Portrait of Dele Alli for FS magazine photoshoot ()Portrait of Dele Alli for FS magazine photoshoot () © Copyright

How Dele Alli completed it

Dele is a big deal. He’s just 20 years old, but people expect big things of the Tottenham midfielder, with pundits scrambling to proclaim his ability to anyone who’ll listen. “He is a better player than Paul Pogba.”

Those exact words were spoken by Ray Parlour, but it’s a sentiment also broadcast by Harry Redknapp (“I think Dele is the better player”) and, for the record, former Sunderland player Micky Gray (“If I had a choice, I’d change [Pogba] for Dele tomorrow”).

That’s £89.3m Paul Pogba – world record signing Paul Pogba – winner of four consecutive Serie A titles while at Juventus, plus two Coppa Italias and two Supercoppa Italianas to boot. That’s some comparison.

The reason is people see something special in Dele. He’s not only being compared to Pogba, but some of the finest players of the past 25 years. Sir Alex Ferguson said Dele is the best young midfielder he’s seen since Paul Gascoigne. A fine compliment, made all the better when you consider that Ferguson brought Paul Scholes and David Beckham through at Manchester United. And that’s without mentioning the non-English midfielders Fergie managed.

And then there’s Jamie Redknapp, who believes Dele is better than Steven Gerrard was at the same age. An opinion Gerrard himself readily agrees with. And, at the event where we meet the clearly talented Spurs youngster, he’s introduced to the stage as “future England captain” by Chris Kamara.

It’s easy to forget that 18 months ago, no-one had really heard of him.

Dele’s Spurs debut came on 8 August 2015 as a late sub against Manchester United; his England debut coming just two months later.  That goal against Crystal Palace came on 23 January.

He scored ten league goals in his first season (one more than Dimitri Payet and Christian Benteke, two more than Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney), and won the PFA Young Player Of The Year award.

Formerly known as Dele Alli, he has since ditched the surname he feels no connection with, an unwanted legacy from a difficult childhood.

And now great things are expected, both this season and over the next decade. Both for Spurs and, of course, the national team. England expects.

Dele is a big deal.

Dele Alli portrait for FS magazine ()

 

You wouldn’t think it to meet him, though. Taller than you’d expect (his height of 6ft 2in is more commonly seen on a target man or a bruising centre half), but with a lithe frame that comes with youth. Youth and the fitness schedule of a Premier League footballer. No. It’s not when you look at him that it’s surprising he’s a professional player – it’s when you speak to him.

The reputation of the modern footballer is not a positive one. They’re overpaid, it’s said. They don’t care, we’re told. The lifestyle is more important than the sport, it’s claimed. All this is summed up in the famous story of a player making the Newcastle bus turn round to return to Birmingham City’s ground because he’d left a diamond earring in the dressing room. (That was Kieron Dyer, just in case you’d missed it.)

Dele isn’t like that. Or at least, he doesn’t appear to be. He hasn’t been caught falling out of nightclubs after curfew. He hasn’t been papped smoking in a pool. The impression is of a man who loves the game and always has done.

“I don’t think there’s a better job,” he explains to us. “You know, just going in every day to play football. And you don’t really think about what could happen when you’re eight or nine. You don’t think about the future – you just enjoy playing.”

It’s that enthusiasm that still shines through. He revels in the fact he’s playing football for a living. That the players he looked up to, or pretended to be when he was playing in the park with his friends (“I was always Steven Gerrard”), are now praising his talent and his potential. He realises he’s in a rarefied position, now it’s about making the most of it. To make sure his potential is fulfilled.

“You can’t say you’ve made it,” Dele says assertively, batting back our query as to the moment he realised he had done just that. “You’re always wanting more, wanting to be better, wanting to achieve more than you have.”

So how to do that? “It’s about working as hard as you can every day. Going into training to Tottenham, and making sure you’re not slacking – it has to be 100 per cent. But I can’t get carried away – it’s about keeping your feet on the floor and looking to improve.” And it seems there are few better places he could be than at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino.

White Hart Lane is not typically a target for big stars of the world game. When they do play there, it’s more honest to describe it as a stepping stone – the destination before the move to Real Madrid (where both Luka Modric and Gareth Bale have been sold in recent seasons). But that appears to be a good thing. Spurs are no slouches, going close to winning the Premier League last season before finishing third ahead of Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool. In fact, they’ve finished above Liverpool in six out of the past seven seasons. But it’s good because there are no marquee signings (the one-time Galacticos) suddenly being brought in and limiting players’ opportunities. No Zlatan Ibrahimovic to ration Harry  Kane’s starts. No N’Golo Kanté to do the same to Eric Dier. And – no matter what Harry Redknapp says – no Paul Pogba slotting into the side ahead of Dele.

