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by Matt Woosnam
Supporting a football club relies on emotion, passion and in most cases, irrationality. Football creates heroes, idols and legends, and most clubs have a player who supporters consider to be “one of our own”.
But when it comes to Crystal Palace, it’s not just Jason Puncheon, local boy, fan of the club, who is seen this way. There is another who has brought excitement, relief and pure ecstasy to supporters with his performances.
When Wilfried Zaha moved to Manchester United in 2013 for a fee of £10million, many were surprised, but Palace fans were confident he would succeed, having seen his performances since his debut in 2010.
It didn’t work out for Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing as United boss. Despite a promising pre-season tour, he was restricted to a handful of substitute appearances. Poor timekeeping and a perceived lack of respect for the club ruined his chances before they were even given to him. Zaha was portrayed as a disrespectful kid who didn’t understand the club he was playing for – and didn’t care.
Except it wasn’t quite like that. Zaha’s attitude was not the problem. He needed to be nurtured, cared for and appreciated, as well as taught how to learn the hard way. The mix needs to be right. He still does.
Timekeeping may still not be a strong point, and other small things may make people reluctant to see the best in him, but in Manchester, he was hundreds of miles away from the place he had lived since he was a boy, away from everything he knew, everyone he know, everyone who had helped him to reach the standard he was at, having moved from the Ivory Coast at a young age.
Wilf, as he is affectionately known by Eagles fans, was almost certainly homesick. This was a young man brought up in south London with a lot of pressure on him. In some ways, moving to Manchester was the best thing that could have happened to him, but at the time, it was certainly a step too far, too soon. He was naïve, rather than disrespectful, nervous, rather than disinterested.
Understanding Wilfried Zaha
There are many who don’t understand Wilf. To understand him as a player, you have to appreciate the context, you have to understand his ‘story’, and appreciate the things – and the people – that got him to where he is today.
Garry Issott, Palace’s long-serving academy manager, was asked to promote his best youngster by Paul Hart, interim first team boss, at the end of the 2009/10 season with Palace battling relegation following their plunge into administration. He put forward Wilfried Zaha, a fleet-footed winger with a box of tricks.
The youngster was given a debut from the substitute’s bench with 10 minutes remaining in their game at home to Cardiff. The skinny 17-year-old was forced to wear shorts which were quite clearly too big for him, such was the parlous state of Palace’s finances. It was an unremarkable debut, but anyone in the Palace ends that day would have seen something in him that gave them a taste of what was to come.
They didn’t have to wait long. He was given a full debut on the opening day of the following season, against Leicester City, and duly scored with a superb lob over the goalkeeper from just outside the area.
Since then, he has not looked back.
Week after week, Zaha has confused defenders, put them in a daze, forced them to back off, back off some more, and some more after that, causing them to end up on their backsides, entertaining supporters in the process.
“He’s just too good for you!” Palace fans sang after a particularly impressive performance in a League Cup match at home to Southampton. The spontaneous chant became a marketing tool in Palace’s ‘South London and Proud’ campaign of billboards to encourage more supporters to attend matches.
But it was later in the competition when he showed his true prowess to the country, as the Eagles shocked Manchester United in the quarter-finals.
He tormented Fabio da Silva throughout, twisting him inside-out on several occasions, and played an integral part in the victory, winning the free-kick for the winning goal.
People come to expect a lot from wingers, particularly those who are championed as being the best in the business. They expect goals, assists and they look at stats.
Take a look at Zaha’s stats and you’d (almost) be forgiven for thinking he was simply a street football merchant; just a kid who has all the tricks of the trade, the pace and the ability to beat his man but nothing else. He has scored only five goals this season, and to anyone using that as a barometer as to his talent, it would suggest he is an average player; which could not be further from the truth.
Zaha at Palace is similar to John Terry and Frank Lampard at Chelsea, or Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. These players have all played at the very top level of the game, and are more accomplished than Wilf, but they were loved by their clubs, their supporters.
They belonged at Chelsea and Liverpool. They epitomised what their clubs were about; energy, ambition, talent, determination. Put Terry in Manchester United’s team, or Lampard in Liverpool’s, and it wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t work.
So we come back to Zaha. He epitomises Crystal Palace Football Club. His is a great story, and he is a good mentor for youngsters. He ‘sulks’ when decisions don’t go his way, but he gets back up and tries again, and again, and again.
Crystal Palace – Appearances: 220 – Goals: 27 – Assists: 39
Manchester United – Appearances: 4 – Goals: 0 – Assists: 0 – Cardiff City (loan) – Appearances: 13 – Goals: 0 – Assists: 1
It is frustration, and a desire to succeed that cause him to throw his arms up when he is fouled time and again but decisions are not given. That is one of the things in his game that he still needs to change, but it is something that has improved significantly in the last couple of seasons.
