Any Tottenham foray into the transfer market for an expensive Football League teenager will inevitably evoke memories of John Bostock, the ill-fated wonderkid signed by Spurs at 16 and now playing in the Belgian Second Division.
But the White Hart Lane hierarchy can sanction a £5 million move for MK Dons star Dele Alli safe in the knowledge that the same fate will not befall this 18-year-old. Whereas Bostock had played five times for Crystal Palace before switching London clubs, Alli has 74 senior appearances and 20 goals under his belt.
For a long time, Liverpool seemed his likely destination – they have watched him plenty and he is a fan of the club, naming Steven Gerrard as his idol. Even Bayern Munich scouts were in the stands when the Dons thrashed Manchester United in the League Cup, and there was a lot to like in the way he outwitted the likes of Anderson, Shinji Kagawa and the Red Devils’ own multi-million pound teenager Nick Powell.
He has been a driving force in the Buckinghamshire club’s ascent to second in League One this season, scoring 12 league goals in 27 games from one of the deeper midfield positions in their 4-2-3-1 formation, and will surely be a nominee for the divisional player of the year award in the coming months if he returns to his hometown club on loan.
Newcastle’s chief scout Graham Carr is said to be a long-term admirer but it has been suggested that Alli resisted the Magpies’ advances to remain in the south, and Tottenham could be an ideal new home.
Paul Mitchell, Spurs’ new head of recruitment and analysis who Mauricio Pochettino brought with him from Southampton, is a former Dons midfielder who retains links with the club having taken up his first behind-the-scenes role there after a broken leg ended his playing career.
Pochettino has a far stronger track record of promoting young players to the first team than former managers such as Harry Redknapp, as evidenced by his pairing of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb in central midfield, and Alli will have been encouraged by Mason’s ascent from his 2013-14 loan spell at Swindon Town – also of League One – to a key role.
Alli’s role in Milton Keynes is almost identical to Mason’s under Pochettino and he boasts the combination of technical ability and athleticism that the Argentine craves. He is 6’2” tall and quick but has been schooled in a Dons academy renowned for producing skilful, creative players who excel in one-on-one situations.
There was a moment earlier this season against AFC Wimbledon when Alli advanced down the left touchline by repeatedly rolling the ball under his right boot, drawing two players into lunging tackles and leaving them crashing into each other.
At Notts County last season, Alli scored his first professional hat-trick at age 17 and he added another in the 6-1 thrashing of Crewe in September. He is an adventurous, box-to-box midfield player but is also comfortable dropping between the centre-backs and bringing the ball out of defence.
It has not been eight years since Alli joined MK Dons from local side City Colts and if his rise since then has been rapid by most standards, this move might have seemed a long time in the making to him. Year after year, he has watched the players he has grown up alongside leave for bigger clubs.
Seyi Ojo, Brendan Galloway and George Williams have joined Liverpool, Everton and Fulham respectively. Now Bundesliga clubs are sniffing, with youth internationals Kevin Danso and Danny Collinge leaving for Augsburg and Stuttgart. Even Dan Micciche, one of the coaches responsible for that impressive production line, has moved on to the England setup and loan stars Patrick Bamford and Benik Afobe, both of whom became close friends of Alli’s, left midway through the last two seasons for Championship clubs.
There are plenty of players Alli’s age – and a few older ones - who could learn from the patience and level-headedness he has shown in the meantime. “Everyone’s dream is to play in the World Cup and for a Premier League team but I’m happy here,” he told the Daily Telegraph in September.
“I wouldn’t want to go and just be an Under-21 player. I’m definitely not in a rush to move on yet. Everyone wants to be playing at the highest level they can but there are different pathways to reach there.” This is one young player making the step up at the right time.