The footballing world has shown support for Dele Alli after the Everton midfielder opened up on his traumatic childhood and struggles with addiction.
Dele, 27, won back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017 while starring in title-challenging Tottenham sides. He was sold to Everton in January of last year and subsequently loaned to Besiktas for the recently concluded campaign, a deal cancelled prematurely due to injury.
The moves made Dele the subject of critical commentary from some pundits. But he has now revealed the personal pain behind this phase of his career, involving a sleeping pill addiction, drinking to “escape the reality” of his childhood trauma and a desire to retire from football aged just 24.
In an emotional interview with Gary Neville, his former coach at international level, for The Overlap, Dele said: “At six, I was molested by my mum’s friend who was at the house a lot. My mum was an alcoholic.
“I was sent to Africa to learn discipline. Then I was sent back. Seven, I started smoking. Eight I started dealing drugs, selling drugs. An older person told me they wouldn’t stop a kid so I’d ride around with my football and then underneath I’d have the drugs.
“Eleven, I was hung off a bridge by a guy from the next estate. At 12, I was adopted by an amazing family, I couldn’t have asked for better people to do what they’ve done for me… If God created people, it was them. They are amazing and have helped me a lot.”
These events help explain why he chose to drop the surname ‘Alli’ from his shirt in 2016.
Following surgery in spring of this year to address an injury sustained while playing in Turkey, Dele decided to use the time to attend a modern-day rehab facility for mental health.
“They deal with addiction, mental health and trauma,” Alli said while also making clear that he was opening up earlier than he would like, prompted by the threat of tabloid stories on his treatment.
“I felt like it was time for me. You can’t be told to go there. You have to know and make the decision yourself or it’s not going to work. I was caught in a bad cycle. I was relying on things that were doing me harm.”
Dele explained how he began taking sleeping pills to counteract the adrenaline experienced in evenings before matches: “It’s something going around more than people realise in football. Maybe me coming out and speaking about it can help people.
“I definitely abused them too much. I would stop sometimes and go a few months without them but I was never really dealing with the problem.
“It got really bad at some points and I didn’t understand how bad it was but I was never dealing with the root of the problem, which was – when I was growing up – the traumas I had and the feelings I was holding on to.
“I was taking a lot. I don’t want to get into numbers but it was definitely way too much and I had some scary moments.”
“Hearing Dele speak with such openness will make a difference”
The story came as a shock to football fans and has been met with an outpouring of support.
“The club has been supporting Dele in both his return to fitness and overcoming the personal challenges highlighted in his interview with The Overlap,” read a statement released by Everton.
“Everyone at Everton respects and applauds Dele’s bravery to speak about the difficulties he has faced, as well as seek the help required. The physical and mental welfare of all our players is of paramount importance. The club takes very seriously its responsibility in protecting the confidentiality of players and staff.
“Dele will not be conducting any further interviews in relation to his rehabilitation, and we ask that his privacy is respected while he continues his recuperation from injury and receives the full care and support needed for his physical and mental wellbeing.”
During the interview, Dele told Neville: “Everton were amazing and supported me. I will be grateful to them forever. For them to be so honest and understanding I couldn’t ask for anything more during a time I was making the biggest decision of my life – doing something I was scared to do. I’m happy I’ve done it.”
Former clubs Tottenham and did MK Dons — where the midfielder started his career — published their own messages of support.
On Dele’s Instagram post sharing the interview, the Englishman received comments of support from the likes of Ryan Sessegnon, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, James Maddison, Kyle Walker-Peters, Ben Chilwell and Marcus Rashford among many, many others.
“Proud of you brother! Love you always,” Maddison’s comment read.
“So proud of you bro, love you,” said Walker-Peters.
“Extremely proud of you bro,” Calvert-Lewin added.
The PFA’s statement read: “It’s incredibly brave of Dele to tell his story with such honesty in this important interview with Gary Neville.
“Hearing Dele speak with such openness will make a difference, and his desire to use his own experiences to act as an inspiration to others – inside and outside of football – is something he should be extremely proud of.”
A tweet attributed to Prince William, who is president of the FA, from the Prince and Princess of Wales’ official account spoke of Dele’s bravery in giving his interview and pushed for more discussions to do with mental health.
Brave and inspirational @dele_official. Discussing mental health is not a sign of weakness. Let’s keep the conversation going.
We’re all with you and we wish you the very best. W https://t.co/25iffmKhSb
— The Prince and Princess of Wales (@KensingtonRoyal) July 13, 2023
Others highlighted how Dele’s story showed the reality of judging athletes without knowing what is going in their personal lives.
Some people judge when they really have no idea what is going on in someone’s head. Once it’s out in the open Dele, that is the day you start healing ❤️? https://t.co/oz7ICWY5uV
— Chris Kamara (@chris_kammy) July 13, 2023
— Harry Kane (@HKane) July 13, 2023
If Dele Alli had never excelled as a footballer and only managed to live his life and hold down any job at all that would be an achievement. Given what he’s been through, what he’s accomplished by the age of 27 is nothing short of miraculous
— Kate Mason (@kvlmason) July 13, 2023
I don’t think I’m being over the top when I say that Dele Alli’s interview could be one of the most important football interviews that I think I’ve ever seen…
The way he articulates his problems, the bravery he’s shown to discuss them. Remarkable. pic.twitter.com/tNeQmDjort
— Joe Crann (@YesWeCrann) July 13, 2023
That Dele Alli went through what he did in childhood and made it not just as a professional athlete but a footballer who played in a Champions League final is sort of incomprehensible. I can’t compute it. There’s being a fighter and there’s being a superhero. He’ll be back.
— Matt Tate (@MattWTate) July 13, 2023
The Dele Alli story is a lesson and a reminder for all of us: what we see on the face of things is rarely what actually is.
— Daniel Harris (@DanielHarris) July 13, 2023
Dele Alli, considering what he has been through, has had a remarkable career. When I hear life stories like that, I think: to not only hold it together somehow but to excel for years on end, that’s incredible.
— Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) July 13, 2023