With Wilfried Zaha set to reach 250 appearances in red and blue against Southampton this evening, Jack Thurston explains why the winger is so universally adored in SE25…
Wilfried Zaha’s match-winning performance at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was executed in spite of the best team in the league, Danny Mills, Alan Shearer, and every know-it-all Da’ in the land.
Zaha took just nine minutes to rip the shackles clean from their hinges and stun the home crowd. Taking Benteke’s flick around the corner on his chest, Zaha shrugged off the attentions of Matic, Cahill, Marcos Alonso and Azpilicueta, fizzing a low drive past Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner of the net. Palace’s pyro was still smouldering when Zaha was involved again, putting the ball on a plate for Benteke to embarrass his international teammate and turn the game on its head. Tonight at St. Mary’s, he will make his 250th appearance – surpassing club legend Geoff Thomas in the process – at the tender age of 24. Not a bad week for the Ivorian, but the journey to this point has meandered like one of his dribbles.
Ask any Palace fan where they were when Zaha scored his first goal for the club and they will be able to tell you – Lineker’s Bar, Ayia Napa, in case you were wondering. Gambling on an Alan Lee flick-on, the 17-year-old Zaha rolled Michael Morrison and unleashed a half-volley with the outside of his right boot, flashing it past the Leicester ‘keeper and putting Palace 1-0 up at Selhurst. A love affair had begun.
Over the next two seasons, Zaha would learn his trade in the Championship – the harshest of proving grounds for a player who seemed to be powered by a diet of take-ons and freshly squeezed embarrassment. In 2011/12, Zaha would mesmerise Sir Alex Ferguson in a league cup win at Old Trafford and score in Palace’s 3-1 win at Brighton’s shiny new stadium, finishing the season by winning the Football League’s Young Player of the Year, along with the club’s version of the award for a second successive season. Under the tutelage of Paul Hart and Dougie Freedman, Zaha’s reputation grew at a tremendous rate and he soon became the poster boy for Palace’s ‘South London & Proud’ marketing campaign, following in the footsteps of fellow academy graduates Sean Scannell and Nathaniel Clyne – all this before his 20th birthday. Of Zaha’s development, Freedman said:
‘We had [Nathaniel] Clyne, [Jonathan] Williams and Zaha all coming through at the same time. All three responded to a different type of development programme. In Zaha’s case he thrived on being challenged, by giving him a goal it made him focus more and be more determined. Zaha is a natural football player with balance and skill, so there was no need to tamper with that.’
The 2012/13 season would see Zaha inducted into Palace folklore. Following the shrewd summer acquisitions of Joel Ward; Peter Ramage; Yannick Bolasie; Andre Moritz and Damien Delaney, Palace would enter the top six for the first time on 2nd October, with Zaha scoring a wonderful brace at Molineux. The club would remain there for the rest of the season, briefly entering the automatic promotion places in the run-up to Christmas. In January Manchester United bought Zaha for an initial £10m and immediately loaned him back to Palace. Despite Freedman’s departure in October, Zaha would finish the regular season with six goals and most of the fullbacks in the league clinging to his coattails.
There was little ill-feeling towards Zaha following his move to United, but there was a burning desire among Palace fans for him and the rest of the squad to finish what they had started, and get the club back into the Premier League after an eight-year absence.
Following a goalless first leg at home to Brighton which saw 30-goal man Glenn Murray tear his anterior cruciate ligament, the pressure was on Zaha to deliver on the south coast – he rose to the occasion, stooping to nod home a Yannick Bolasie cross before cracking a second in off the crossbar to send Palace to Wembley.
Inevitably, Wilf was phenomenal in the final, showing exactly why Ferguson had chosen him to be his final signing for United. He tied Watford’s defence in knots all afternoon, and after 105 minutes, Marco Cassetti stuck out a tired leg and brought Zaha down. Kevin Phillips smashed the resulting penalty past Manuel Almunia and Palace were promoted: mission accomplished. Zaha turns up when it matters, whilst others wilt. According to Freedman, he’s at his best in these situations:
‘By challenging him every day as I did with tasks in training, he became a better trainer and therefore a better professional’, Freedman said. ‘You can see right now that there’s been a challenge put to him [Palace staying up]. It’s the same as the playoff semi and playoff final’.
The subsequent two years at Manchester United were a stark contrast to Zaha’s time at Palace. Marginalised and discarded by both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, football’s old boys couldn’t wait to wade in – questioning his attitude, his desire and just about anything else that absolved the two managers of any blame whatsoever. Van Gaal’s indifference would prove to be a blessing for Palace fans, with Palace re-signing Zaha initially on loan in August 2014.
Despite scoring on his second debut, Wilf returned to Palace visibly low on confidence, something fans rarely saw in his first spell. Regardless, Palace chairman Steve Parish showed faith in him, and made his transfer permanent on the final day of the winter transfer window. Zaha would go on to make 31 league appearances as a resurgent Palace hauled themselves up to 10th in the league under Alan Pardew.
The following year, Zaha played an integral role in the club reaching their second FA Cup Final, scoring against Southampton and Stoke and providing the assist in the 1-0 win at White Hart Lane. He was finally becoming the regular thorn in the side of Premier League opposition, without the backing of one of the biggest clubs in the world, or highly coveted teammates.
This season, Zaha has been sublime. In a team that performed so indifferently until late February, he has been the one constant ray of light. With six goals and seven assists prior to the trip to Southampton, it is little wonder Spurs are loitering again, having had a derisory bid rejected last summer. His finishes at home to Swansea and away to Hull are both goal of the season contenders, and his solo effort for the Ivory Coast against Russia last month was pure, unadulterated filth.
When asked for a statement on Zaha’s importance the club, chairman Steve Parish said: ‘Wilf scored the first goal in the first game we owned the club, since then our destinies have been intertwined. He is Palace and can be whatever he wants to be’.
Whether he stays or not, here’s to 250 appearances, the rebuilding of a man, and a seven-year love affair that shows no sign of abating.