As Crystal Palace fans waved farewell to Wilfried Zaha in May of 2013, few thought we’d ever see the fleet-footed winger grace a red and blue shirt again, but today, following 15 months in exile in Manchester, Zaha made an emotional and much-anticipated return to Selhurst Park.
In truth, for both the club’s supporters and Zaha himself, it has often felt as if he’s never really left us. Thrust into the spotlight at Old Trafford with the daunting tag of being Sir Alex Ferugson’s parting gift to United hanging heavily around his neck, the midfield man struggled manfully to make an impact from the very start of his time in the North West.
Hindered massively by David Moyes’ reluctance to experiment tactically during his first and only season in the United hot seat, Wilf was cast aside. With just three competitive appearances to his name, stories began to emerge of his “attitude problems” and an apparent inability to adapt to the sky-high standards expected of a Manchester United player. All the while Palace looked on from afar, scathing at the blatant waste of a player who only months before had been at the very top of his game.
The January transfer window brought the first rumours of a potential deal to bring Zaha back to SE25, but after a month of speculation, the England international was loaned to Cardiff City, with their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being given the nod ahead of us, thanks to worries in Manchester over Wilf’s focus, should he be allowed to move back to London for the remainder of the campaign.
Predictably, Zaha struggled once more to ingratiate himself with a new set of supporters, with claims of laziness and lack of footballing intelligence continuing to haunt him throughout his time in Wales. After an unhappy few months, and with just 11 appearances in a Cardiff shirt, the 21-year-old made his way back to Manchester desperate for a fresh start under the new management of Louis Van Gaal.
Sadly, true to form since leaving the familiar surroundings of our Beckenham base, Zaha was seemingly not afforded the time or care necessary for him to truly settle into the way of life with his parent club. Used sparingly throughout pre-season, it became evident very quickly that Van Gaal had little to no intention of using him as part of the United first-team in the months to come, which leads us neatly, to the events of the last 24 hours.
Understandably frustrated by the stop-start nature of the last 15 months or so, Zaha himself is desperate to recapture some of the magic which made him such a star during his electric first spell with the club. Having seen the natural spontaneity that his game has always thrived upon being almost beaten out of him since he made the move away, it seems obvious to suggest that we as a club will once again offer him the platform upon which he can shine.
Question marks will inevitably be raised over whether he remains the same player we let go just over a year ago, but with such boundless talent in his feet and age unquestionably still on his side, the deal which will see him reunite with the likes of Yannick Bolasie and Mile Jedinak in the Palace midfield, will almost certainly reignite the spark which so many outsiders had automatically assumed was gone for good.
In a sense, it is Wilfried’s comfort with his surroundings at Palace that make him such an enigma in the eyes of the watching masses; for it seems that regardless of the talent he quite clearly possesses, there is little chance of him ever reaching his full potential whilst wearing the colours of another club. Whilst countless theories could be put forward as to why that is the case, I believe the answer is painfully simple; at his core, Zaha thrives more than anything else, on the adoration of our supporters.
Since his first few tentative steps into first-team football with Palace, the fans have taken him to their hearts like almost no other player before or since. The youthful exuberance of his tricks and flicks, matched by the pace and energy of his play in the opposition’s final third made him an instant hit with the home supporters. Here was a player who embodied the very essence of South London football from week to week, confident, assured and desperate to prove a point; Zaha had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand, and he lapped up every second of it.
Now back where he belongs, and keen to show the millions who had written him off how wrong they were, the winger will embark upon another season at Palace with a burning desire to succeed shining brightly inside him. In many ways, it feels like a lifetime since he left us; in others it feels like a matter of seconds, but for now, all that counts is that he’s back where he belongs.
Wilfried Zaha is home.