ele Alli has revealed he was sexually abused at the age of six and was dealing drugs by the time he was just eight years old.
In an emotional interview, the Everton midfielder fought back tears as he laid bare his difficult upbringing before he was adopted by the Hickford family.
Alli also told Gary Neville in The Overlap podcast that he has battled a sleeping pill addiction and only came out of rehab last month as he struggled with his mental health.
You can read the full interview transcript below…
Gary Neville: Firstly, are you OK?
“Yeah, I think [I’m ok], that’s a question I’ve definitely been asked a lot – but I think this is probably the first time in a long time that I can say ‘yeah’ and like mean it. I think mentally I’m probably in the best place I’ve ever been, and I feel good. Obviously injured at the minute, but I’ve got that passion back for football – I’m doing really well.
“I think now is probably the right time for me to tell people what’s been going on. It’s tough to talk about because it’s quite recent and it’s something I’ve kind of hid for a long time – and I’m scared to talk about it, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”
I hope I can help others by opening up about my struggles – media will write what they want but I want to save at least one person through this
“I’m hoping [opening up like this] helps people. It will help me. I think it’s something I needed to explain and get off my chest, and I wanted to say it in the way I felt was the truth. Because, like I said, people write stuff and they can word it however they want – and I’m sure they will. I’m sure they will choose headlines from this and choose whatever they want to write. Clickbait – they’ll use the headlines.
“I’ve read so many stories about myself that it’s not true at all. I wouldn’t say [that I’ve been targeted], I don’t know. I didn’t help myself, I put myself in stupid positions where it was too easy for them to do that. I don’t care what they write, they can write what they want to do as long as if I help one person to come out and change their life, and potentially save their life, then that’s all I need from this.”
I decided to check in to a rehab facility to help with my mental health
“So, when I came back from Turkey, I came in and I found out that I need an operation and I was in a bad place mentally and yeah, I decided to go to like a modern-day rehab facility for mental health. 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 and yeah, to be honest, I was caught in a bad cycle – you know. I was relying on things that were doing me harm and yeah, 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 anymore.
“So I went there, I went there for six weeks and Everton were amazing about it, you know. They supported me 100% and I’ll be grateful to them forever. I think, whatever happens in the future, for them to be so open and honest and understanding, I think I couldn’t have asked for anything more in that time when 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.”
I’d have liked a bit more time before telling my story but I feel strong enough to do this now
“So, I got out [of rehab] three weeks ago, I think, and if I’m being honest, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it this soon. I think maybe give it a bit more time, but I am feeling in a really good place, and I feel strong enough to do this – I think that’s important.
“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. And the decision that I maybe made in the past where I didn’t really care about what people thought, and I didn’t care about being understood, I would have just let them write what they wanted to write, and you know, put their own story out which they do a lot of the time.
“But it’s not the reality, and also, you know, I want to help other people to know that they’re not alone in the feelings they’ve got and that 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. So, to come out and to share my story, I’m happy to do it.”
I was taking sleeping pills to deal with my trauma, rather than dealing with the root of the problems
“I mean [my troubles have] been going on for a long time, I think, without me realising it – the things I was doing to numb the feelings I had. I mean I didn’t realise I was doing it for that purpose, whether it be drinking or whatever. The things a lot of people do – but if you abuse it and use it in the wrong way, and you’re not actually doing it for the pleasure, you’re doing it to try and chase something or hide from something, it can obviously damage you a lot.
“So, it started with that and then I got addicted to sleeping tablets, and it’s probably a problem that you know, not only I have, I think it’s something that’s going around more than people realise in football. You know, maybe, hopefully me coming out and speaking about it can help people because don’t get me wrong, they work, I think.
“With our schedule, you have a game, you have to be up early in the morning to train, you’ve got all the adrenaline and stuff so sometimes, you know, 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 yeah, I definitely abused them too much, and don’t get me wrong, I’d stop sometimes and go a few months without them, but I was never really dealing with the problem you know, it got really bad at some points and I didn’t understand how bad it was, but I was never dealing with the route of the problem, which was when I was growing up and the traumas I had, the feelings I was holding onto and I tried to deal with it all by myself. I didn’t want to tell anyone.”