Why do Palace fans love him so much? It is something that can only be understood when you look to your own team. Every team, as mentioned, has a player they love. Many teams have a love for players which is inexplicable to those outside their fanbase. Perhaps Zaha is one of those.
When Palace travelled the short distance down the M23 to Brighton, for the rivals’ first meeting at the Seagulls’ newly built Amex Stadium, Wilf stole the show. Brighton took a first-half lead through Craig Mackail-Smith, before three late goals made Palace the first ever team to win at the Amex in the league.
Zaha completely silenced the home crowd on 80 minutes as he jinked past several defenders and fired a low shot into the bottom corner to equalise; before two more goals swung the game in Palace’s favour.
As he scored, he ran to boss Dougie Freedman who planted a kiss on his cheek. Freedman was a mentor for Wilf, a sounding board and a teacher. He helped the wide man to forget his limitations and push on with what he was good at, he improved his finishing and his positioning.
Arm around the shoulder
Without Freedman, it would have taken Zaha longer to hit the heights he has so far. Undoubtedly he would have reached them, but Freedman offered a supportive and encouraging ear, a non-metaphorical arm around the shoulder, as well as working on the lesser aspects of his game.
It was, and still is, what he needs. He needs to be carefully managed, because although he has confidence in himself, and plenty of it, without being arrogant, his ability is still somewhat raw.
It has been fine-tuned this season, the fabled ‘end-product’ that has eluded him, rearing its head on rare occasions – although there have been some superb finishes and assists in that time – has begun to see Zaha hit the latest peak of his career. It will continue on an upward curve with time; at 23 he has plenty of that left.
Another memorable night in Zaha’s career was a little less than two years after the goal at Brighton, on the same turf, on a Friday night in May. Palace had gone in level to the second leg of their play-off semi-final against their arch rivals.
In the 69th minute, Yannick Bolasie fired in a superb cross and Zaha stooped low, well-ahead of former England defender Wayne Bridge, and thumped the ball into the net to score a rare headed goal.
With less than five minutes remaining, he trapped a Kagisho Dikgacoi pass with a touch that belonged at the top level of the game, swivelled and lashed a left-footed effort in off the underside of the crossbar.
That wasn’t all. The final was a tense affair, and it remained goalless into extra-time before Zaha expertly teased Marco Casseti into hauling him down just inside the Watford area, to earn a penalty. Kevin Phillips duly despatched it and Palace were in the Premier League.
“…too good for you.”
Wilfried Zaha is loved in SE25, his faults are understood and accepted by Palace fans who have seen him work his way through the ranks, play under 11 managers, score two of the most important goals in the club’s recent history, and put them on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes most weeks, on their feet, jaws hitting the floor in astonishment at some of the things he does. Those faults were not accepted in Manchester, and Wilf’s development stalled without the support network he had around him.
On the biggest stage, in the biggest games, Wilf has consistently turned up for Palace. His performance in this season’s FA Cup semi-final was outstanding, and with a bit more finesse, he could have scored one of the all-time greatest Palace goals. He made a run from deep inside his own half past several Watford players and into the box before his touch was just too heavy and he was unable to get a clean shot away.
At a club which did not appreciate how far he had come, at a club which had paid £10m plus for him, which expected more of him, that run would have been forgotten, the heavy touch the one that stuck in the mind. Perception is important in football, because whilst talent and ability are, of course, largely objective and obvious, there is an element of subjectivity. How much you appreciate a player depends on what has come before, and what level your expectations are.
That also applies at international level. It also applies when it comes to personality. When Zaha was named in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the first time, he spoke to the Guardian and the Daily Mail.
Comments about believing no-one was better unless it was Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo were seen as arrogant, laughable and ridiculous by people who did not understand Zaha, who didn’t appreciate what he actually meant. The comments were typical of a young man who had confidence and felt it on the pitch. He felt unbeatable.
When it comes to interviews, he is not a man of many words. He prefers not to speak after matches, and keeps himself to himself. His confidence shows on the pitch, but off it, he is more reserved.
His England career was restricted to a very short substitute appearance, and he was criticised for losing the ball with one of his first and only touches. Perhaps he is destined to be appreciated within the smaller circle of those who see him play regularly, who understand his journey and the improvements he is still making.
Wilfried Zaha belongs at Crystal Palace. He is at home here. He is settled in the area; it is largely all he has known. When the 23-year-old is on the top of his game, very few wingers in the top division are better, but he is not yet consistent enough to warrant a return to the England fold. Certainly, after making significant improvements, he is not far off. But there is still work to do.
Palace fans, however, do not mind.
Follow Just Football on Twitter @JustFootball or Facebook for more football analysis, news and opinion. Matt Woosie is a Palace fan and former online editor of the Crystal Palace Five Year Plan fanzine. Find him on Twitter @MattWoosie.
(main image credit: Balls for Africa via Flickr.)