27 September 2011, 9.24pm. Championship side Crystal Palace are 1-0 down to deadly rivals Brighton in the sides’ first meeting in six years. The Seagulls haven’t lost at home in the league since moving to their new stadium, The Amex, and look like clinging on to three more vital points against the team they love to hate. It’s been the type of intense, mistake-filled derby game that so often overwhelms many a young professional, and a youthful Palace outfit looks to have been beaten by the occasion as much as the opposition.
The scoreboard ticks over from 79:59 to 80:00, and the next few seconds play out more like a Roy Of The Rovers strip than an actual match. Scene one: 25 yards from goal, near the left touchline, Palace’s number 16 controls a short pass from team-mate Sean Scannell and – in the same movement – skips effortlessly over the outstretched leg of his marker, Gary Dicker. Scene two: moving more central now, number 16 darts swiftly from left to right, again with a single touch of the ball, his sleight of foot sending former Palace triallist Liam Bridcutt tumbling to his backside as he moves across to cover the displaced Dicker. Scene three: with two more deft touches across the D, number 16 draws central defender Lewis Dunk out of the penalty area, removing keeper Casper Ankergren’s final line of protection in preparation for scene four: a calm side-footed finish from 18 yards out, across the statuesque figure of Ankergren and into the bottom left corner.
Game level. Evening transformed. Star born.
Number 16 is Wilfried Zaha, and his equaliser restores life and confidence to this Palace side, as the next ten minutes deliver two further goals and a lifetime’s worth of bragging rights. Not for Zaha, of course – he’ll soon have much bigger clubs that Brighton to slay. Because it’s with this one goal in hostile conditions at just 18 years of age, single-handedly dragging his team back into the game its fans want to win more than any other, that the half-Ivorian, half-English winger confirms that he not only has the ability to deliver in the most difficult of situations, but also the temperament. From this night on, Zaha is bound for the very top. It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’, merely, ‘when’.
We now know ‘when’ is July 2013, after Palace today agreed a deal worth up to £15million for Zaha with Manchester United. The 19-time champs get English football’s hottest prospect in the summer; the South London club get an instant hit of cash to bolster their promotion push (they currently lie two points off the Championship’s automatic spots), and two more years of financial security; Zaha gets a tenfold pay increase to a rumoured £35,000-a-week, and the chance to win trophies season after season. It’s a straightforward win-win-win arrangement for all parties.
So just how good is United’s newest signing? Well, if you’d asked any Palace fan two years ago who the best player its acclaimed academy had ever produced was, you’d have got one of two answers: “Kenny Sansom” from anyone over 40, “Victor Moses” from those born after 1971. Sansom was a cultured left-back who would go on to make 314 appearances for Arsenal and win 86 caps for England, and if you’ve watched Match Of The Day at any point over the last 18 months, you know Moses from his performances packed with stepovers and pirouettes and other tricks in the colours of Wigan and Chelsea.
Ask the same question now, however, and you’ll get one unified answer from Eagles supporters of all possible ages: Wilfried Zaha. Comparing him to Sansom is unfair – we’re talking different positions and eras – but he already looks a better player than ‘VicMo’ (which is not to doubt the latter’s many talents at all). Zaha is quicker, has even more tricks in his locker, a belting shot on him, and – perhaps most impressively of all – is blessed with the Ronaldo-like ability to move at the same blistering pace with the ball as without it. Need to see this to believe it? Fast forward to 0:54 of this video (http://www.footytube.com/video/peterborough-united-crystal-palace-nov10-141401) of Palace playing away at Peterborough earlier in the season, and see how quickly the away side counter an opposition corner to score – not through a long ball or swift passing, but one player (Zaha) sprinting the length of the pitch with the ball at his feet, before delivering a perfect pass for Kagisho Dikgacoi to net the winner.
Still, critics will argue that his perfect final ball is the exception, rather than the rule. Certainly Zaha’s decision-making at times isn’t as good as it could be – sometimes the temptation to beat yet another man having ghosted past three is too great, leading to him conceding possession when he’d have been better placed to cross anyway. Others he’ll shoot wide from an acute angle when a ball whipped low into the box would be the more dangerous option. But the lad is 20, and now bound for a club with a recent history of nurturing young talent and carefully integrating youth into its squad of big-money stars. Where Moses at Chelsea and Sinclair at City have had to make do with sporadic opportunities to show their worth, United have developed Smalling and Cleverley and Welbeck by giving them extended gametime on the biggest stages in football. And in terms of raw ability and technique, Zaha has more in his locker than any of that talented trio. His ceiling is stratospheric.
In the brilliant Michael Lewis book Moneyball, the author recounts how Oakland As manager Billy Beane would rejoice when his rivals drafted high school players aged 16 and 17, because the most vital period in a potential pro’s development – in any sport – are the years when he truly turns from boy to man. As a result, Beane would only draft college players aged 18, 19, 20. Pre-Moses, Palace’s last great hope was John Bostock; junior player of the year season after season, until he was prised away by Tottenham at just 16 in the summer of 2008. He’s since made one solitary appearance for the club, and mediocre loan spells at the likes of Brentford and Sheffield Wednesday have raised questions about his temperament and maturity.
There’ll be no such doubts about Zaha, no wondering whether he’ll be another Bostock. A younger man might have gone missing on that famous (for Palace fans, anyway) night on the south coast in 2011, knowing there were 10 others out there with which to share the blame for an agonising defeat. Instead, approaching the age at which American college athletes turn professional, he proved himself ready for the big leagues in terms of both ability and attitude with five deft touches of a football. Beane would surely approve. Palace’s star student graduates this summer, and United are getting a player with both the quality and – perhaps more importantly – the maturity to be one of England’s, and the world’s, best.
(Written by Ben Wilson)
- Top six
- Mid-table mediocrity
- Relegation dogfight
- Going down