The cries of “he’s just too good for you” were once reserved solely for Adel Taarabt, but now these words are inspired by a young star at Crystal Palace, whose recent performances have seen him tear through Championship defences as the club surges up the table.
Wilfried Zaha is the latest extraordinary talent to have emerged from the exceptional youth academy at Crystal Palace. At just 19 years of age he has already made a home for himself in the heart of the supporters with the pace, flair and eye for goal that define football as one of the most breathtaking and entertaining sports in the world.
His newfound prolific nature in front of goal has all but confirmed suspicions that he possesses all the attributes required to succeed at the highest level but while a move to the Premier League may be inevitable, it might not be as forthcoming as the nation’s tabloids would have you believe.
Crystal Palace may not be able to boast the same history, stature or financial arsenal as rival teams around the country but the club beautifully illustrate the benefits of promoting a family atmosphere and the local community. As a result the fans share a genuine sense of belonging and in a strange way the process of administration has been a blessing in disguise. How many clubs in English football can claim they’re happy or even inspired by their current manager and chairman combination?
The current youth set-up is littered with ‘local lads’ that are well aware of a realistic path to the first-team, especially now the club is renowned for providing a stage for young players to flourish. The new financial regulations of the EPPP will see the Premier League vultures become a prominent feature at clubs like Crystal Palace and so it’s vital that they maintain this ethos and continue to enhance their positive learning environment.
In 2010 Bromley-born centre-back Ryan Inniss rose to fame when he captained the England U’16’s to victory in both the Victory Shield and the Montaigu Tournament in France. However, despite a concrete offer from Manchester City, Inniss turned down a bumper pay pocket in favour of signing a professional contract at Crystal Palace. His decision highlights a refreshing display of maturity and one that will hopefully be replicated in the future.
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In the case of Wilfried Zaha, both he and manager Dougie Freedman have worked closely in various capacities over the past five years. Zaha recently revealed that he misses South London when he’s away on international duty, an admission that not only highlights his affinity with club but also the fact he’s not quite ready for the next stage in his career. Freedman’s legendary status at the club coupled with his playing career as a striker means he is the prime candidate to help Zaha fulfil his potential. An opinion Freedman also appears to share:
“The arrangement I’ve got with the club is that I will let Wilfried and his family know when I can’t develop him any longer – and I will also let them know which club for him to go to.” (Croydon Today)
On the outside this statement may be perceived as the customary stubborn and ignorant attempts to hold onto the club’s prized asset, but it’s clear that there is a mutual respect and affection between the key trio of club, manager and the player. The modern sacking culture in football means such long-term and rewarding relationships are an increasing rarity, which is perhaps the reason why so many players are easily lured away with financial incentives and misleading promises.
In recent times we’ve witnessed promising strikers Marvin Sordell and Connor Wickham struggle to adapt to life in the top flight after seemingly outgrowing the Championship. The pressure and expectation of such high-profile moves coupled with a drastically reduced playing time means their development has been bought to a rapid halt.
To put their respective downfalls into perspective, Sordell managed just three substitute appearances in the second half of Bolton’s relegation season and has notched up just one goal this year in the Championship. Wickham has also only managed a solitary goal for his new club but has yet to clock up a single minute under Martin O’Neill this season, which is remarkable considering their demoralising stats in front of goal.
Zaha need only be reminded of former academy graduates John Bostock, Tom Soares and even Wayne Routledge to understand the perils of moving on too soon. He should look to learn from Nathaniel Clyne, who agreed to sign for Southampton last summer despite reported interest from Newcastle and Manchester United. Clyne is now playing first-team football for a team in the Premier League that endorses an attractive brand of football. As a result he has continued to prosper and has surely established the perfect platform for him to achieve the next step-up.
I hope that the future transfer of Wilfried Zaha provides a turning point that sees youngsters trust their club with the timing, fee and destination of any potential move onwards and upwards. It’s imperative that they join a team with a similar playing philosophy that can offer a regular first-team role rather than a few extra zeros on their wage packet. If the next generation of stars are to fulfil their potential then it remains clear that they should keep their eye on the ball rather than their bank balance.