Morality and football rarely coexist with anything resembling consistency.
One week, a manager will hang a referee out to dry for missing an offside and the very next week that same manager will wink down the camera when they profit from an identically missed offside.
Likewise, a player will scream with his hands a loft, incredulous at the dirty cheating opposition taking an age over the throw in. That’s at 1-0 down of course. At 2-1 up the same player is going down to tie up his laces, the laces he’s just spent 30 seconds working loose with his boots.
And then too, there are the fans. Fans for whom there aren’t hours left in existence to adequately document all of the hypocrisy and moral double standards that is shouted from the terraces, discussed over pints and dialled into Radio phone ins, all day, every day.
My personal favourite though is the fan who will criticise ‘these foreigners who brought diving to our beautiful British game’ and who will then criticise an England player for ‘being too honest’ when it’s our World Cup exit on the line.
In a nutshell, us football fans like it both ways. We like to have our cake, and we like to eat it. And that is the dilemma I find myself in with Dele Alli.
On the one hand, Dele is one of the brightest talents in England, in the Premier League and even in Europe. He could quite legitimately become a superstar, and that is very exciting. He also plays with a silky elegance that is right up my street. He is skilful and impudent and cheeky, in short: entertaining.
But on the other hand, Dele Alli is a contemptuous imp and a person who if you can judge a character by what you see on the football pitch, I can’t say I would ever be particularly interested in sharing a room with.
First up, Dele Alli is a cheat.
In Tottenham’s clash against Liverpool Dele burst into the box, across came Dejan Lovren to deal with the danger and down went Dele. Except, Lovren didn’t touch him. He didn’t even threaten to touch him.
Credit to the Croat, who has taken his fair share of criticism in the red of Liverpool, he seemed to read Dele’s nefarious intentions, and he got out of the way.
As a result, it couldn’t have been more obvious that Dele Alli had tried to con his way to a penalty through that act which feels so at odds with the traits that British fans admire in their players: honesty, integrity, grit and determination.
And it wasn’t his first time either. Besides the controversial penalties (such as the one he won against Burnley earlier in the season), Dele has been booked 3 times for simulation since the beginning of the 2015/16 season. It is the joint most in the Premier League, alongside Wilfried Zaha.
Incidentally, considering the amount of effort put into trying to get Zaha to choose to play for England over the Ivory Coast, English fans might want to rethink this idea of diving being a foreign vice. But that’s a separate issue.
Next up in the canon of Dele Alli’s detestable traits is his nastiness, evident most recently in Dele’s shocker of a challenge on Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne in December. Thankfully the tackle, which could have easily broken De Bruyne’s leg, appeared to spur the Belgian on and when he scored City’s second of the game it was a timely reminder that if you shoot for the king, you had better not miss.
Plenty of players will cross the fine boundary between aggression and assault, it is part and parcel of the game. But whereas players like Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero may also have shocking challenges to their name, their infractions are one offs, isolated incidents.
With Dele Alli, that is not the case, evidenced not only in his regular spats with opposition players, but also in the swipe he took at Alexis Sanchez when Tottenham were 2-0 up and coasting to victory, and Sanchez was about 15 yards from his own box.
The most obvious defence of Dele’s behaviour is his youth. At 21 he is still a child and that is not to patronise him. Being a normal 21-year old is difficult enough, being 21 with the world at your feet and who knows how many people trying to get in your ear is something that the vast majority will never deal with.
However, there is a point at which immature mistakes become reflections of the man. And 3 years into his Premier League career, having represented England at a major tournament, and into his second Champions League campaign the simple fact is that if Dele Alli’s cheating and his nastiness were going to fade away, they would have. And they haven’t.
Much has been made of Dele’s downturn in form this season and it is true that he hasn’t reached the same levels that he found the season prior, where he fired 18 League goals, adding to 9 League assists.
The man himself claims he is aware of his inconsistency and is his own worst critic, while it is also worth noting that having scored 5 goals and provided 8 assists in the Premier League this season, any other 21-year old would be walking on cloud 9.
Form is a fickle mistress and as an England fan, I am prepared to cheer for my heroes whether they are firing or not. I got behind Emile Heskey and I got convinced myself that Ledley King (who was effectively wheeled out of hospital onto the team plane) could win us the World Cup, so whether Dele Alli is in top form of not is inconsequential.
What I am finding it increasingly hard to abide is Dele’s character. His diving, cheating, willingness to hurt opponents and his petulance. Like I said at the start, morality and football don’t really belong in the same sentence, but while I will cheer for Dele when he takes the field for England, or for Spurs, it will be a little quieter than it would have been, if he wasn’t so unpleasant.
That is of course a fairly underwhelming conclusion and I doubt Dele could care less about my opinion. In many ways neither could I, my greater concern is that Dele’s character becomes his greatest weakness. That his temper becomes the way in which teams destabilise England/Spurs; by clouding the judgement of the man who can pick them apart.
Similarly, I worry that the clear enjoyment that Dele takes from getting into it with opposition players is evidence of a lack of focus that will ultimately prevent him from being the player that everyone really wants him to be.
I wish Dele Alli was nicer, but I can get over that. What will hurt is if he doesn’t realise his potential because of it.
Written by Scott Pope
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