Instead there’s a focus on the team, not just the individual. Everyone working together. No one bigger than the unit. And, if it’s not too dramatic, no man left behind. And Dele’s answers are peppered with allusions to it. “Everyone loves being there,” he remarks as he talks about training. When he’s asked about how his career compares to Gerrard’s, David Beckham’s and Ashley Cole’s at the same age (he has more England caps in all three cases, by the way) he doesn’t just admit what a massive personal achievement it is, he goes on to talk about improving “for the team”.

He’s as far away from the stereotypical modern footballer as seems possible.

Dele Alli portrait for FS magazine ()

 

Team unity can take a group of players a long way – just ask any Leicester fan. And it’s also allowing the current Spurs squad to flourish. It’s a young group – average age just shy of 26, according to a report by FootballObservatory.com. And, in addition to the usual team meals and journeys to away games, they have another pastime that helps them bond: playing Call Of Duty online.

“There are about 15 of us [who play] at Tottenham,” reveals Dele. “The main ones are me, Eric Dier, Michel Vorm, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembélé and Christian Eriksen. We’re all in the same Clan. We message each other to say if we’re going online. Or when we’re at training, we’ll just set a time for going on. Then we all go back and meet up online.”

But he’s so far left out the most dedicated player of all. “Kyle Walker’s really good. Some people play it more than others, some people will always be online. Kyle Walker… you don’t even need to ask if he’ll be on. To start with, he wasn’t the best. Now he’s really good.”

There’s a story about former Liverpool and England keeper David James where he explained a series of on-field gaffes were caused by him staying up late to play on his PlayStation (see boxout panel over the page). If that makes you wonder whether all this is a good use of the players’ time, it shouldn’t. Gaming in the ’90s was a different experience. Unless someone was physically with you, it was a solo experience. Now, especially with online shooters, they can be exercises in tactics and teamwork. “I don’t like  campers,” says Dele. “I’m a team player – I usually die a lot, but I go for the flags, putting myself at risk. It’s for the team.”

They’re also giving the players something on which to focus. If they’re at home, chatting to each other on their headsets as they play a few rounds of Domination, it’s a good use of their time. Many of the Spurs squad are teetotal so it goes without saying that they’re not half-filling a Lucozade bottle with port and sipping from it as they play (Jamie Vardy’s tactics don’t work for everyone).

“When you have so many football games to play, you can’t really do much because obviously you’re tired,” explains Dele. “If we’ve got two games in a week, I’ll just relax and chill.” Online gaming allows him to do just that.

One of the techniques Sir Alex Ferguson employed at Manchester United was setting targets for players. In the 2004/05 season, he bet Cristiano Ronaldo he wouldn’t score ten goals. He was right – Ronaldo managed nine. Undeterred, he upped the number of goals to 15 for the next season. Ronaldo scored 12. Then, coming into the 2006/07 season, fresh from the World Cup in Germany where “Winkgate” had seen him pilloried by the British press, Ronaldo upped the money on the line – £400 for 15 goals. He hit that target at the start of February before going on to reach 23, and he has outscored that number in every subsequent season. A star was born.

There are several psychological layers to the “bet” (no money actually changed hands), but one of the key things is the specific target. Not just “score a lot of goals”, but score 15 goals. It’s a figure you can track your progress towards. Dele is doing the same this season. Last year he aimed for ten, and he got them – scoring a brace in a 4-0 win at Stoke to achieve his number. So this year? “I want to get to 15. Last season I got ten, so this season [I’m aiming for] five more. I’ve got to keep making sure I get better and better.”

Dele Alli portrait for FS magazine ()

 

What’s striking, if you take a moment to consider it, isn’t necessarily the drive to improve, but his target for last season. Score ten goals.

In isolation, that doesn’t necessarily seem a big deal for an attacking midfielder. But consider where Dele was at the start of last season. New to Tottenham, yet to play in the Premier League, not in the starting line-up.

Aiming to score ten demonstrates a huge amount of self belief – the type of confidence in his ability that’s typical of the greats. The type of confidence that prompts a player to up his wager with Sir Alex Ferguson? Perhaps. Whatever your thoughts about Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s no doubting how important a factor his own belief in his abilities has been in making him the player he is. If Dele shares a similar mindset, that can only be a good thing. For the player. For Tottenham Hotspur. And for England.

Richard Branson once said the key to being a successful businessman was to “make yourself obsolete”. The idea being that you should surround yourself with enough good people to make your so life easy that the company excels without your input. That doesn’t quite translate to football in the same way – no one wants a passenger in their side – but break it down, and the basic sentiment still remains: if a football team has people all doing their job, and to a high standard, it makes everyone’s role easier.

