Too good for Crystal Palace
I feel the same about Wilfried Zaha as I did about The Smiths in 1983: fretting that everyone else will soon discover him.
Wilfried Zaha reminds me of my youthful infatuation with The Smiths. Watching him make a fool of defenders is mesmeric. It’s how I felt when I first heard The Smiths. Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar. Morrissey’s brilliant sardonic lyrics. Wow. I’d never heard music like that before. I first saw The Smiths in 1983, supporting the Gang of Four at the Lyceum. It was before they were massive. For a few precious months they were ‘my band’, a prized secret belonging to an exclusive club of early adopters. But within a year they were every angst-ridden student’s band; the soundtrack to the Eighties. And I felt I’d lost them.
Right now, that’s how I feel about Zaha, who made his first senior appearance for England on Wednesday night. Our wonderful south London secret is out. Suddenly Zaha’s face is all over the papers. Will he commit to England or for the Ivory Coast? The media have been feasting on Wilf’s divided national loyalties. He’s still a Crystal Palace player, but now he’s also the property of the nation. Yes, I’m proud and stupidly excited that a Palace player has made his England debut. But, at the same time, I know it’s only a matter of time before he’s kissing another team’s badge.
If you want to know what Zaha is all about there’s plenty of YouTube clips to watch. He’s the perfect footballer for the YouTube generation. He’s got ‘mad skills’, as the kids say. He can perform all kinds of party tricks. I’ve heard the crowd gasp with awe as he turns defenders inside out. He’s the most exciting footballer I’ve seen in a Palace shirt since the great Attilio Lombardo graced Selhurst Park in the late 1990s. What’s thrilling about Zaha is that he’s a superstar in the making and he’s ours. One of us. Made in south London. Wilf was born in the Ivory Coast but learned to kick a football on the streets of Thornton Heath, down the road from where I grew up.
Of course, there are plenty of Palace legends. Fighters, goalscorers, leaders, thugs, grafters, nutters – all of whom served the club with distinction. There’s Ian Wright and Mark Bright, whose goalscoring partnership fired Palace to a third-place finish in the old First Division back in 1991. There are players like Alan Lee, whose willingness to give 110 per cent for the shirt is celebrated in the song: ‘We all dream of a team of Alan Lees.’ There are midfield generals like Geoff Thomas, a leader of men, who you’d want beside you in the trenches. There are plenty of cult heroes. But there are very few players quite like Wilfried Zaha. He’s a magician; a fantasy player.
Danny Blanchflower famously said: ‘The game is about glory. It is about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.’ Zaha is glory personified. He lights up games. He makes everyone smile. He has that rare, game-changing ability to make things happen. He’s a player who you’d pay to watch regardless of club allegiance. Zaha isn’t the finished article by any means, but this season he’s starting to deliver consistently. I feel very privileged to have watched him develop from a wiry 17-year-old with ‘unbelievable tekkers’ but no footballing sense to the man Darren Ferguson described as the ‘the best player outside the Premier League’. On his day, he is quite simply unplayable.
The fact that this raw talent has been honed into a fine professional footballer is another source of pride to us south Londoners. We don’t have wealthy foreign benefactors bankrolling us. Our trophy cabinet is, ahem, waiting to be filled. But our youth academy is the envy of many clubs. There are no prizes for youth development, but we’re proud that Premiership players like Wayne Routledge, Ben Watson, Victor Moses and Nathaniel Clyne have all graduated through the Palace youth ranks.
There’s no great secret to the success of the Crystal Palace academy. Unlike top flight clubs, who might have better academy facilities, Palace can give young players first-team experience. Yes, Premiership clubs can use the loan system to give their youngsters a taste of first-team football. But loaning out players to lower league clubs doesn’t guarantee game-time or development. Loanees, who are still learning their trade, can’t be carefully nurtured and blooded in the way that Zaha was at Palace. Loan players are expected to make an immediate impact. If they don’t deliver, they risk being sidelined. By contrast, Wilf was used sparingly in his first season. But he’s been a regular for the past two seasons. Although he only turned 20 last week, he has 98 first-team appearances under his belt. Compare that to Daniel Sturridge who, at 23, is still a bit-part player at Chelsea with only 94 career league appearances to his name. And then there’s erstwhile wonderkid John Bostock, who left Palace when he was 16 to join Spurs. He’s 10 months older than Zaha, but has made only 33 league appearances since 2008 – all as a loanee.
Zaha’s regular first-team experience has led to a dramatic improvement in his positional play, decision-making and discipline. No wonder Daniel Sturridge’s advice to players like Zaha, who are coveted by the big clubs, is to stay where they are. ‘If people are considering leaving a club at a very young age, I’d suggest to them not to do that and to play as much football as they can’, said the Chelsea striker. ‘It’s key to your development and playing under those circumstances helps you to become a better footballer.’
There’s a giant picture of Zaha on a billboard on the South Circular in Streatham, featuring the slogan: ‘He’s just too good for you.’ Sharp-eyed TV viewers might have seen the slogan on an advertising board in Stockholm’s Friend’s Arena on Wednesday night. It’s Wilfried Zaha’s song, sung to the tune of ‘La Donna e Mobile’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Palace fans are used to mediocrity, relegation scraps and broken dreams. We’ve endured more than our fair share of turgid, ugly football at Selhurst Park. But watching Wilf bamboozle defenders is a thing of rare beauty. His moments of brilliance more than make up for all the years of hurt. And we must cherish him while we can. For the better he gets, the harder it will be to hold on to him. The painful truth is that soon he’ll be just too good for Palace.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.