quickly he can change things. It seems like he has always got a lot of plans in his head, so if one doesn’t work then he can quickly change it.” 

Pochettino even uses video analysis of the opening 45 minutes of a game during its interval. “At half-time he shows us clips from the first half and tells us what we need to be doing,” Dele explains. “Or, if there’s something we’re going to change, he’ll show us a couple of clips to highlight that.

“That eye for detail definitely gives you confidence. When we are trying something new, you know it’s not just something he’s picked out of thin air. It’s something he has planned and thinks is going to work. But if it doesn’t, he’s still going to have a backup plan.”

Among those tactical experiments was the recent switch to a back three that helped to kickstart Dele’s season. Picking an extra central defender not only allowed flying full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose more freedom to attack; it also saw Dele adopt a more advanced role than he had for much of the first half of 2016-17. He was almost playing as a second striker. Suddenly, the goals began to flow freely.

“Against Chelsea and then in a few of the games after that, I was playing a little bit higher than the No.10,” he says, then jokes: “Maybe I was a 10-and-a-half. I was still in midfield, but playing off H [Harry Kane] a bit more.” Spurs beat Chelsea 2-0 in January thanks to their midfield dynamo’s two headed goals.

The nearer he and Kane play to one another, the more goals they score. Dele started off last season in a deeper role, too, before a move forward coincided with an upturn in form for himself and the striker. Often the pair dovetail perfectly, exchanging flicks and passes that leave opposition defences with their heads in a spin. In 2015/16, Dele assisted seven of Kane’s 25 league goals – a division-high combination. 

“He’s a fantastic player,” he says of Kane, his team-mate for club and country. “You know that if you play the ball through to him, then nine times out of 10 he’s going to find the back of the net. It’s an honour to play with a striker like that. 

“His all-round play is fantastic. He holds the ball up and can bring other players into the game as well as score. He works so hard, too: if you do play him a bad ball, he’ll work hard to make it a good one. 

“We always speak about the opposition before a game. We tell each other what we’re going to be looking to do, then try to put it into action.”

The manager showed me and Eric [Dier] clips of him when he was playing at Espanyol: some were of him scoring goals, some others were of him clattering people

But while the pair cause headaches for Premier League defences, they were unable to do adequate damage in the Champions League.

Having been drawn into a group with Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow, Spurs were expected to progress to the knockout stages. But defeats at Wembley – their temporary home for European games – to their French and German rivals ended their hopes of staying in the competition, much to the frustration of Dele and his team-mates.

“As a kid, everyone wants to play in the Champions League so it was an honour to be in it,” he says of his first dalliance with Europe’s premier cup competition. “I used to listen to that music on TV when I was growing up, so to hear it as we lined up at Wembley felt unreal.

“We’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t do better. We are confident in our ability as a team and we probably expected to go a bit further. 

“A lot of people were saying ‘the Wembley factor’ had a negative effect on us, but as a team we can’t look anywhere else – all of those fans turned up and we simply didn’t put in the performances that we knew we should have done.”

But another disappointment is more fuel for the fire inside, and Dele sees returning to the competition in 2017/18 as crucial to both his and his team’s overall development. And that’s just for starters.

“Obviously everyone wants to be there,” he says. “There’s tough competition in the Prem but we fancy ourselves against anyone, so it’ll be disappointing if we don’t get back in there. We have the team to achieve a lot of great things. We want to be up there with the best teams in the world, but to do that we have to be in the Champions League, playing against them.

“It’s important that we’re ambitious. We know where we should be, and we know what we can do as a team. When we are on form and playing well, I don’t think there’s anyone in the Premier League that can beat us. There are no boundaries; there’s nothing we can’t do if we play as well as we know we can.

“When you’re winning games but not winning things at the end of the season, it’s hard. We’ve got to learn from every game. Hopefully in the future, maybe even this season, we’ll start winning trophies.”

If he maintains his mantra of learning from every setback, then the best young player in the Premier League could soon become one of the best players in the world, full stop.

“Hopefully people can see I’ve grown up and learnt from mistakes,” he says, reflecting on how far he has come in the past 12 months. Now he just needs to stop leaving his shoes out for Hugo to destroy.

Photography: Shamil Tanna. Stylists: Rachel Gold, Daniel Rhone. Hair and makeup: Victoria Reynolds.

This feature first appeared in the April 2017 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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