The name Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha will be one on the lips of thousands of people over the next year or so. The winger will make the move from his boyhood club to the bright lights of Old Trafford this summer, leaving behind the club that nurtured him from an impressionable young boy into the man who now feels ready to take on the world.
As with most young footballers, Zaha’s story is one of humble beginnings. Born in the Ivory Coast, he and his family made the decision to move to England when Wilf was four. Having settled into life in South London, it was whilst playing for a local boys football team that he was spotted by our scouts and promptly offered a place within our academy, not that he was earmarked for greatness immediately.
Growing up within a club who have always had a reputation for producing talented players, there is no doubt that Wilf was always seen as someone with potential by his coaches but it was his teammate, John Bostock, who received the lions share of the expectation within his age bracket. The sky was supposedly the limit for Bostock who was catapulted into first-team football at the age of just 15, no doubt giving both he and his family the impression he was destined for greater things.
As Zaha watched from afar, John and his family embarked on a high-profile separation from the club, fixing their gaze on future successes without so much as a cursory glance at their past.
Thanks to the depressingly dark clouds of an enforced administration, Wilfried’s emergence in the first-team took a little longer than you’d expect. With all hands to the pump in the final months of the 2009/10 season, flair and trickery was sidelined for experience and grit. A decision that paid off when we overturned a ten point deduction to secure Championship status on the final day of the campaign, ensuring that Zaha would have the opportunity to dazzle the onlooking Palace fans from that day onwards.
Having enthralled George Burley that summer following the Scotsman’s appointment as manager, Wilf was thrown in at the deep end at home to Leicester City one the opening day of the season. With the sun shining and every Palace fan elated at the thought of still having a football club to support, Zaha made his mark. Racing through the middle off the pitch with the ball in front of him, he took one look at the on rushing Chris Weale before volleying the ball over his head and into an empty net.
After a summer of utter turmoil, he was a bundle of energy, tricks and boundless enthusiasm, embodying everything that football should be about at it’s very core and he was one of our own.
The season that followed wasn’t quite as joyful. Following a bright start to life with us, things turned sour for Burley incredibly quickly, with Wilf’s form proving to be one of very few bright spots during his spell in charge. On Boxing Day of that year, George was relieved of his duties and Dougie Freedman stepped in to take control, a position he wouldn’t relinquish until late 2012 (but that’s a different story).
The ship was steadied under Dougie’s stewardship, with Zaha’s pace and trickery a key aspect to his tactical planning. Whilst we were far harder to beat than before, it was Wilf that allowed us to have some form of outlet from defensive pressure. In the early days, it was simply a case of getting the ball into his feet and letting him express himself in any way he saw fit. With defenders still painfully unaware of the skill he possessed, he was able to exploit almost any one on one situation without displaying much in the way of an end product. Those parts of his game were still developing, slowly but surely.
The next year saw Zaha’s ability and confidence flourish. With Freedman’s guidance, the winger still showed the occasional sign of petulance when a stray boot flew his way but in general his game was moving on at a rapid pace. Two performances stand out in my mind from last season.
The first of which saw him walk through walls to succeed against our biggest rivals Brighton and Hove Albion, a game in which he scored the equalising goal in a 3-1 victory. He was truly inspired that night and as an academy graduate, he knew how much it meant to every fan.
The second came at Old Trafford, where he arrived utterly unfazed by the challenge that faced him. From the first minute until the last, he took the game to the hosts, running himself into the ground for the cause as we went on to secure a miraculous 2-1 victory in extra time. His trademark smile beamed from ear to ear at the final whistle, it was clear to see why.
The following summer saw Zaha devoting hour after hour in the gym, taking measures to improve his general strength on the ball. It was an aspect of his game that one or two pundits had made a point of mentioning in the months prior as something he could improve on, and he had clearly been listening. The beginning of the new season saw him running at defenders with even more exuberance than before. He was riding challenges that would have floored him previously and there was also a dramatic improvement in the delivery of his final ball. Zaha’s potential for greatness was becoming brighter by the day.
In November, he was included in the senior England squad for the first time and earned his maiden cap as a late substitute in the friendly defeat to Sweden. His stock was rising rapidly and after months of speculation, January brought the news that a fee had been agreed for his services between Manchester United and ourselves. With an initial fee of £10 million, rising to £15 million depending on appearances and honours, it was the highest we’d ever received a player and in the thoughts of all Palace fans, he was worth every penny.
As part of the deal, Zaha was immediately loaned back to us for the remainder of the campaign with the club in the midst of a battle for promotion to the Premier League. With just nine league games remaining, there is still a genuine possibility of that goal becoming a reality. The team are a mere three points away from a spot in the top two and as expected, Zaha has been a key part of our continued success.
We’ll all miss him, of that there is no doubt, but we’re also extremely proud of the player he has become.
Having made 133 appearances for us at the time of writing, it’s fair to say that Zaha has done more than enough for the club that nurtured him. It would certainly be the true fairy tale ending for him to sign off on his time with us by scoring the goal that saw us clinch promotion on the last day of the season at home to Peterborough. Whilst such moments of perfection are seldom seen in sport, Wilfried has always displayed a certain knack for producing flashes of brilliance when you least expect them, to do so in such a timely fashion would be typical of him.
Visit the brilliant Hopkins Looking To Curl One In blog here – a blog dedicated to Crystal Palace and run by the excellent Dan Cook