Thursday 8 December 2016

Street fighter Alli rolls with every punch on road to top

Jim White

Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30

Tottenham's Dele Alli. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Tottenham's Dele Alli. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

This lunchtime, the creaking super-structure of the soon-to-be-demolished White Hart Lane will be tested to the limit.

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The atmosphere at the most significant north London derby in a generation will broil with intensity, as the old rivals square up in a fixture that will have huge bearing on the destination of the title.

At the heart of the home midfield will be the willowy figure of Dele Alli.

Uninhibited, effervescent, brimful of cheek, this is a player whose youthful zest has come to symbolise Tottenham's title charge under Mauricio Pochettino.

Still only 19 and a shoo-in for this season's Young Footballer of the Year award, Alli has been turning heads all season, since the moment he marked his debut for Spurs in a friendly against Real Madrid by nutmegging Luca Modric.

That, the Spurs faithful soon came to appreciate, was typical of Alli: this is a player who has always embraced the unexpected.

Karl Robinson, manager of MK Dons, the club where he learned his trade, recalls a training session in which he had his players practising a new strategy for corners.

Robinson instructed Alli to make a near-post run with a view to flicking the ball on with his head.

When the cross came in too low to be met with a header, the midfielder was not to be outdone and he simply volleyed it into the net with his heel.

Spitting

Ali celebrated his strike by spitting out his chewing gum, juggling it from knee-to-knee, then foot-to-foot before kicking it up into the air, catching it in his mouth and smiling. At the time, he was just 16 years old.

Those who have been involved in his development insist that Alli will not be remotely intimated by the scale of the occasion at White Hart Lane.

It will not concern the player who, last November, demonstrated his lack of nerve by scoring a sumptuous goal at Wembley to mark his first start for England. Because nothing does.

"The thing we have to think about with Dele is he's quite unique," says Mike Dove, the head of the Dons youth system.

"He had a tough upbringing, challenging. And those formative years were important for his resilience. They made him fear-free. Nothing worries him. He's not being arrogant, he's just looking to get on the pitch and be entertaining."

When it comes to describing his background, challenging is something of an understatement. He was brought up in the Bradwell area of Milton Keynes, which, with its modern brick housing stock is not an area that could be easily mistaken for a Rio favela. Alli's home life, however, was particularly chaotic.

"Times were difficult, very tough," his mother Denise revealed recently in a newspaper interview.

"I had four children by four different dads but none of the relationships lasted. I was a single mum. We were living in a three-bedroom council house and it was a bit rough."

His Nigerian father Kenny moved to the United States a week after Bamidele Jermaine Alli was born. So there was no paternal influence in the family home.

Afflicted by alcohol issues, his mother left the young Dele to fend for himself.

Often in trouble in the classroom, education was not something he pursued with vigour. From his earliest childhood, he preferred to spend his time engaged in unsupervised kick-abouts. Which, as it turned out, was not without its benefits.

"There's no secret that as a boy he was out on the streets a lot," says Dove. "They talk about needing 10,000 hours of practice when young to become a top-class performer. And if you can get as many of those 10,000 self-taught, so much the better.

"He learned for himself, making mistakes and working out how to correct them.

"I'd watch him at our training ground and he was always trying tricks, like with his mates on the streets, the same little grin. That love of having the ball and wanting to do things with it came from those days."

In an era when boys are being picked up by academies as young as five, Alli's was a late arrival into the formal footballing system.

He was not signed up by the Dons until he was 11. And from the moment Dove first saw him in action, he knew this was some player.

"He was sensational," recalls Dove. "He looked a bit different to the others. He had some confidence in his football. He seemed to exude some form of self-belief. "

Naturally athletic, quick and strong, from a young age it was obvious the young Alli was blessed with all the physical attributes required for the game.

He was soon breaking club records for sprint times and distances run. More important, however, was his attitude.

"At 11 he came to us into a safe environment where people would look out for him," says Dove.

"And what was fascinating about him was this constant challenge he set himself: what I do on the street, how can I get that to work in a game?"

That element of transferring street skills to the formal football structure has never left him.

It was evidenced in a sumptuous volleyed goal at Crystal Palace this season, where he made space for the shot by flicking the ball over Mile Jedinak as though he were a bollard on the streets of Milton Keynes.

And it is there in the fact that so far this season, he has carried out 14 nutmegs of opponents.

Nonetheless, there were issues about his upbringing that needed to be confronted in his footballing education. He could be fiery and short-tempered. Indeed, the Dons coaches were obliged to introduce a system of sin-binning ill-disciplined players specifically to corral his outbursts.

But what everyone associated with his progress noted was his keenness to improve.

"We've had kids though like Sam and George Baldock from very supportive families, very focused on education," says Dove. "Then we've had boys like Dele without a traditional support mechanism.

"What is the common trait of the excellent player - whether they have a traditional background or not - is that they share the passion, drive and mental desire to learn their craft, to want to progress."

When Alli was 13, his mother accepted that his increasingly disorderly domestic arrangements might compromise his chances of developing as a footballer.

With the social services keeping an ever closer eye on the shambolic household, and with Alli spending ever more time out on the streets where the malevolent influence of teenage gangs was gathering, Denise agreed that it might be wise for her son to move in with the family of another Dons scholar in the more prosperous borough of Cosgrove.

Although never formally adopted, he lived with Alan and Sally Hickford for the rest of his time in Milton Keynes.

Stability

With some stability injected into his home life and given room by the coaches, Alli's development went into overdrive. By the time he was 16, he was playing for the Dons' first team.

"There's a bridge you have to help players get across that spans the youth team and first team football," says Robinson.

"For some of them, the bridge is huge. Dele's was very small. With Dele, it was: there you go son, go and play."

When his first touch in the first team was an extravagant back-heel, his first goal a screamer from 30 yards, it was no surprise when Tottenham paid £5m for him in January 2015.

Initially loaned back to his hometown club, this has been his breakthrough season, both in the Premier League and internationally.

For the man who gave him his first-team debut, the rapidity of his rise has come as absolutely no surprise.

"Every time a new challenge is put in front of him, he rolls up his sleeves a bit further and tries to be the best he can be," says Robinson.

"He's not fazed. You have a go at Dele, he's stone-faced. You praise Dele, he's stone-faced. That's how he takes his life. He strolls in and strolls out."

And this lunchtime he will stroll into his biggest game yet, without any hint of fear. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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