In the immediate aftermath of England’s quarter-final win over Sweden, Dele Alli was able to sit back and relax.
The Tottenham star had finally made the impression he wanted at the finals, having headed home the Three Lions second goal in a 2-0 win.
Alli picked up an injury in the opener against Tunisia and missed the remaining group games, before returning against Colombia.
But the 22-year-old hadn’t shown the same flash, dash and spark which we’re used to seeing in the Premier League with the North Londoners and was substituted during a tetchy, hard-fought encounter.
However Gareth Southgate elected to retain his faith in Alli against the Swedes, and was duly rewarded with the goal which killed off the Swedish resistance and booked a last four spot.
After the win Alli ruminated on his performance, having not been overly happy with his all-round display.
His first half had been error-strewn, with touches bouncing off and running into defenders. But on the sidelines post-game, chatting with Alli happily in the aftermath, going over his display and building him up ahead of the semi-final clash with Croatia, were the family he chose.
They are the people with whom he has been closest over the last nine years, who have seen him grow and who act as his sounding board; they are the people he trusts most, who he has come to class as his family.
They are Alan and Sally Hickford, a middle-class couple from Northamptonshire, their son and his long-time best friend, Harry, and girlfriend Ruby Mae.
The Hickfords have been on hand to watch as Alli has grown from a young renegade at MK Dons, shining playing with boys three years older than him, to making his Football League debut at 16 and on to Spurs and England.
They have shared his journey at a time when he has grown and matured into a young man capable of making his own decisions – such as the one that sees him wear the name Dele, rather than his surname.
At the age of 13 Alli moved in with the Hickfords; Harry had been Alli’s best friend since their first meeting at Wolverton’s Radcliffe secondary school. Harry, also played for MK Dons.
Before then, he had been living with his mother, Denise, on an old estate where kids were “smoking, arguing and robbing.”
“I got into the wrong crowd from an early age. Football was a great distraction from the path I was heading down,” Alli has stated.
To ensure Alli didn’t get led astray, a compromise was struck.
Alli moved some six miles or so from his mother to Cosgrove, Northamptonshire. In everything but name, he became their adopted son, and remained in the family home until last year.
Dan Michiche, former Academy head at MK Dons, says of the young Alli: “He was very different to most academy kids at that age. Dele was more of a street player, very skilful, tried things which other kids wouldn’t attempt to try.
“His thinking was very advanced, in terms of his awareness and creativity. He had very good feet and was always good in tight areas. Ironically, the first game I saw him play was against Tottenham’s Under-12s. He caught my eye straight away, nutmegging people and he was very confident – scooping the ball over people’s heads, using the outside of his foot.
“Football was his escape and release.”
The Hickford’s have become Alli’s de-facto family. Dele and Harry’s football careers may have gone in different directions, but their relationship has only grown stronger; Harry, whom Dele calls his ‘brother’ lives with Alli in a four bedroom £2.2million new-build in Hertfordshire and is his manager.
Alan meanwhile is the director of Dele Alli Promotions Limited – he is one, Dele is the other – a company set up to receive Alli’s sponsorship earnings. It’s latest accounts (August 2017) showed more than £1million in assets – an over £750,000 rise from the previous year.
Indeed, since leaving MK Dons Alli’s career has skyrocketed, first with Spurs and now with England, some 90 minutes from a World Cup final.
However, his relationship with his parents has completely broken down, with Alli not seeing either Kehinde or Denise since signing for Spurs in 2015.
Last August he stopped wearing Alli on the back of his shirt, as he said he felt “no connection” to the name. To a worldwide audience, England’s No.20 is known, merely, as Dele.
For his part, Alli has never opened up on the subject of his relationship with his parents, saying little more than ‘it’s complicated’
In Russia, as he attempts to achieve his dreams, Alli is surrounded by those who he believes who have guided him through teenage troubles and into adulthood. Those who continue to guide him as he seeks to fulfill his undoubted potential and who have played no small part in his rise to prominence.
They are the people he trusts, the people whom he chooses to call family.
“If we do win it, it will be a dream come true,” says Alli on the World Cup.
If the Three Lions are victorious, they will be the family whom he elects to celebrate with.