Dele interview should make us all squirm; we can all do better, act better, write better

Dave Tickner

If you haven’t yet watched Gary Neville’s Overlap interview with Dele, then you need to remedy that immediately. It is required if harrowing viewing for any football fan. Because all of us can learn something.

All of us can be better.

All of us can take that extra moment to remember that Premier League footballers may be Premier League footballers, but they are also human beings going through things we may neither know nor understand. Hell, in Dele’s case he has spent his whole life going through things not even his team-mates or adopted family fully knew or understood.

Like we said, if you’ve not watched it go and do that, then come back to this. You already know it’s going to be a difficult watch, but you need to do it.

The next most important thing you need to do is to make sure you don’t read any comment sections about it anywhere, not on YouTube or Twitter or the inevitable deluge of stories that have followed.

Many of those stories will come from the precise tabloid papers Dele pins as major villains in his story. They’ll not tell you that bit. They’ll wildly inflate his beef with Amazon, or highlight his demonstrably shitty relationship with Jose Mourinho, while studiously ignoring their own part in Dele being where he is now.

One of the most striking aspects of the interview is that while Dele’s spell in rehab has clearly helped him understand and rationalise why he has done some of the things he has done, he is also very much not at the end of his recovery but still somewhere near the start.

This interview has come too early, but his hand was forced.

“I maybe could have done with a little bit more time, in terms of when I was talking about it, but unfortunately the way the world is now – you know the tabloids – they found out and were calling my team a lot and telling, you know, that they knew where I was and stuff.”

It’s handled with great sensitivity by Neville, but it’s clear Dele would have benefited from more time to process his time in rehab. There’s a moment early in the interview when, clearly bringing up something he’s only recently realised, he talks about how he uses laughter as a coping strategy, a defence mechanism. When you recover yourself at the end of his heart-breaking 45-minute soul-baring, you realise with a jolt that he’s spent a huge chunk of the interview doing precisely that.

He may be readier now than he was a few months ago to have this conversation, but that’s not the same as ready.

But the tabloids who stalked him during the ‘party boy’ days wouldn’t even allow him that processing time. They won’t acknowledge their part in Dele’s specific case or others like it, but the rest of us don’t have to live our lives by the moral and ethical standards of tabloid newspapers.

We can all show a bit more empathy to footballers. Not just Dele, although right now definitely him.

We can all try to remember these are human beings facing human struggles on some level or other. They are not robots.

We’re all still guilty, in Dele’s specific case, of calling him ‘Dele Alli’ long after he specifically asked people to stop doing that. We may not have known the specifics then for why he didn’t want his football career associated with the ‘Alli’ name, but we could have deduced they weren’t going to be pleasant. Yet commentators still referred to him routinely as Dele Alli; indeed, it’s hard to think of any player more frequently referred to by his full name. It trips off the tongue far better than just ‘Dele’. Partly it’s habit, partly it’s rhythms of speech.

But it’s not the name he wanted to be known by. We should all respect that. Online, even today, even on this site, headlines and standfirsts and intros will still feature the name ‘Dele Alli’ because the Overlords of Google and SEO demand it. That can’t be right, can it?

Only a few weeks ago, I made a throwaway joke about Dele’s career using a name I knew he didn’t want to be known by. That feels excruciating now, but not knowing the full details is scant defence. It could never have been anything good, but I made the joke anyway.

It’s funny in a way that when pushed to name a friend in football who tried to help him he hits on the name Eric Dier, pinpointing the power of their friendship with a memorable line about how true friends “are the ones who don’t always say ‘Yes’.”

Dier’s situation is completely different, but he has suffered absurd and extreme hate recently that has already given us pause for self-reflection. Nobody should get that level of hate for their suitability or otherwise for the left centre-back role in Ange Postecoglou’s aggressive 4-3-3.

Now we know more of Dele’s story, only the truly vile and the trolliest trolls will come for him. Their numbers will still be grimly depressing, but most people will be rooting for him like never before.

But if you now find yourself taking a pause before offering up a pithy or snide remark about Dele’s career, then take that same pause when talking about anyone. Criticism is a valid and unavoidable part of the, yes, well-remunerated career these athletes have chosen. That doesn’t mean we can forget they are real people whose real lives we generally know absolutely nothing about; worse, what we think we do know about their real lives is often distorted and twisted through the sensationalising tabloid lens.

There’s very little in football we’d like to see more than Dele getting back to something, anything like the force of nature he was for Spurs between 2015 and 2019, whether that’s at Everton or elsewhere.

But if it doesn’t happen, let’s all agree to try our very hardest not to be f**king pricks about it.