Once upon a time the international break used to be a source of excitement and great anticipation, a chance for us all to witness the nation’s fittest and finest pitted against the very best European football had on offer. It was a chance for us England fans to begin the hopelessly recurring pattern of cruising to first-place in the qualifying group and believing with certainty that this was to be our tournament, only for the tournament to come around, for us to under perform and for the manager to be sacked shortly after.
For better or worse those days are gone. We don’t build the hopes and dreams of a nation around a 4-1 over Moldova any more, but the flip side is that for most of us, the international break is now just a mind-numbingly dull period of time to be endured before the Premier League returns the following weekend. Whether it’s the perception of England, or of our opponents (which more often than not are a bunch of semi-professional hopefuls born east of the iron curtain with names most of us can’t pronounce) that’s changed remains to be seen. But for some time now, the break is met by groans rather than excitement, which is a shame, and despite the fact that the Three Lions managed to complete the qualifying stage with a 100% record, excitement and optimism remain about as low for our football team as they do for our rugby team.
One little iota of potential excitement however came from the prospect of England fans being able to watch their latest golden-boy in the making; Dele Alli. The Spurs youngster’s call-up came as quite a shock given the fact that he’s only played a handful of games for his club, but still, what an opportunity for the young lad right? No. In some ways, this is the last thing Alli needed.
His rise at Spurs has been steady, with his transfer from MK Dons going somewhat under the radar in February despite the North London Club paying £5million for an unknown English 18 year old. He’d been going about his business well, not setting White Hart Lane alight by any means, but putting in a string of impressive performances, and was just beginning to nail down a first team place.
Suddenly, he’s needlessly thrust into the limelight. Despite not even having established himself at his club yet, the nation’s eyes are on him, and next weekend when Spurs taken on Liverpool you can bet they will be again. You can also bet that he’ll get a mention on Match of the Day, perhaps from the Sky pundits too. He better perform, because the expectation has already been planted. Even if just subconsciously, the nation will be disappointed if Dele Alli doesn’t make it now.
Suddenly, every performance will be analysed twice as much, scrutinised twice as harshly and judged twice as irrationally, because we’re not exactly the most patient and forgiving set of football supporters. This isn’t exactly going to ruin Alli’s career, I just hope for his sake, for Tottenham’s sake and for England’s sake, he can deal with the extra pressure. Sure, if he’s good enough, the pressure was always going to come, but what a needless time expose him to it, just as his career began to gradually get into gear.
Whether the effect on Alli is positive or negative, it’s still potentially damaging to his development. There’s the risk of a loss of confidence due to the added pressure and weight of expectation, but there’s also the potential that an England call-up at such a young age could all go to his head. Pochettino has done a fine job of keeping the youngster’s feet on the ground following a reasonably pricey move for such a young player, but now he’s got the added trouble of trying to convince Alli that his development must still take the same, gradual path.
But after a couple of England appearances, suddenly getting dropped feels that little bit less acceptable, for both himself and the fans (and the media). The hope for everyone involved is that Alli stays professional and doesn’t get caught up in his own hype, but his job and Pochettino’s job have been made that little bit harder by Hodgson’s poor judgement.
The call-up was unnecessary. Some argue that with the Euros approaching, Hodgson needs to get a feel for a few potential ‘wildcards’ and he’s taking full advantage of a couple of international games with no real meaning to assess some of the players on the periphery of the squad. But he’s taken the chance that Alli’s promising development could be detrimentally affected because he wants to watch him train for, what, a few days?
It was a short-sighted and selfish decision to include him, and Tottenham will be the ones to pay the price if things go downhill. The England boss has all season to assess Alli, to watch as he grows used to the rigours of top level football. He’ll learn a heck of a lot more about Alli’s game by watching his gradual and above all, quiet development from afar than he will from shoving him prematurely into the spotlight and asking him to dance for the cameras.
Hodgson’s attempt at adding a pinch of intrigue to the international break has led to quite a potentially damaging situation. Despite there being little to play for, little to get excited about and little to stop us from turning our TV’s over to catch-up on Downton Abbey, Roy Hodgson still has to manage a group of players in the best way possible, and calling up and playing Dele Alli was a poor lapse in judgement.
With a season of first team football at Tottenham behind him, this isn’t an issue, but Alli is barely a Premier League footballer and now he’s being asked to be England’s next big thing. It’s too much too quickly and Hodgson’s poor management of the situation just might bite him, Tottenham and England on the backside a few years down the line.