It’s Time To Talk About Wilfried Zaha
Why are Palace fans so protective of Wilfried Zaha?
It’s a question regularly posed by opposition supporters and one to which the answer should be quite simple, but in reality is actually fairly complex.
To try and persuade rival supporters of Zaha’s brilliance can, at times, be a bit like trying to convince a cat owner that dogs are better, proving to a vegetarian that they’ll feel fuller after eating a steak, or indeed banging one’s head against a brick wall. Put simply, the pleas tend to fall on deaf ears.
There is, of course, an element of nepotism that creeps into any Palace supporter’s Zaha-related rhetoric, but that is, for want of a better expression, because he is one of our own. After leaving the Ivory Coast for Thornton Heath at the age of four, he grew up with his family, including eight siblings, in a three bedroom house within earshot of the cheers, moans and occasional groans that accompany Saturday afternoons at Selhurst Park.
His upbringing is a far from glamorous one, but the heartwarming story of an underdog who made it is only the start of his appeal. He joined Palace at the age of twelve and was fast tracked into the first team during the 2009/10 season after impressing for the academy in the quarter-final of the FA Youth Cup against Newcastle United, winning two penalties in what would ultimately be a losing effort at St James’ Park.
Zaha’s debut came in a time of need, a call that he has since become far more familiar with. Palace were in dire straits, festering in administration with a depleted squad teetering on the edge of relegation, and the then seventeen year old was brought on with ten minutes remaining during a 2-1 home defeat against Cardiff City. In those days, Palace supporters were more accustomed to players coming through the academy, but such had been the success stories of Nathanial Clyne and Victor Moses, it did not stop ears from perking when Zaha’s name was announced over the tannoy system.
A slight, gangly winger who looked even younger than the sum of his years, ‘Wilf’ probably touched the ball less than ten times that day, and did not feature again for the rest of the season.
Given the number of promising youngsters that slip through football’s unforgiving net, few eyebrows would have been raised had we not heard of Zaha again, but such was the state of the club at the time, that the following season provided a new beginning under new ownership for Palace, and with it a real opportunity for Zaha.
Flanked by fellow academy graduates Kieron Cadogan and Kieran Djilali, Zaha spearheaded Palace’s attack on the opening day of the 2010/11 season, scoring one and setting up another in a surprise 3-2 win over Leicester City. If anything, Zaha soon came to embody Palace’s teething problems in the post-administration era, mixing flashes of brilliance with moments that would frustrate, and as the playing squad was bulked up, the winger found himself increasingly on the peripheries of the starting eleven.
Still though, Zaha made 44 appearances in his debut season, delighting fans as he jinked in and out of defenders, but displaying the nagging inconsistencies that would serve as a reminder that his talent was a rough diamond with the potential to become Palace’s crown jewel, but one that very much needed moulding.
But Zaha was clearly working harder than most away from the pitch. While the likes of Cadogan, Djiali and eventually Scannell were slowly filtered out of the club, Wilf remained, looking leaner after every summer break, capable of making better decisions on the ball and seemingly determined not to join football’s long list of castaways.
Palace, meanwhile, were still finding their feet after administration under the guidance of Dougie Freedman, and the 2012/13 season started much like those that preceded it, with the Eagles languishing at the bottom having lost all three of their opening fixtures. What followed, though, was a 14-game unbeaten run that catapulted the South Londoners to the top of the table, and of which Zaha was at the heart.
That season, or the first half at least, was one of the most enjoyable Palace fans have recently experienced. The Eagles were not just beating teams, but trouncing them, playing a brand of football which at times looked impenetrable. With Glenn Murray feasting on a hefty helping of crosses from the electrifying Zaha and Yannick Bolasie, Palace fans went to games confident that however many the opposition scored, their team was capable of doubling it. To borrow the words of a comment Steve Parish recently referenced on Twitter, we had ‘never had it so good’.
One player, though, was performing at a level above the rest, riding a wave of form that looked in no danger of crashing. It seemed that Zaha could spend sixty minutes dribbling up and down the right wing without being dispossessed, such was his ability to wriggle out of what looked like inescapable situations with the ball still glued to his feet. Embarrassing defenders was becoming a habit, appearances on Soccer AM’s Showboat a regular occurrence, while the novelty of winning the man of the match award was starting to wear off.
And the winger’s eye-catching performances were not going unnoticed. First, he was called up for what could, and perhaps should, have been the first of many England caps in a game against Sweden. Not only was it a rarity for a Championship player to break into what was then Roy Hodgson’s squad, but even more so for one so young to be promoted from the Under 21 side while playing in the second tier.
Then came the rumours. Clyne and Moses had been linked with moves to big clubs before eventually winding up at bottom half Premier League sides, but Zaha did not need a stepping stone, his case felt different. His was a talent that seemed transferable to any team in any league, one that could infinitely improve any squad’s attacking prowess, and it came as no surprise when reigning champions Manchester United were confirmed as Zaha’s highest bidders.
But even with a mouth-watering and more prosperous future on the horizon, Wilf did not leave without providing the perfect parting gift. After helping the team into the play-offs, he scored a memorable brace in the semi-final against fierce rivals Brighton before drawing the penalty in the final against Watford that would ultimately secure Palace’s promotion. Zaha had earned his place in the Premier League on merit, and in doing so had single-handedly pulled Palace up there with him.
