This interview appears in the latest edition of Sport magazine, the brilliant free weekly publication. Their Facebook page is here, they’re on Twitter @SportMagUK and you can download the FREE iPad app here.
Momentary panic grips Sport as we watch England’s most exciting breakthrough talent of the past year plonk himself on a bike at Peckham BMX Club in south London. We get unusually worried about things like ‘metatarsals’ in the build-up to a major international tournament, you see.
We have this vision of a smiling Dele Alli pedalling furiously up a ramp, leaping 15 parked cars and sailing through the air with one hand on the handlebars, one hand waving to the people below. Could we bear to watch such a stunt?
Fortunately, our nightmare scenario does not play out in real life. For a start, Alli is being reined in to more low-risk fun such as limboing under a pole on his BMX (he proves remarkably adept at it).
Also, he’s here in aid of a worthy cause: a campaign by the England Footballers Foundation and BT Sport’s charitable initiative, The Supporters Club, to encourage the public to support their local sports projects. Could we really resent this event when Sport can see how much it means to the awe-struck kids on their bikes, perched wheel-to-wheel alongside Alli? (Answer: yes we can – stay away from his metatarsals, you little toerags.)
For these kids, BMXing is a youthful passion. But for the now 20-year-old Alli, that was football. “It was massive for me,” says Alli when we ask what sport meant to him as a lad. “Where I grew up, football sort of helped keep me out of trouble. I was able to have fun, stay fit – meet lots of different people and make friends.”
Alli joined Milton Keynes Dons’ academy at 11. He had two heroes. “Steven Gerrard – for his passion,” Alli explains. “You could see how much he loved the game, plus the goals he scored in big matches. That was the thing with him: how much he wanted to win every single game, which is important if you want to make it in the Premier League.
“Also Ronaldinho was just… I think everyone can see why you would love Ronaldinho. The flair he had. He was just an entertainer.” Which did he try to copy in the playground? “Both – which was hard!”
SILK AND STEEL
Alli’s answers are often accompanied by a grin and a short burst of laughter. He seems wonderfully unaffected by his burgeoning stardom, yet you can see the twin influences of that pair of players on the way he plays. He has a wide box of tricks, from his penchant for a nutmeg to that chip-turn-volley goal for Tottenham against Crystal Palace.
He has brought steel as well as silk to the midfields of Tottenham and England over the past year. Alli is combative – and, yes, we all understand that needs to be kept in check – but fire and hunger have been a major part of his meteoric rise.
Alli didn’t emerge from a cosseted big club academy. For him, playing in League One wasn’t part of a short-term loan deal – it was the bread and butter of professional life. And he ate it up.
“It helped me mentally,” says Alli on the benefit of playing three years of third tier football at MK Dons. “There’s a lot of competitiveness, a lot of ups and downs. When you come into the Premier League, not everything is going to go your way – and I think playing with grown men and being in that league gave me experience of that. It gave me the mental strength to push on.”
Just over a year ago, Alli was helping MK Dons secure promotion to the Championship with a 5-1 win over Yeovil Town. When he started pre-season with Tottenham this year, was it in his mind at all that he might be part of England’s Euro 2016 plans?
“I can’t say it was, to be honest with you,” says Alli, brightly. “It’s all happened quickly and I’ve got a lot of people to thank for it. But I just want to keep working hard and not get carried away with myself.”
Of his astonishing past 12 months, he says: “There’s a few memories that stand out. Last year, when we got promoted at MK – that was a dream come true for me. Growing up in MK and being an MK boy, I can’t thank the club enough for how they helped me; the platform they gave me and the support they gave me as a club.
“On a personal level, I got the goal at Wembley for England as well – that was great. And just every single time I pull on a Tottenham shirt feels like a massive achievement for me.”
That Wembley goal Alli refers to was his corker in a friendly against France last November (pictured above, right), which England won 2-0.
“It’s all a bit of a blur – I don’t remember the deflection, that’s for sure…” Alli says with a grin when asked what he recalls about it. “I went into a 50/50 and I saw the space open up. The ball ran to [Wayne] Rooney, thankfully he put in a great pass to me – and as soon as he did, I knew what I wanted to do; that I was hitting it. I caught it cleanly and it went in.”
