From the mires of League One to a Premier League wonder-kid: Who is Dele Alli?
Crystal Palace vs Tottenham, 23rd January 2016. A Harry Kane cross is headed down by Cristian Eriksen in the path of a teammate donning jersey number 20. He’s apparently just 19 years of age. But what he does leaves many a lower jaw dropped. A touch to control the pass, followed by a flick over the head of an on-rushing Mile Jedinak and a finish with a sensational volley past a diving Wayne Hennessey from 25 yards out.
Yes, Dele Alli did just that. Immediately, comparisons with the likes of Thierry Henry, Paul Gascoigne and Pele started surfacing. Unbelievable! Had he already earned himself a place alongside these footballing greats at the tender age of 19? Did that one stunner guarantee himself a selection in England’s 2016 Euro squad?
Who exactly is this kid, who –just 8 months ago – was helping Milton Keynes Dons clinch promotion from League One up to the Championship? We take a detailed look into a short, albeit promising career and what the future lies in store for Bamidele Jermain Alli, who has been highly touted to become England’s next legend in midfield, following the steps of Gary Lineker, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
Early Days at City Colts and MK Dons Academy
Born and brought up at Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes by a single mother, Alli was first taken notice of by MK Dons at the age of 11 during his days at City Colts FC (a club based in Buckinghamshire) thanks to his nature-defying stamina, which he boosted by cycling every morning across the city to the training ground. He – along with then City Colts U11 coach Mark Walsh and two other players Harry Rickford and Ben Grant – joined the MK Dons Academy in 2007.
His rise through the youth ranks was phenomenal – his effortless slaloming past opponents during games and tireless drive to win games for MK Dons’ Youth attracting hungry scouts from across the nooks and crannies of England. They sensed they had spotted something special on show at MK Dons’ Stadium MK, and Alli never disappointed.
Much of his progress was down to the independent nature of his family and relatives into allowing Alli to pursue his footballing dream the way he wished, unlike the prima donna nature of most footballers’ families, hampering their development.
Mark Walsh was also a master of discipline, teaching him how to conduct himself on and off the field, how smoking, drinking and similar activities would eventually have a long-standing effect on a promising career and most importantly – how to use his footballing talent to the best of his ability.
Breakthrough into the MK Dons first team
He was first observed by Karl Robinson – MK Dons’ manager – at the age of 14 and provided him with his first senior stint with the MK Dons senior team at 16. It was a masterclass move. Coming on as a substitute in an FA Cup tie against Cambridge City on 2 November 2012, his first contribution was an audacious, perfectly placed back-heel to a teammate. Touche. His breakthrough moment had come. 11 days later, he scored his first goal for the club in the replay against the same opposition.
Robinson hasn’t looked back since and throttled him into the first team the very next season. He earned himself a regular starting position, scoring his first professional league goal on 28 September 2013 in a 4-1 victory over Stevenage. He finished that particular season with 7 goals.
An attacking midfielder by nature, he would sometimes appear on the wing, making those endless runs down the flanks twice a week and never showing any signs of tiredness. In short, he was a typical example of an energetic 17-year old covering every blade of grass to help his team churn out a run of positive results.
He displayed his class in the national team as well, making himself an automatic selection into the English U17 during that particular season.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur snap him up in January 2015
Alli would, however, attract the major clubs in England following a highly influential performance in August 2014 during MK Dons’ famous 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United in Louis van Gaal’s first cup fixture in charge. As he continued to impress everyone – scouts, club managers and Roy Hodgson – while appearing for the Dons, reports began linking him to a move to the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and United themselves.
The inevitable Premier League switch finally materialised in January 2015, when Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy– well known for his philosophy of promoting youth talent to the first team – snapped up a £5m deal on a five-and-a-half-year deal for the 18-year old, subsequently loaning him back to MK Dons for the remainder of the season.
He proved his loyalty towards the club who played an integral part in his development by helping them clinch automatic promotion into the Championship by finishing second in League One. He ended that season with 16 goals and 15 assists to his name.
It was time for Dele Alli to move on to the next phase of a highly promising career. White Hart Lane was anxious to see what their manager had invested so heavily in.
Unforeseen development at Spurs: Old Trafford debut and England call-up
Even though his growth into a Premier League quality footballer was there for everyone to see at Stadium MK, not many would have foreseen that he would turn out to be a regular in the Tottenham starting line-up and a popular selection in Fantasy Premier League squads.
A debut as a substitute at Old Trafford in an unlucky 1-0 defeat on the opening day of the season was a perfect base to build on. His first Premier League goal in a 1-1 draw against Leicester after replacing Christian Eriksen was another bout of confidence the 19-year old needed in his first season as a top-tier footballer. He was finally given his first start by Pochettino in an away fixture against Sunderland, helping Spurs to their first victory of the season with a 1-0 win.
Alli was further rewarded for his amazing form on 1 October 2015 when England manager Roy Hodgson promptly announced his name in the England squad for their final two qualifying games of Euro 2016.
He made his debut against Estonia, coming off the bench in a comfortable 2-0 victory. His next England appearance against France saw him score an absolute screamer from long range to beat his Tottenham team-mate Hugo Lloris and help his side win by two goals without reply.
A Man-of-the-Match performance in a 1-1 draw against North-London rivals Arsenal in November proved his credentials as a ‘big-game’ player. Further goals against Everton and an absolute beauty against Palace last weekend left Roy Hodgson beaming – suggesting that the 19-year old is almost a certain selection into the 23-man squad that will travel to France to compete for the UEFA Euro 2016 Championship.
His stamina is what any manager expects out of a budding 19-year old, and he could well be in contention for the PFA Young Player of the Season if he can maintain his intensity in attacking midfield and continue showing the urge to drive past opponents with the ball at his feet.
What does the future have in store for Dele Alli?
When one defies expectations, one creates them. Whether Dele Alli will be able to cope with that pressure and expectation from the Spurs fans of having to perform on every single outing will be a massive challenge for the youngster in the years to come.
With Spurs falling short of those elite Champions League positions for a long time now, it is up to the new breed of youth talent – Eric Dier, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and of course, Alli himself – to push on and fulfill White Hart Lane’s long-standing Champions League dream.
Even though he has been offered a new contract by the Spurs board which will keep him at the club until 2021, there is bound to be some transfer speculation linking him to Europe’s elite clubs in the near future if he manages to continue his sparkling form. Just ask Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.
But for now, let’s all enjoy the emergence of a natural talent from the mires of League One to the potential of being the next Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. Tottenham and England fans are excited to see how their wonderkid shapes up in the coming years, provided his career isn’t hampered with injuries and is properly counselled on the adverse effects of bad company and indiscipline, something players of his age category are prone to.
Remember the name – its Dele Alli.