Take Lionel Messi – a fine player, one of the greatest ever, but in his days tearing through La Liga defences, he’s been ably backed up by Andrés Iniesta, Luiz Suárez and Neymar. And, going further back, Xavi and David Villa. You imagine he wouldn’t have won three Champions League finals if he’d instead been supported by Steve Sidwell and Gabby Agbonlahor. Just a hunch.

Ronaldo, too. He managed to make the 2014 Champions League final win all about him, tearing his top off to flex his muscles after he scored the fourth goal – a 120th minute penalty against an already beaten side – but he hadn’t even played particularly well. Luckily, he lines up alongside some of the world’s greatest players.

Clearly, Tottenham operate a level or two below those Spanish teams – there’s no shame in that. At the present time, so do all other football teams, with the possible exception of Bayern Munich. But the principles still translate. The squad’s good, the team is well balanced, and it allows them to succeed. The withering dismissal of the club in Alex Ferguson’s famous, and short, team talk – “Lads, it’s Tottenham” – no longer works. By virtue of being English, the press have anointed Harry Kane and Dele the stars, but Dele talks about them getting better together, as a group.

“Everyone wants to win trophies, especially with how close we came last time,” he explains. “The big thing with this team is we take each game as it comes. But what’s most important is we don’t have any moments where we could have done better or should have tried harder. That’s the main thing at Spurs.”

Dele Alli portrait for FS magazine ()

 

It takes a strong individual to go  against the crowd. If there was, say, a partying culture at the club, that would be a hard thing for anyone to  exclude themselves from. Conversely, the same goes for a culture of winning.

It’s the difference between Liverpool and Manchester United in the ’90s. Dele came into a club with a strong work ethic and togetherness. And he’s been particularly impressed by Harry Kane.

“When I signed for Tottenham, I knew he was a massive player and a great striker. But you don’t know what to expect – I didn’t know what he was going to be like as a professional. It turns out he’s probably the most professional person I’ve met. I try to get in as early as possible, but I don’t think in all the time I’ve been at Tottenham, I’ve been in before him. He’s always there and he’s always on the training ground giving 100 per cent. Tottenham has a great facility, so everyone wants to be there as much as possible.”

Whether that has rubbed off on Dele, or whether he always had it, is moot. What’s important is that he’s in an environment that will help him succeed. His training is also tailored to his needs, and closely monitored.

“On the days it’s OK for you to do extra training, that’s when you work on individual things. So if I’ve been missing chances, I’ll work on making sure the next time they come along, I’m putting them away. The manager or the sports fitness people tell you what you need to be doing. If they think you’ve done too much – because obviously they record how much you’ve been running and if you’re fatigued, or if your body’s not in a position to be doing extra work – they don’t want you to be going out there, kicking more balls and putting yourself at risk of injury.”

And then, of course, there’s the diet. “They check everything,” Dele explains. “And if you’re low on something, they’ll tell you what you need to be eating to get back to the right level. They check your body fat every couple of weeks as well.” This talk of body fat, coming from a man who has so little (check out his holiday snaps), shames everyone else in the room. Mental notes to go for jogs are quickly made.

Dele Alli portrait for FS magazine ()

 

Surely he must be tempted to cheat every now and again?

“You can’t. They check everything!”

We ask Dele which three things he wants to get better at this year and unsurprisingly, football tops his list.

“I have lots of different areas I need to improve on in my game and would not be able to narrow it down to one,” he says. “It has been a good journey so far, but I’m looking to perform even better for my club and country in 2017.

“And Call Of Duty: my kill ratio isn’t good enough as yet!”

The third is cooking: “I rely too much on the chefs at the training ground. Although the food is very nice, I think it’s about time I learnt how to cook.”

And that’s it. Our time with Dele is up. He has things to do. Short term: take on Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin at Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Long term: win trophies with Spurs, and hopefully England. He nails the first one, winning a match of Hardpoint with ease – 250 points to 58.

The next one? That will take longer. And it’ll be far tougher. Players can have potential, but so many fail to live up to that early promise. For every Ryan Giggs, there’s a Lee Sharpe. For every Lionel Messi, there’s an Adriano. But the signs are good. Dele’s at a good club, and he’s surrounded by good people who are working hard to make the most of his potential. And he has something else, something you can’t teach – focus and determination. His head is not for turning – there will be no talk of buses turning round to retrieve a diamond earring because of Dele.

There will be disappointments along the way, though – and he’s had a taste of that already. This season’s Champions League fell flat in the early stages, while last summer’s European Championships experience with England hurt.

Consider this — Diego Maradona’s first tournament, the 1982 World Cup, also ended in the second round with defeat to Brazil. Four years later, he was holding the FIFA World Cup trophy aloft.

Now wouldn’t that be something?

Portrait of Dele Alli for FS magazine photoshoot ()

 

Photographer Paul Cooper

Words Jonathan Pile

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