I hid my sleeping tablet dependency from my family
“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.
“I didn’t feel like opening up to anyone, I had a lot of people try help me, because they could see it in me. I wasn’t who I was, I lost myself for a few years, and you know, I was just turning everyone away, not accepting any help from anyone. I mean when I have the family that saved my life crying, asking me to tell them what’s wrong, I just didn’t want to do it.
“They had heard a few times about them [the sleeping tablets], but I’d swear on everything that I’d never taken them, which is part of the problem you know, I didn’t want help. I’d tell myself that I wasn’t an addict, I wasn’t addicted to them, but I definitely was.”
It’s okay to seek help from others, it doesn’t make you weak
“I realised that going away and talking about it and understanding it more, yeah, I did need help and it got to the time where I couldn’t do it by myself anymore and I think that’s the thing people need to understand that it is ok.
“I mean we’re definitely stronger as humans together, we don’t have to deal with everything alone. I mean there’s stuff you do deal with by yourself but if it’s having a negative impact on you and you feel like, ok, it’s time you can’t do it by yourself anymore, it doesn’t make you weak.!
I would take sleeping pills on days off just to escape
“It is scary, now I’m out of it and I look back on it. Before, when I’d stop, I would still, kind of, sometimes have the urge, but I’d maintain sober for a period of time, and then there would always be a time when something would happen, I’d get the feelings back and I’d want to escape. Because drugs, alcohol, all that stuff – they work, for the time. I was taking them, I was taking a lot.
“I don’t want to talk about numbers but it was definitely way too much, and there were some scary moments I had. The teams give [sleeping pills] to you for a reason – to sleep, and they do do that. I wasn’t taking them to sleep. I would take them throughout the day, to just escape, sometimes from 11am if I’ve got the day off. I would never take them if I’m playing, but I’d start early if I had the day off, just to escape from the reality.
“It started with a doctor – a doctor was giving [sleeping pills] to me to sleep, and then it turned into more than that, I think. When you want something, you’ll find a way. At the start, yes [I was getting them in acceptable quantities], for sure – like it was one to sleep, that is what it was. And for most people that’s fine and you can handle that – that’s all you need. But for me, it was fixing something else that I didn’t know I could fix, and you hold on to that.”
People will never understand what football can do to you mentally
“Don’t get me wrong, I love football, it saved my life, I owe everything to football – but it’s not just as easy as everyone thinks it is. It’s not this high life. Yes, you have money, you can do a lot of things that you wouldn’t be able to do without it, but mentally, I don’t think people will ever understand until you’re in it, what it can do to you.
“Rejection, just being told you’re not good enough, fighting every day. Even something like losing a game, it can affect you mentally, and you have to be ready, you have to be smiling the next day. When you’re not, it’s a problem.”
I contemplated retiring from football at 24
“It’s hard to pinpoint one exact moment [when I started to feel that things weren’t right]. Probably the saddest moment for me, was when [José] Mourinho was 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 remember just looking in the mirror – 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.”
The tabloids made me out to be someone I wasn’t
“That period [around the age of 24], I was partying a lot, I was having a lot of parties. The reality of what they [the tabloids] say is not the reality. They were calling me a ‘party boy’ and all this before I was doing any of this. So, I think people’s perception of me was a lot different to the reality of what I was living. And then it got to a point where that [the partying] happened, and I was in a bad place.
I was molested by my mum’s friend at six years old
“[My childhood is] something I haven’t really spoken about that much, to be honest. I mean, I think there were a few incidents that could give you kind of a brief understanding. So, at six, I was molested by my mum’s friend. I was sent to Africa to learn discipline, and then I was sent back. 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, that was eight. Eleven, I was hung off a bridge by a guy from the next estate, a man.
