Warning: Contains distressing details of sexual abuse and child cruelty.
Everton midfielder Dele Alli says he was sexually abused when he was six years old.
In an emotional interview with former England footballer Gary Neville, Dele revealed the abuse he suffered as a child before he was adopted aged 12.
He said he was “molested” aged six, started smoking aged seven and was dealing drugs at eight years old.
Dele, 27, recently spent six weeks in rehab because of a sleeping pill addiction and mental health issues.
One of football’s brightest young talents, Dele was part of the England squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and helped Tottenham to the Champions League final in 2019.
However, his form dipped and he left Spurs to join Everton in February 2022 before going on loan to Turkish side Besiktas last season.
Dele, who earned the last of his 37 England caps in 2019, returned to Everton at the end of last season because of injury.
“When I came back from Turkey, I found out I needed an operation and I was in a bad place mentally,” he told The Overlap.
“I decided to go to a modern-day rehab facility for mental health. They deal with addiction, mental health and trauma.
“I felt like it was time for me. You can’t be told to go there. You have to know and make the decision yourself or it’s not going to work. I was caught in a bad cycle. I was relying on things that were doing me harm.
“I was waking up every day and I was winning the fight, going into training, smiling, showing that I was happy – but inside I was definitely losing the battle. It was time for me to change it.”
In a statement, Everton said: “Everyone at Everton respects and applauds Dele’s bravery to speak about the difficulties he has faced, as well as seek the help required.
“Dele will not be conducting any further interviews in relation to his rehabilitation, and we ask that his privacy is respected while he continues his recuperation from injury and receives the full care and support needed for his physical and mental wellbeing.”
Dele said he had come out of rehab in the United States three weeks ago and “could never have imagined how much” he would get from it as “a lot happened when I was younger that I could never understand and figure out” and it had helped him on that front.
He later paused as he became tearful when talking about being “molested” by a non-family member.
“My mum was an alcoholic. I was sent to Africa [to stay with his father] to learn discipline, and then I was sent back,” he said.
“At seven, I started smoking, eight I started dealing drugs.
“An older person told me that they wouldn’t stop a kid on a bike, so I rode around with my football, and then underneath I’d have the drugs.
“Eleven, I was hung off a bridge by a guy from the next estate, a man.
“Twelve, I was adopted – 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.”
Dele said he is not in contact with his biological parents, adding he feels “betrayed” and “let down” after they claimed in 2018 his adopted family were taking advantage of him.
He said he does not “blame” his mother “at all” after going to rehab helped him “understand her and what she was going through” but the “hurt” caused by those claims means he does not want a relationship with her.
Speaking of his father, who last made contact when he was playing for England, Dele added: “I don’t want a relationship with him either.”
He changed the name on the back of his shirt to Dele in 2016, saying he felt “no connection” with the Alli surname.
Dele made his senior football debut aged 16 for MK Dons in 2012 and impressed as the then-League One side beat Manchester United in the League Cup two years later.
He joined Tottenham in February 2015 and excelled for club and country before he fell out of favour for both.
“It’s been going on for a long time without me realising it,” said Dele. “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.
“It started with that and then I got addicted to sleeping tablets. It’s probably a problem that not only I have but it’s something going around more than people realise in football. Maybe me coming out and speaking about it can help people.
“I definitely abused them too much. I would stop sometimes and go a few months without them but I was never really dealing with the problem.
“It got really bad at some points and I didn’t understand how bad it was but I was never dealing with the root of the problem, which was – when I was growing up – the traumas I had and the feelings I was holding on to.
“I was taking a lot. I don’t want to get into numbers but it was definitely way too much and I had some scary moments.”
Dr Michael Bennett, the director of player wellbeing at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), said the union “regularly supports” members who have developed addictions, including to sleeping tablets.
“Even administered in small doses, prescription medications can be habit-forming,” he added.
“If players are using sleeping tablets or any other prescription medication and are concerned that they may have developed a dependency, we encourage them to speak confidentially with the PFA and access the support we offer.”
Dele, who praised the support offered by Everton, said he was speaking out about his experience sooner than he had planned as some tabloid newspapers had found out about him going into rehab.
“Unfortunately the way the world is now, the tabloids found out and they were calling my team a lot and saying they knew where I was,” he said.
Dele’s best form at Spurs came under the club’s former manager Mauricio Pochettino, who was replaced by Jose Mourinho in November 2019.
“Pochettino – I couldn’t have asked for a better manager, him and his team are amazing people,” said Dele.
“It wasn’t like a footballer and a manager relationship, it was deeper than that and that was what I needed at the time.
“He was so understanding of the decisions I was making. He cared about me as a person before the football.”
Dele said his “saddest moment” came when he was 24, now playing under Mourinho.
He added: “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 was literally staring in the mirror and I was asking if I could retire now, at 24, doing the thing I love. That was heartbreaking.”
He added Mourinho did apologise for calling him “lazy” in the All or Nothing documentary.
Dele said he wanted “to help other people to let them know that they’re not alone in the feelings that they’ve got”.
“You can talk to people. It doesn’t make you weak to get help, to be vulnerable – there’s a lot of strength in that. To come out and share my story, I’m happy to do it,” he said.
On the playing front, Dele expects to be sidelined for “another few weeks” before trying to show he still has the ability to perform in the Premier League.
“I want to be a better player, a better person,” he said.
“I look back and I did good, but I’m not satisfied with that. You can’t drive your car looking in the rear view mirror. The journey from here is just exciting for me.”
England captain Harry Kane said he was “proud” of his former Spurs team-mate “for speaking out and sharing his experience to try and help others”.
Former England striker Gary Lineker said the interview was “very powerful and brave” and wished Dele “good luck”.
The Professional Footballers’ Association said: “It’s incredibly brave of Dele to tell his story with such honesty in this important interview.
“Hearing Dele speak with such openness will make a difference, and his desire to use his own experiences to act as an inspiration to others – inside and outside of football – is something he should be extremely proud of.”
Dele’s former club MK Dons said: “We have always been so proud of Dele, none more so than now, seeing him show tremendous bravery to speak publicly on the matter of his mental health.
“Dele will always have the love and support of everyone associated with MK Dons.”