How a loving adoptive family forged a modern hero: Dele Alli, 22, credits success to school friend who took him in after his mother’s ‘alcohol abuse’ forced him to skip practice, as they now cheer him on in Russia
- The England star was unofficially adopted by the Hickford family as a teenager
- Dele rarely comments on his family situation only saying it is ‘complicated’
- On Saturday, he posed for a photo with ‘foster parents’ Alan, Sally and their son Harry after 2-0 win against Sweden at the World Cup
- Harry is his ‘brother’ who lives with him at his mansion in Hertfordshire
The picture radiates relaxed family togetherness. Footballer Dele Alli, only 22 years old and fresh from a career pinnacle, scoring for England against Sweden in the World Cup quarter-final, smiles shyly with his support team around him.
These are the people he loves and trusts. Posted on Instagram by his model girlfriend, it shows Alan and Sally Hickford, a middle-class couple from Northamptonshire, and their 22-year-old son Harry.
They’re all on the pitch in Russia, beaming with pride. They came with him — of course they did. They are his world, and he theirs.
While his birth mother Denise remains on a council estate in Milton Keynes, and his father is in Houston, Texas, this brave and determined young man is with the family of his choosing, the Hickfords.
Two years ago he took the decision to drop the ‘Alli’ surname from the back of his shirt, because he felt it didn’t reflect who he is. His shirt simply bears his first name, Dele.
He chooses not to talk about his family much, saying only that it is ‘complicated’.
But with the country cheering him on tomorrow, perhaps this is an apposite moment to reflect on the grit and character Dele has shown to become a sporting hero. And also on the family whose support and love have played no small part in his success.
So who are team Dele — and how did his fractured family situation come about?
Bamidele Jermaine Alli was born in April 1996 to newlywed Denise and Kehinde (known as Kenny) Alli, a Nigerian businessman. Kenny was in the UK to take a post graduate degree. The couple parted a week after Dele arrived and Kenny has moved to America and remarried.
Denise, who already had two daughters by two other men, raised her family in a three bedroom council house in Bradwell, a rough part of Milton Keynes. Seven years after Dele was born, she had another child by a fourth man. Again, the relationship failed.
In an interview in 2016, she spoke fondly about his early years, saying: ‘He was my little cling-on. He’d always say, ‘Kiss me’. ‘
But Dele’s life soon started to become — in his words — complicated.
At some point he went to live in Nigeria with his father. His parents’ accounts differ. Denise has said it was when Dele was five, and he went for six months; Kenny has said Dele was nine, and lived with him two years.
By 11, Dele was back in Bradwell, kicking a football about in the street.
‘There was a car park where I used to go and play with my friends, using bikes for goalposts. I think you can see that in my game. I used to watch YouTube tricks and then try them out,’ he has said.
He joined the City Colts boys club in Milton Keynes, and later MK Dons, where his talent was spotted by Mike Dove, head of the youth system.
Dove said: ‘He had a tough upbringing; challenging. And those formative years were important for his resilience. They made him fear-free. Nothing worries him.’
Dele’s best friend at Radcliffe secondary school in Wolverton was builder’s son Harry Hickford. They bonded over their love of football and played in the same teams
But Dele’s mum Denise was struggling. By her own account in one published interview, alcohol abuse was to blame, although in a more recent interview she denies having had a drink problem.
One coach recalls that things at home were so chaotic, Dele often struggled to turn up for training.
By the time he was 13, a solution had been found: he moved in with Harry Hickford’s parents, Alan and Sue, in the middle-class suburb of Cosgrove, Northamptonshire, six miles from his mother.
The arrangement started when Dele began going for tea after training three days a week, then he started staying over. Soon he was spending five days a week, visiting home just once a month, or less.
Denise, now working as a cleaner, said it was a painful decision to let him go — but the right one.