Tim Sherwood called it ‘devilment’ (‘reckless mischief; wild spirits’, according to the dictionary) while his good friend Jamie Redknapp has been gushing in his praise of a player he has labelled the ‘new Steven Gerrard’, a player with ‘devilment’ aplenty; just ask Ander Herrera. Or Kevin Campbell. Or George Boateng. Or Gary Naysmith.
Even after Dele Alli punched West Brom midfielder Claudio Yacob in the stomach on Monday night, Jamie Carragher said: “You like the fact that he’s got something about him.” His Sky Sports colleague Graeme Souness echoed that sentiment, saying Alli “has got that edge in him and that makes him the player he is going to be”.
We have been here before. Alli kicked out at Fiorentina’s Nenad Tomovic in an act of petulance in February, a month after Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew accusing him of stamping on Yohan Cabaye. It seems ‘devilment’ might be a euphemism for ‘being a bit of a tw*t’.
Former players, with their disdain of the censored cleanliness of the modern game, love this element of Alli’s game, just as they loved Wayne Rooney before him. Excellent footballer? An all-action whirl of arms and legs? Firebrand? It’s a combination that gets a near-unequivocal seal of approval from any footballer who ever ‘left a foot in’, pulled an opponent’s dreadlocks or squeezed the bollock of a man in the middle of a melee.
Everywhere he looks, there is tacit approval for Alli’s actions. “He’s a little bit naughty. But it’s good. I like it,” says his club manager Mauricio Pochettino, while Roy Hodgson said he had “not seen anything worrisome” in Alli’s temperament, though that was before his altercation with Yacob. The England manager compared him to Bryan Robson, yet another excellent player who pushed the laws of the game, and suggested that his mean streak was part of his make-up as a combative central midfielder. N’Golo Kante – with his three yellow cards in 34 Premier League games – could slowly raise his hand (without feeling the need to punch anybody) at this juncture.
Pundits, journalists and managers are all sending the message to Alli that his ‘devilment’ is a positive character trait, while he will attract little opprobrium from Tottenham fans. One wrote into the mailbox on Monday night to say: ‘Given the amount of provocation, you could understand anyone with any balls, eventually, lashing out. I think most of us would like to think we’d do something about it in the end, just from a point of basic pride: Everyone has to show there’s a limit to the amount of crap they’ll take.’
Perfectly put. Fans like to see players react exactly as they would on a football pitch, which is why they – generally speaking – hate diving and love any display of real emotion, whether that is unbridled joy or genuine anger. The player who goes down at the brush of a flailing arm is not one of us, but wouldn’t we all like to punch the bloke who has been winding us up all game? Of course, but then we are not professional footballers.
With so much approval, it’s no wonder that Alli himself says: “My personality is that I like to express myself and that is not something I will look to change. Do you need an aggressive streak to thrive? You could say that. A lot of the great players have that mentality. I want to be the best I can and if that’s what I need to do it, that’s what I do.”
Personality? If your personality causes you to risk red cards with acts of petulance, then somebody needs to tell Alli that what he is nurturing is a personality flaw. Calling it ‘devilment’ or ‘naughty’ is really not helping.
Why should we care if Alli has a penchant for a sly flick of the boot or an elbow in the ribs? Because this is a major tournament year and the Tottenham midfielder is an almost-certain starter for an England side not blessed with enough talent to play with ten men because one player has ‘expressed himself’. Or should that be ’10 heroic lions’ and ‘one stupid boy,’ as the Daily Mirror headline read on July 1, 1998?
The four red cards shown to England players in major tournaments have all been for acts of petulance – from Alan Mullery kicking a Yugoslav in the goolies in 1968, through Ray Wilkins inexplicably throwing the ball at the referee in 1986, to David Beckham kicking out in 1998 and Wayne Rooney behaving like a child against Portugal in 2006.
But Rooney was forgiven because the foreign WINKER (as per the front page of The Sun the next day) Ronaldo had wound up our loveable firebrand. And then WINKED. The cheeky b***ard.
“I was happy I didn’t get the stick Becks got and even Phil Neville did at Euro 2000,” said Rooney. “I didn’t really get any stick. Ronaldo took a lot of it and I’m pleased with that.”
It’s not difficult to see the same scenario played out again this summer as Russian, Welsh and Slovakian midfielders target Alli and his mischievous propensity for violence. And it’s not difficult to imagine the very same reaction from an English media which has embraced and encouraged the mean streak of a teenager. Naughty, naughty.