“Twelve, I was adopted – and from then, it was like – I was adopted by an amazing family like I said, I couldn’t have asked for better people to do what they’d done for me. If God created people, it was them. They were amazing, and they’ve helped me a lot, and that was another thing, you know – when I started living with them, it was hard for me to really open up to them, because I felt within myself, it was easy to get rid of me again. I tried to be the best kid I could be for them. I stayed with them from 12, and then started playing first-team, professionally, at 16. It all sort of took off from there.”
I learnt a lot about my mum whilst I was in rehab
“They taught me in rehab, I’m not allowed to say I was a bad kid but I got in trouble a lot, you know, with the police. I had no rules, I grew up without any rules. Like I said, my mum she drank a lot and I don’t blame her at all for what happened. I think going to [rehab] really helped me understand her and the things she was going through and what she had to deal with, and it was all she knew.
“Me going into rehab now has helped me understand her – it was all she knew. Like, even when she let me go and I got adopted, she knew and I knew that it was what was needed to even have a chance of living the life I wanted to live and be successful. And because it was only going one way if I stayed there.
“My dad, my blood dad, lived in Africa. And then I got sent to him. I was meant to stay there for a year. It was horrible. I didn’t want to be there at all. Nothing against, you know where I was, but just going from what I was living in, because we had no money – mum had no money.
“There was always like 10 guys, like just around, like just in the house. Yeah, like it was definitely like the drugs, but yeah, so there was that. And then it was just a big culture change, and I didn’t want to be there, so I’d be a little bit naughtier and then after six months I got sent back.”
I questioned why I would do things, but I was just replicating what my mum did growing up
“My adopted family did amazing things, because they would really piece things together. There’s a lot of things that I would question myself about because it went against my values and who I am as a person or what I want to do. And I’d question why I made them decisions, but they could link a lot of things. Like, for example, so I used to have like house parties. And I didn’t care who was in the house whilst playing football. So, I’d have house parties and that was very much how my [biological] mum’s house was without me knowing. It was my comfort zone – it was normal to me. So, just little things like that.”
My rehab in America helped me tackle my trauma
“My rehab was in America. I spent six weeks in America and I met some amazing people there, I think from all different walks of life, different professions, to be able to do that. And it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, what your trauma is. I think trauma is trauma and your body registers it in the same way, no matter what it is. Even if you think you’re fine, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Going and speaking to someone and opening up will help you realise that.”
“This is a good opportunity for me to tell my story. We all think we’re so unique, that no one else has the same problems as us, but speak to a few people in that place and you’ll realise that you have a lot more in common than you would probably think. You know, going there and speaking to them and listening to them and working together. It was one of the best teams I’ve been a part of and I can’t thank them people enough. Let alone therapists and stuff there.”
I’ve got the fight and passion for football back in me
“What I went through, you know, helped me really understand my purpose. Like, when I’m just going through everything, breaking it down and finding out why I’m here, what I want in life, you know?
“I know what I can do on the pitch. I mean, I think I’ve showed people what I can do on the pitch and now I’ve got the feeling back. Like, before I went to Tottenham, when I had a lot to prove, and I wanted to fight and I felt so much love and passion about football. I have that back, which for me is something I’ve missed for probably longer than I wanted to. But with the other side of it, I want to inspire people not only on the pitch, but off the pitch in a way that I think is probably not spoken about enough, from experience.”
Mauricio Pochettino was perfect for me – he guided me and was so understanding of me as a person
“Mauricio Pochettino was the best manager and I couldn’t have asked for a better manager at the time. I was in him and his team, you know, not just him. There was Jesus [Perez], Miguel [d’Agostino] and Tony [Jimenez]. They are amazing people and they’re so understanding, and it wasn’t like a footballer and a manager relationship. It was deeper than that, I felt. He was just so understanding of the decisions I was making, and he was guiding – like, he cared about me as a person before the football, which is what I needed at that time. And I think that’s important for young players.