It was only a month earlier, in October, that Alli was first called up to the full England squad. “I was in Monaco for the Europa League,” says Alli. “Just after training, he [Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino] called me over and asked me if I wanted to play for the under-19s for England, because the fixtures were coming up.
“At the time, I didn’t think I could play for the under-19s, because I’d been playing for the under-21s, but I said: ‘Yes, it’s an honour to play for your country, whatever age group it is.’
“So I was happy to go and play for them if I could. He looked at me and then said he’d just spoke to the manager over here [Roy Hodgson] and he thinks I’m going away with the first team. Then the next day, the squad was announced! So it was a strange moment. But I had the game against Monaco, so I didn’t want to think about it too much.”
We thought it was just Alli and his bromantic buddy Eric Dier who enjoyed winding each other up. But clearly Pochettino gets in on the act too. On the subject of England boss Hodgson, however, the advice he has given to Alli is to bring his natural game to the national team.
“He has just told me to go out there and play how I know I can play,” says Alli. “It’s not going to be easy to keep a place in the team, so I’m going to have to fight for it – which is a given if you’re playing for your country, because there’s so much competition. But he’s a great manager. Since the first time I met him, you could see how passionate he is about the country and about football.”
The presence of so many Tottenham teammates in the squad has also helped Alli settle in. He and Dier are joined by Harry Kane, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
“It makes it easier for you when you’re coming in,” says Alli. “I remember Harry Kane, the first time we went to [training ground] Carrington together, he sort of introduced me to all the England staff. At the time I think I was only 18 and it was quite daunting, so that helped. But it’s always great to play with them.
“We all get on well, we all like to play in the same way, which I think is important. They really buy into the philosophy of the club and of the country as well, so I think it’s massive if you go away and bring that [club-fostered] chemistry with you.”
Each Tottenham player in the England squad is a potential starter for the nation’s Euro 2016 opener against Russia in just over a week. Alli shakes his head gently when we ask about the prospect of making his major tournament debut for England in Marseille just a few months after his 20th birthday.
“The first World Cup I remember, I was walking down my street and everyone had their England flags out the window,” recalls Alli. “I had my little England facepaint on, my England shirt and my England hat on. I still remember that: walking down the street and seeing all of the flags out the window and thinking about how much I’d love to play in a tournament for England.
“Whoever Roy picks, I’m sure he’ll select a really strong team. There’s a lot of great English players in the Premier League, so it would be a dream come true for me to get picked – but the hard work won’t stop there. If I get picked to play, I’ll just go out and put in a shift and do what I can for the team and for the country.
Alli’s conversation is peppered with phrases such as “hard work” and “put in a shift”. It’s as if he relishes the graft and covering ground nearly as much as he loves a cheeky nutmeg (well, almost).
As Alli looks over the concrete undulations of the BMX track, we wonder if this is the kind of place he’d have been hanging out if the football pitch hadn’t dominated his young life. “Yeah, I did like BMXing a little bit when I was younger,” he says. “And basketball. I enjoyed that, too.”
Has he not tried his hand at the footballer’s favourite – golf?
“I tried last summer, but it didn’t go too well. I just ran out of time. I might try again next summer.” Ran out of time? We’re nonplussed, but suggest that it’s better than running out of golf balls. The rapid-fire laughter returns. “I ran out of both, to be fair…”
Fortunately, on the football pitch, Alli has plenty of both: time and balls. The hope is that the boy forged in League One will become England’s key man at Euro 2016.
A short film featuring Dele Alli’s visit to the Access Sport charity will air in June on BT Sport
“It’s massive – getting to come out here and see all the kids; see how much they’re enjoying themselves,” Dele Alli says of his visit to Access Sport’s BMX project in Peckham. “It’s so important when you’re young: getting into a sport or a hobby you enjoy, and really taking part in it. I can see all the kids are doing that here.”
Ahead of Euro 2016, England footballers are leading a campaign between the England Footballers Foundation and The Supporters Club to inspire the public to support local sports projects. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling are also trying challenges outside of their comfort zones.
For Alli, it meant pitting his biking skills against British BMX star Tre Whyte. Cahill visited Change Foundation to play blind cricket, while Smalling teamed up with Sale Sharks’ Mark Cueto in a challenge to find the best kicker. A documentary on BT Sport Europe on Saturday June 4 (7.30pm) will recount their efforts.