Worldcup updates: Dele Alli’s rise from talented teen at MK Dons to England superstar

Milton Keynes did not exist when England last won the World Cup. Some will claim it was better that way. Before farmland gave way to concrete the cows and a baffling grid system and 124 roundabouts.

The maligned newtown turned 50 as the fortunes of its football club took a dive but relegation to the fourth tier of English football will not deflate the sense of civic pride when Dele Alli steps out at his first World Cup.

Alli was born in Milton Keynes and embodies its aspirational nature on his journey from the urban football cages of the New Bradwell estate to Tottenham and England and who-knows-where beyond with his immense talent and commercial appeal.

‘Forget the talent, he’s one of the nicest kids you will meet,’ says Karl Robinson, the manager who brought a teenage Alli into the first-team at MK Dons. ‘That’s what people don’t get about Dele.

‘He was 17 and every single player in our dressing room loved him. That is rare. He was controlling the music, not with any ego, in a fun way. He made everyone feel young. And I don’t see any change in him. He’s still the same free-spirited individual.

‘The day after we were promoted, he was done, leaving for Spurs and he came into my office when I was planning for the next season, sat down and we talked for two hours about who we were going to sign. He was saying: “No, don’t sign him, you should sign him or him”.

‘He’s so infectious. He has an amazing ability to make you like him. That’s a great way to be. Dele’s best performances comes when he’s being Dele. We’ve got to let him be himself.’

Three years without Alli have not gone well for Milton Keynes Dons, twice relegated and on to their third manager since Robinson. ‘There were three key aims,’ says chairman Pete Winkelman. ‘The stadium, which we have, a Milton Keynes boy at the World Cup and a Premier League team, the one I’ve completely under-delivered on.

‘But thank God for Dele, who has been able to achieve one of my great ambitions and I’ll be watching this World Cup in more earnest than any since 1966 because we have an emotional stake in it.

‘We are so proud of him. When you look at the hard life he had and the support and strength he found. I genuinely believe that, without football on his doorstep, he wouldn’t have been able to do what he has done. That’s why it’s important for all clubs around the country to keep the academies open and keep developing their own players.

‘It’s no coincidence Dele played nearly 100 games with us before going to the Premier League.’

Alli also found social stability at MK Dons, moving in with the family of team-mate Harry Hickford at the age of 13 when his mother Denise struggled to cope with the strain of raising four children alone.

‘The credit belongs to Dele,’ said Winkelman. ‘He is the one who has taken the opportunity. He’s a really good guy: reliable and honest and very hard working. And a fantastic athlete and I know the focus goes into that. Training hard but not overtraining.

‘So many footballers think it’s all about the six-pack. Dele is strong but he is also sleek like a dolphin and he glides. At the same time he is a laugh, a creative energy, the one who gets others going.

‘If you met Dele in a corridor and he had a ball, which he often had, he would nutmeg you. You’d know it was coming and you’d try to stop it and he’d still do it and then he’d give you a look to say: “Ah, you see, I still got it through your legs”.’

The devilish charm is a vital part of the Alli package. Allied to a difficult upbringing and his experiences in the lower leagues it has primed the 22-year-old for success and enhanced his marketability. He fronts a clothing line and appears in adverts for soft drinks with Lionel Messi, Marcelo and Toni Kroos.

‘Just because you’ve got a load of talent, that doesn’t mean you make it,’ says Winkelman, once a music executive at CBS. ‘That doesn’t mean you can turn it on when the going gets tough. Imagine being the most valuable player in his age group and all the fame and pressure that brings. I’ve seen pop stars fall apart with that scrutiny. They just can’t handle it.

‘Just because he’s a great footballer doesn’t automatically mean he can handle it. But Dele is cultured enough and has had enough support over the years from the Hickfords, I think he is able to handle it.’

When Alli scored on his first England start, a screamer past Hugo Lloris in a friendly against France less than three years ago, he drove back to Milton Keynes with the Hickfords and celebrated with an ice-cream in McDonald’s.

‘That’s Dele,’ says Winkelman. ‘Not to say he can’t be glamorous, jetting off with his girlfriend. He is a world footballer and it’s part of the image. He has to be able to show that side and do the work.’

Alli was fearless at the age of eight when he turned up at City Colts and asked coach Mark Walsh for a game, the start of a journey which has taken him to the World Cup in Russia. Walsh introduced three players — Alli, Hickford and Luke Fathers — to MK Dons when he took a role coaching in the academy.

Fathers, now Luke Pennell, plays for Dagenham and Redbridge and scored on his debut for the England C team last month. Hickford became Alli’s close friend and gave up his own playing career to operate as one of his advisors when the Spurs star dropped his long-standing agent and moved in with CAA Sports, the same agency which represents Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

A framed Tottenham shirt hangs on the wall of the office where Walsh now works at MK College and he says: ‘I’m just pleased to have been able to share some of Dele’s journey. He always had a raw and natural talent.

‘He would try things others didn’t. He was so creative, never scared. That came from the street football, playing with older children in the tight cages with no rules, uneven teams, no coach, no parents barking on the side.’

In their short existence, MK Dons have proved able to develop talented young footballers. Alli is the jewel. ‘I hope he gets chances in the team because I know he’ll take them,’ says Winkelman. ‘People say he didn’t have a good season but he scored two against Real Madrid and two against Chelsea.

‘He rose to the occasion and he’ll keep doing it. We know he has the capability in his career for one World Cup to be his World Cup. It could even be this one.’

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