THE SECRET FOOTBALLER: The Alli shuffle: Not every young talent ends up as a punchline

Mauricio Pochettino has instructions for star midfielder Dele Alli. Picture: Ben Stansall/Getty Images

The Next Big Thing was on the pitch at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane goodbye yesterday. Wayne Rooney was once the next big thing. Will Dele Alli learn from his mistakes, asks The Secret Footballer.

If you subtracted all the wistfulness, sentimentality and nostalgia at White Hart Lane yesterday- the last ever afternoon at the lane was just a dead rubber end of season game. Spurs coasting to a finish at the end of a campaign that gave hope but no silver cups. Manchester United, oddly for a club of their history and hubris, having abdicated from the league and staked their entire prestige on winning the Europa Cup.

Yesterday was a time for both looking back and looking forward. During the week a You Tube video (https://youtu.be/5jYTLfukNUg) popped up bringing us back to the glory days at the Lane. One afternoon back in October 1965, Manchester United the league champions and a fine team came to White Hart Lane and got turned over 5-1. It’s worth watching for several reasons. The football doesn’t have today’s pace but technically it is excellent. All these years of academies haven’t produced better ballplayers. Then there is a goal for the ages from Jimmy Greaves and a little moment of tika-taka where Spurs’ one-touch passing sets a young George Best chasing after the ball like a game puppy being teased. Oh and there’s a pretty fine Bobby Charlton goal.

Spurs were a genuinely big club back then and now, as the new stadium rises up, looking as if it is digesting all the history of our old home into its innards, you see the hope Spurs will be great once again. Like Atletico Madrid who said goodbye to the Calderon during the week, ruling the roost in the capital city is the first step to greatness beyond.

A new stadium - as Arsenal fans will tell you when they stop communicating via signs strung from small airplanes - is not a guarantee of good times. Yesterday was interesting because you looked at Dele Alli, the best young English player this season and wondered what the future holds for him. Instead of looking into a crystal ball, you would hope young Alli spent some time yesterday gazing into Wayne Rooney’s soul.

English football likes to devour those who show indecent amounts of early promise. Then it spits them out as husks of what they might have been and everybody agrees they were never that good anyway. It takes remarkable character as well as talent to survive the process.

When he was 16, Dele Alli made his debut for his local club the MK Dons in an FA Cup first round game against Cambridge City. Legend has it his first touch as a pro was a flashy back-heel. Nobody except the six men and one dog at the game noticed or cared. When Rooney was 16 he scored THAT goal against Arsenal with the commentator screaming Remember This Name! That was the moment he got fed into the maws of the machine.

He entered into a long and controversial partnership with the agent Paul Stretford. His private life and his hairline became tabloid fodder and easy laughs for comedians. Every pint or pie he downed prompted a chorus from the tut tut tut people. It never ends. He came to White Hart Lane yesterday after a week of tabloid stories alleging that he lost £500k in one night at a casino. It seems like a very long time ago that he made his full debut for Everton at the Lane with the home crowd wittily chanting ‘Who Are Ya?’ every time he touched the ball. It seems just as long since we all had earnest arguments over who would be better, Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney.

Despite everything he has done, everything he has won and all the money he has trousered, Rooney has ended up, unfairly probably, as the poster boy for unfulfilled potential. His decline seems to have been going on for much longer than his ascent but the scrutiny has never ended and never got any more charitable.

The next few years will test Dele Alli’s fibre just as vigorously. Like Rooney, making a lot of money and winning a lot of England caps is an inevitability. Is it enough though? Alli at 21 should be expecting himself to become one of the world’s elite players in the next 10 years. He should be managing his career and surrounding himself with people who will make that happen and who will make sure his career can stretch on as long as that of a Giggs or an Ibrahimovich.

Whatever the extent of your moral outrage on hearing of Mino Raiola’s hefty slice of the Paul Pogba pie, he is an agent who not only looks after the bank account of his client but makes serious attempts to make sure his players have a well-defined career plan. Alli will have benefited from having grown up as a footballer in the relative privacy of League One football. His agent will play a large part in what happens next. The signs there are mixed. The agency went into administration last winter owing money to the tax people.

They may all be very fine people but I hope they appreciate that at this moment in time Alli needs to worry more about his football than his social media presence and tabloid image. If he can grow for another two or three years in tandem with Spurs ambitions, the world will look very different to him. He has the talent to play abroad at the highest level and being removed from the UK media spotlight might be a very good thing for him. But not yet. Rooney the footballer and the person never got the chance to grow in the Old Trafford fishbowl. When the big sharks like Barca, Bayern and Real start sniffing around Alli, it might be better not to just take the cash and jump.

English football is changing. The coaching is slowly getting better and the TV money is so crazy at this stage that you have to be very bad at your sums not to make things work at a decent Premier League club. Yesterday’s farewell at the Lane was a symbol of that changing world but young Alli is the flesh and blood incarnation. If he does things right my grandchildren might one day dig up classic old YouTube footage of him and watch with the fresh awe that a lot of us looked at Greaves and Charlton with this week.

He can be that good. Every young talent doesn’t have to end up being a punch bag or a punch line.


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