Early in 2010, with just ten minutes left on the clock against a victorious Cardiff City, Crystal Palace’s future was shaped forever by the debut of a teenage boy. When a fresh-faced Wilfried Zaha took to the pitch that afternoon, an unsuspecting but nevertheless vast mark was made in the Eagles’ history books: one that will last for the rest of time.
Back then, however, few would have called it. A pacy, tricky, 17-year-old winger with few words and a nervous smile would soon go on to set the world’s toughest stage alight. Unassuming and rough around the edges, within five years Wilfried Zaha would be plying his trade in the Premier League having played for Britain’s largest club.
Following what was an unsuccessful spell at David Moyes’ Manchester United, Zaha found the form of his life upon returning home and has since won Palace’s Player of the Season award for three consecutive years.
Many have attributed Roy Hodgson’s side’s continuous survival to the dazzling winger and to underestimate his significance in the team is to fail with understanding Crystal Palace as both a club and ethos.
Born in Abidjan but raised in Croydon, Zaha embodies the South London and Proud motto that once found itself stitched into Palace’s famous red and blue kit. He worked his way through their academy from the age of 12 and seems unable to ever really let the club that moulded him leave his heart.
His brief spell away from home proves this better than anything. Unhappy at United and ineffectual on a loan to, of all clubs, Cardiff City, Zaha’s transformation to becoming the footballer he is today goes to show just what being comfortable and valued can do for a man like himself.
Smoothing the edges, advancing his footballing brain and adding maturity, assuredness and a fierce shot to his game have all made the 25-year-old a mean target for England’s biggest clubs and currently rumours abound regarding his future.
It’s been reported this week that Crystal Palace’s offer of a £125,000-a-week contract has been rejected as clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Borussia Dortmund have all expressed their interest in the star, valued at £70 million by the south London side.
His desire to play Champions League football can’t be criticised by any, least of all the adoring fans of Selhurst Park, who, on the whole, seem willing to let their prodigal son go if it were to boost his career. Although they have no choice, it goes to show the strength of the relationship – rare and ersatz in today’s game – between fan and player. Zaha’s loyalty to his club and their subsequent deification of him has created a healthy mutual respect between the two.
But loyalty can only last so long and Zaha may find himself at risk of passing up on an opportunity to swim his way into a bigger, more prosperous pond.
Whilst neither fan nor player want this to happen, however, there is a case to be made for his staying put. Even if it’s just for one more season.
At 25, Zaha still has time and is rapidly developing under the guidance of Roy Hodgson. He is the spine to the side he lives to play for and undoubtedly carried them at times last season. While the statistic may be a little misleading, it’s certainly true that Palace failed to win without Zaha – absent due to injury, largely resulting from the weekly battery inflicted upon his knees – on any of the occasions in which he didn’t start (ten). As much as Zaha carries Palace, the same can be said for the reverse of this deal too.
And with the spell at United surely at the back of the Ivorian’s mind whenever decisions on his future need making, Zaha will be conscious that his next move has to be a success. Failing and returning home to rebuild again will confine the lad to mid-table mediocrity, as much as he may enjoy his time in Croydon.
Should he develop at the rate he managed last season, this time next year Zaha will be easily held as one of the greatest footballers in the country: an asset who can assert himself wherever he chooses to go.
Perhaps it’s an over-cautiousness resulting from past difficulties or an over-protectiveness for a man who has come to feel like part of the south London furniture, but Zaha doesn’t seem quite ready to go yet.
This may be the argument every year from now on in, but one more season at Palace is surely his best bet. He needs to move, of course. But he needs to move right. His physical and spiritual home in Selhurst Park will never let him down and as long as the fans continue to anthemically chant his name, Wilfried Zaha will continue to deliver.
No one will blame him should he choose to depart, but the love affair is still in full swing and to see Zaha in another’s kit would be an uncomfortable sight. Especially if things go wrong.
Wilfried Zaha is, was, and always will be South London and Proud. Let’s hope he lives up to the expectations of those who worship him. Leaving home would surely be a waste if not.