Dele Alli and football's unhealthy relationship with sleeping pills

Dele Alli: Said he was sometimes taking sleeping pills from 11am in the morning 

Dele Alli: Said he was sometimes taking sleeping pills from 11am in the morning 

DURING the course of his raw and candid 45-minute interview with Gary Neville earlier this week, Dele Alli laid bare his addiction to sleeping pills (and much more).

“I would tell myself I wasn’t an addict, I wasn’t addicted to them, but I definitely was,” the 27-year-old said.

The problem got so bad that he checked himself into a “modern-day rehab facility” that deals with “mental health, addiction and trauma”. In total he spent six weeks there before coming out at the end of last month.

Alli suggested that football as a whole has an unhealthy relationship with sleeping pills.

“I got addicted to sleeping tablets,” he said. “It’s probably a problem that not only I have, it’s something that’s going around more than people realise. Hopefully me coming out and speaking about it can help people.”

Other players have spoken about this addiction before. Last summer the former Rotherham and Northampton defender Ryan Cresswell revealed a dependency on alcohol, painkillers and sleeping pills that left him “gripping on for dear life.”

Sleep expert James Wilson told TGG: “Sleeping pills are quite rife in football. I’ve heard stories about clubs routinely giving them to the whole squad before and after games.”

On The Overlap, Neville suggested this wasn’t a new phenomenon either.

“Sleeping pills are not unusual in football,” he said. “When I was a player… you would be offered one the night before a game, always, because a player might not sleep, because of the build up and adrenaline. And sometimes also after a game.”

Sleep expert Anna West has previously told TGG why it can be difficult for players to sleep after games and how “the lifestyle of a footballer goes against their natural biology.”

“They are playing matches at different times of the day and evening, they might be returning in the early hours of the morning from a European game, so they can’t always go to sleep at the same time and eight hours will not always be possible for them,” she said.

“In many ways, a footballer is like a shift worker.”

Yet we are all inundated with messages about the importance of sleep and this is even more acute for footballers, who are constantly told how crucial it is for recovery, performance and injury-prevention. In this climate, it's little surprise that players - and practitioners - become anxious about not sleeping and this is where pills can come in.

Dele said: “Don’t get me wrong, they work. 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.

“Sometimes to take a sleeping tablet to sleep and be ready for the next day is fine, but when your dopamine system and you’re as broken as I am, it can have the reverse effect.”


A big question though is: do they work? On one level, yes, because they help you go to sleep and stay asleep. But is the quality of that sleep good enough?

Not according to Wilson, who was West Ham’s sleep expert last season and has also worked with Rotherham United and Lincoln City.

“Research shows that sleeping pills have an impact on brainwaves working correctly within REM sleep,” he told TGG. “REM sleep is the later stage of sleep and has a number of functions, including memory and working through the emotions of the day.

In football, people sometimes think sleeping pills can be used like an on and off switch James Wilson

“Another side effect of sleeping pills can be that they leave you feeling groggy, so training or playing could be negatively impacted the day after you take them.”

Dele didn't disclose which sleeping pills he had been taking, but the main prescription ones in the UK are the so-called Z drugs (most commonly Zopiclone) or benzodiazepines. Both can be addictive and are not recommended for use for longer than four weeks.

Dele revealed he had initially been given sleeping pills by a club doctor.

“It started with a doctor, a doctor was giving them to me to sleep, and then it turns into more than that,” he said. “One to sleep, that was what it was. For most people that’s fine, you can handle that, that’s all you need, but for me it was fixing something I didn’t know I could fix and you hold onto that.

He then got the pills “outside the game,” because “when you want something you’ll find a way.”

“I definitely abused them too much,” he added. “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.

“I was taking a lot. I don’t want to talk about numbers but it was definitely way too much. There were some scary moments.”

In the end, he was taking the pills more as sedatives than actually for sleep.

“I would never take them if I’m playing, but I would start early if I had the day off, just to escape reality,” he said. “The teams give them to you for a reason, to sleep, and they do do that. I wasn’t taking them to sleep, I was taking them throughout the day, sometimes from 11am if I’ve got the day off.”


The England midfielder said he came to understand that his underlying issues needed addressing, instead of the quick fix of sleeping pills.

His childhood traumas included being sexually abused at the age of six, selling drugs from the age of eight and being hung off a bridge by an adult from a rival estate when he was 11.

“I was never dealing with the root of the problem, which was when i was growing up, the traumas I had, the feelings I was holding onto, and I tried to deal with it all myself, I didn’t tell anyone,” he said.

“For most people that’s fine, you can handle that, that’s all you need, but for me it was fixing something I didn’t know I could fix and you hold onto that.”

Football as a whole needs to take a more in-depth and specialist approach to sleep, according to Wilson. However, he added that Brentford (with West) and West Ham (with him) were the only clubs in English football to have full-time sleep consultants last season.

“In football, people sometimes feel they can control other elements that impact performance, like training schedules or nutrition, so sleeping pills can be used like an on and off switch," he said.

“That’s the attraction, but the problem is that the pills are not addressing the real problem and can become addictive and contribute to underlying mental health issues, as we’ve seen with Dele.

“Sleeping pills are a last resort, they shouldn't be the norm, they shouldn't be used long-term. If you have someone who is usually a good sleeper but has gone through a divorce or bereavement, then perhaps they can be used to remind the body how to sleep in the short-term.

“But it’s about clubs supporting players around emotional wellbeing, helping them deal with the traumas they have experienced previously or the psychological impact of being a professional footballer.

“It’s giving the players the tools that can help, like breath work or meditation. These can really help sleep if it becomes part of their rituals. Sleeping pills can be like putting a sticking plaster on a wound.”

In 2021, TGG spoke to West and Marcondes about the work they had done together to help the player improve his sleep. This was a long-term project, involving data collection, analysis and bespoke strategies.

West said it was crucial for players to accept they might not sleep well every night.

“Ninety per cent of footballers I work with have trouble sleeping after a night game, because of high adrenaline, high light exposure,” she said. “But that one night won’t be the deal breaker and it’s super important to create some acceptance around that.

"The deal breaker is all of the other nights, when you have a good option to use some of the tools you have developed to have good sleep.”

That acceptance will also be key to players avoiding the short-term fix - and possible pitfalls - of sleeping pills.

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