Dele Alli has revealed he was sexually abused at the age of six and was dealing drugs two years later – while a recent fight against a sleeping pill addiction led to a six-week stay at a rehab clinic.
The Everton midfielder has seen his football career stall in recent seasons but has now spoken on the reasons behind a mental health battle that saw him contemplate hanging up his boots at the age of 24.
In an emotional interview, the England international fought back tears as he laid bare his difficult upbringing before he was adopted by the Hickford family – saying he was “molested” at the age of six.
Speaking to Gary Neville on The Overlap podcast in partnership with Sky Bet, Alli said: “(Childhood) is something I haven’t really spoken about that much, to be honest.
“My mum was an alcoholic. I was sent to Africa (to stay with his father) to learn discipline, and then I was sent back. At seven, I started smoking, eight I started dealing drugs.
“Eleven, I was hung off a bridge by a guy from the next estate. Twelve, I was adopted – and from then, I was adopted by an amazing family – I couldn’t have asked for better people to do what they’d done for me. If God created people, it was them.
“There were a number of times my adopted family and my brother – you know, it makes me sad – they would take me to rooms crying, asking me to just speak to them, tell them what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, and I just couldn’t do it because I wanted to deal with it by myself.”
After signing for Tottenham from MK Dons, Alli enjoyed a fine run of form that culminated in playing a key role in England’s progress to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018.
But Alli was still battling in silence off the pitch – leading to a “scary” addiction to sleeping pills and a reliance on alcohol.
“I got addicted to sleeping tablets and it’s probably a problem that not only I have, I think it’s something that’s going around more than people realise in football,” he said.
“I think, without me realising it – the things I was doing to numb the feelings I had…I didn’t realise I was doing it for that purpose, whether it be drinking or whatever.
“I don’t want to talk about numbers but it was definitely way too much, and there were some scary moments I had.
“To take a sleeping tablet and be ready for the next day is fine, but when you’re broken as I am, it can obviously have the reverse effect because it does work for the problems you want to deal with.
“That is the problem – it works until it doesn’t. So yes, I definitely abused them too much. It is scary, now I’m out of it and I look back on it.
“Probably the saddest moment for me, was when (Jose) Mourinho was (Tottenham) manager, I think I was 24. I remember there was one session, like one morning I woke up and I had to go to training – this is when he’d stopped playing me – and I was in a bad place.
“I mean it sounds dramatic but I was literally staring in the mirror – and I was asking if I could retire now, at 24, doing the thing I love. For me, that was heart-breaking to even have had that thought at 24, to want to retire. That hurt me a lot, that was another thing that I had to carry.”
Having left Spurs for Everton in 2022, Alli spent last season on loan at Besiktas but upon returning to England with an injury that required surgery he knew he needed help, checking into a clinic in the United States.
“When I came back from Turkey, I came in and I found out that I needed an operation and I was in a bad place mentally and I decided to go to like a modern-day rehab facility for mental health,” he said.
“I was caught in a bad cycle. I was relying on things that were doing me harm and I think I was waking up every day and I was winning the fight, you know; going into training, smiling, showing that I was happy.
“But inside, I was definitely losing the battle and it was time for me to change it because when I got injured and they told me I needed surgery, I could feel the feelings I had when the cycle begins and I didn’t want it to happen any more.
“They deal with like addiction, mental health, and trauma because it was something that I felt like it was time for.
“I think with things like that, you can’t be told to go there, I think you have to know, and you have to make the decision yourself, otherwise it’s not going to work.
“I went there for six weeks and Everton were amazing about it. They supported me 100 per cent and I’ll be grateful to them forever…I was probably making the biggest decision of my life – something I was scared to do.
“But I’m happy I’ve done it and to be honest, I couldn’t of expected it to go the way it did.”
Alli has received support online from former team-mates including Jan Vertonghen and Harry Kane.
England captain Kane tweeted: “Proud of @dele_official for speaking out and sharing his experience to try and help others.”