Zaha was transcending limitations, but with his success came scrutiny. From this point on, everything he did was going to be watched, analysed and coaxed into a storyline. Expectations were high, and not least because the Daily Mail ran an interview in which the swashbuckling forward likened himself to Messi and Ronaldo. He had departed South London as Palace’s prince, but still had some way to go before he could dispel an image of arrogance that was being built around him.
And back then, moving from SE25 to Manchester United was a bit like being catapulted from the confines of Bromley’s Churchill Theatre and onto centre stage on Broadway in New York City. Zaha was, after all, still a kid and was leaving his home, family and friends to join a global juggernaut where image and responsibility are valued as highly as goals and points. It also did not help that Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who signed Wilf, had decided to leave the club before Zaha had even walked through Old Trafford’s doors.
Arriving at the airport for United’s pre-season tour of Asia dressed in a white t-shirt instead of a club suit was perhaps indicative of Zaha’s youthful naivety towards what he now had to represent. To succeed in Manchester, Wilf wasn’t only going to have to excel on the pitch, but he was going to need to contribute to the sustained growth of a commercial machine. He had gone from being the biggest fish to a mere drop in the ocean and, whether or not he knew it at the time, was facing up to challenge like no other he had encountered in his career.
He featured heavily in new manager David Moyes’ pre-season plans and even started in United’s 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the 2013 Community Shield. But as Moyes endured a difficult introduction to life in Manchester, Zaha was sacrificed for more experienced heads and went on to feature just three more times that season, once in the League Cup and twice off the bench, before being shipped out on loan to Cardiff. If his rise had been meteoric, this was turning into an even mightier fall.
As Zaha’s playing time dwindled, the speculation swelled. First he was accused of having a relationship with the manager’s daughter, before various reports were leaked suggesting that senior figures at Old Trafford were disappointed with Zaha’s attitude. Many would have been happy to buy into such a trite theory, but not Palace fans. This was not the Wilf we knew, a quiet kid whose only want is to elevate his own performance and subsequently that of those around him, and whose frustration can sometimes be mistaken for an attitude flaw.
For the press, it was easier to draw a picture of petulance that tied in with the narrative of a young English talent gone wrong, derailed by his price tag, exposed to too much too soon and lacking the maturity required to succeed at a top club. One cannot help but wonder if Zaha might have been depicted more favourably had he come through Chelsea’s academy, gone to private school and spoke with a more proper English accent, but that may be a discussion for another time.
When Zaha eventually returned to Selhurst Park, it felt like his wings had been clipped. He had been unloved and undervalued, two commodities which if afforded him at United might have yielded different results. Clearly his stock had fallen, and in a way that few had envisaged when he left for Old Trafford. Even Tony Pulis was not keen on a deal, and it was only after the Welshman’s abrupt departure that Wilf completed a loan move back to South London.
He marked his second debut for the club with a last-minute equaliser against Newcastle, but there was no escaping the fact that his career had stalled. To an extent, the club had overtaken Zaha, but without leaving him behind. The winger was now competing with Bolasie and Jason Puncheon for a starting place and, as much as the fans willed for him to rediscover his form of 2012/13, his confidence had been eroded.
But few have believed in Zaha the way that Palace fans do, and as he started to feed off the adoration that has regularly been afforded him in our small pocket of South London, he set about rebuilding a reputation that was still worth salvaging. The relationship between club and player is an increasingly hollow one in the modern game, but there is something more contingent between Palace and Zaha, one seemingly struggles to flourish without the other. When Zaha was on the floor, Palace were there to offer him vindication, and whenever the club has found itself in the mire, Wilf has found something within himself to drag them out of it.
Yet even as Zaha has enjoyed a return to prominence, a lack of recognition has continued to be a pervading theme of his career. Pundits have regularly bemoaned his lack of end product, while he was chastised for switching allegiance from England to his native Ivory Coast. At times, it feels like Palace fans need to stick up for Zaha because no one else will.
Labelled lazy, billed as a brat, nothing is more frustrating than seeing Wilf tarred with the completely wrong brush. Palace fans know how hard he has worked to get to this point, to get to the stage where pundits are finally recognising how pivotal he is to the functioning of an entire team, when the fact is that it’s been that way for a long time now.
And while a Palace supporter’s defence of Zaha can border on the obsessive, so too does some of the vitriol spouted towards him. Of course, it is easy to dislike a player who has a tendency to go to ground too easily and relishes the role of pantomime villain, but really he is an object of envy, a player that opposition fans fear and deep down would love to have in their team. Even against West Ham, the away end taunted that he was ‘too shit for England’, merely spurring him to prove that the use of a different adjective would have been better advised.
Zaha has become part of Selhurst Park’s foundations, the pillar upon which the post-administration era has been built. He is synonymous with the club’s recent history, an image of defiance that has continued to upset the odds when many have doubted. He is the reason that Palace got to the Premier League, and the principal reason that they continue to be there.
When Zaha’s name appeared on the team sheet against Chelsea, everything that had gone before seemed to pale into insignificance. Not only did he lease life into his stricken teammates, but he rebuilt the bridge between players and fans that had been missing in his absence. Because if there’s one thing Palace fans know, it’s that when there’s Wilf there’s hope, and as long as he continues to play, they will start to believe that what felt like an irretrievable position might not be so perilous after all.