Repino (Russia) (AFP) – Dele Alli’s long road from muddy lower-league pitches to a World Cup semi-final typifies the journey taken by a surprising number of Gareth Southgate’s England squad.
As the clock ticks down to the match against Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday, Tottenham midfielder Alli has spoken of his journey and the “privilege” of being in Russia.
“A lot of the boys have played together in the younger age groups, or played against each other in League One or the Championship,” said Alli, who helped fire England into the semi-finals with his first World Cup goal against Sweden.
“Everyone has had a different journey to get here. We all get on really well and we don’t take anything for granted. We know how much of a privilege it is to be here.”
Alli did not come through one of the Premier League’s academies, which cater to the needs of even junior players.
Instead, he caught the eye of Spurs’ scouts playing in English football’s third tier for MK Dons in Milton Keynes and remembers all too well the harsh lessons he learned on the way.
“Bradford away,” he said when asked of the toughest conditions he faced.
“It was a night game, the pitch was horrible. It was a horrible game… they were very aggressive and it wasn’t a nice day. Every time I got the ball people would be kicking, swearing.”
– Non-league challenge –
Alli, 22, scored that February night in 2015 past Jordan Pickford in the Bradford goal.
Pickford, England’s hero in the last-16 penalty shootout win over Colombia and man-of-the-match against Sweden, completed six loan spells away from Sunderland, gaining experience in the lower leagues.
And he believes the pressure of being England’s number one is a breeze compared to the abuse he received as a youngster making his way in the game.
“I don’t feel the Premier League or England is that much different. In some ways non-league and League Two is the hard challenge,” the Everton stopper told reporters after his heroics against Sweden.
“Places like Wrexham and Southport away when there are not that many people there, you are a young lad and you’re having abuse hurled at you — that is what teaches you and that’s what you laugh about now.”
Alli and Pickford are not alone. The World Cup’s top scorer Harry Kane was shipped out for four loan spells before breaking through in spectacular style at Tottenham.
Jesse Lingard was sent on loan four times to the Championship by Manchester United, Harry Maguire battled hardened with Sheffield United in League Two, and Kieran Trippier worked his way back to the top flight via Barnsley after being released as a youngster by Manchester City.
Those experiences are keeping Southgate’s charges grounded.
Following their affable coach’s example, as well as being the most exciting team England team for some time on the field, they are also the most likeable.
“You want to be the best person as well as being a good player,” added Alli. “You want to be the best person you can possibly be, thinking where you’ve come from.”
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