“When you go somewhere it can be quite scary, I think. And I never had that fear of, you know, trying to prove myself in that sense, because I felt like he was giving me the platform to express myself the best I could and to be comfortable. I mean, players always used to say, ‘I want to be like that’ [fearless]. I wasn’t fearless. I was just brave. But I think being brave, you feel the fear still, but you still do it. And I think that’s something that he allowed me to do.
Jose Mourinho apologised to me for calling me lazy, but that never made it into the Amazon documentary
“I’m glad you asked me about that [Jose Mourinho calling me lazy], so that lazy comment people all love to bring that up, that interview obviously that was on Amazon. He called me lazy – that was the day after recovery day. A week later, he apologised to me for calling me lazy because he’d seen me actually train and play. But that wasn’t in the documentary, and no one spoke up about that because it was only me and him.
“In the team meeting, he called me lazy but then one on one, I think it was on the pitch he apologised for it. And I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I know myself – I’m not lazy.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean, what you see sometimes isn’t the way it really is. I think, especially now with social media and all these things, we can really portray something that isn’t real. After that, I think people definitely tried to use that, for some other decisions.
“Yeah, for sure and I think other coaches maybe, for other reasons why I weren’t playing, they stuck to that – lazy one – because it was kind of an easy, easy one to use. And the problem was probably more than that, I think.”
I thank people for the tough times because they make me the person I am today, and that’s someone I’m proud of
“I’m proud of who I am today and don’t blame anyone, I thank a lot of people. I thank a lot of people for the tough times they created for me because I think that made me a tougher person because that made me braver, made me stronger and it allowed me to overcome challenges that if they were just sprung on me, maybe I wouldn’t be able to deal with. But, I have a lot of people to thank because they did help give me the hunger and the passion to keep going and keep fighting and prove them wrong.
“I think the main thing for me is I want to prove myself right because I know how good I can be as a player and as a person and it’s important for me that this battle against myself, I will win, and I do prove myself I was right about all these things.”
I’ve spoken with Sean Dyche and he’s been so understanding about my situation
“Me and [Sean Dyche] have had some good conversations, not so much about football at this point because obviously I’m still injured, but about where I’m at. And I’d like to say a big thanks to him as well – I think for someone that didn’t really know me, for this to be thrown on him and to be so understanding and not even just understanding, we had a good conversation and, like I said, he was supportive.
“Right now, it’s just about getting back on the pitch and showing him what I can do, and the talks were more about what I’ve done in terms of the rehab and how I’m feeling, which is a normal question for people to have, I think. So yeah, a lot of the talks so far have been about that, and then, yeah, I just need to get back fit which isn’t too long away.
“I’m feeling good in that sense, probably another few weeks [away from returning from injury] and then get back playing and enjoying football which is what I want to do. So, I’m ready for a big season and I’m more prepared to deal with any challenge that comes with it.”
Both my current and previous teammates have been so supportive
“My teammates at Everton didn’t know where I was but when I come back – they only started a couple days ago – but obviously, I came in early because I was injured. I had some good conversations, and the people I spoke to were so supportive about it and understanding, and happy I think because they knew me as a person, you know. No matter what anyone else thinks on the outside, they don’t know me. [Everton players] knew where my heart was and yeah, I think they just wished the best for me, so for me to open up and I was being more open with them and truthful.
“Even with my old teammates, I met with some of them before I went there [to the rehab facility]. Some people from Tottenham. And just to kind of tell them where I was going, why I was going there, because obviously we had some amazing years together and I’d guess they were probably wondering like what’s going on as well. I mean hopefully after this they’ll understand a little bit more. So, I’m happy with the support I’m getting.”
Embrace change – I have, and I hope my experiences inspire others to do so
“I want to reiterate the fact that people don’t need to fear change. I think change is always hard, when something’s uncomfortable and difficult, you get a feeling, you get scared, you get the fear. But when you have that feeling, that’s the exact time when you have to jump and go for it because at the other side of fear and change is usually only positives things. And hopefully, me talking about my experiences is helpful to them so.”
- Dele Alli was speaking to Gary Neville on a special episode of The Overlap in partnership with Sky Bet.