Jason Puncheon has revealed that he is completely at home playing for Crystal Palace, also admitting that he always felt that he would eventually pull on the red and blue shirt professionally.
The playmaker faces Southampton at Selhurst Park on Saturday afternoon, but insists that he feels no extra motivation to impress against his former employers.
“It doesn't, you know. People say that. I had some great times down there. Some up and down times, but, on the hole, it was a great learning curve for my career. And for my football ability," he said about the significance of facing the Saints.
"I've left there now. I'm here and this is where my heart is. This is another football match and another game we want three points from.”
The 29-year-old always felt that he would eventually turn out for Palace, having played in the Eagles' youth system as a child.
“I always knew, in the back of my head, that I would go to Palace," he said. "There were times when it was supposed to happen: when I first left Wimbledon... there were a few times, actually, when it was close to happening. But it was supposed to happen but, for me, I'm grateful it happened at the right time. For me. It's been good. The club's only gone forward since I've come here, and I'm glad to have been a part of it."
“My nan lived there [on Holmesdale Road]. But she moved out of there when I was about ten or 11. So no I was not living there, but all my family were close by, near to Selhurst. So I was always close by.
"I played for Palace when I was eight until I was ten, then I went to Chelsea from there. But it was difficult for my parents, and having children now I understand it. It must be hard for people. My mum had my brother when I was eight and my sister when I was ten. She had two young babies, so to get me from South London all the way across to West London on a Tuesday and Thursday peak time, and my mum had to work. So I understand the difficulties - and I at times didn’t want to go, the travelling and stuff. I was quite a home person when I was growing up. I left there when I was 13-14 and I went to Wimbledon, who were at Roehampton.”
It was at St Mary's, under Alan Pardew, that Puncheon realised his dream of playing in the Premier League, something he always felt he could achieve.
"I think I always knew I had the ability to play in the Premier League. It was more about the timing," he said.
"Actually, it was this gaffer here [Pardew] when he signed me at Southampton, he said to me: 'Concentrate. Prepare.' I was 23 or 24 then. You don't realise the significance of what they're telling you back then but, as you get older, it dawns on you.
"All that time in the lower leagues made me more determined. But going to Southampton, such a big football club, a club of that stature... you go there and you realise the pressure, the expectation, the number of fans who go there every other week and that was in League One. And the calibre of players. I learned a lot from those players in my time there. That helped me.”
"I can’t complain with the way my career has gone, because I learned a lot," he continued. "Some players sometimes get to the top too quick and then they go down. I would not want to change the way I got to the top level. It was good for me, made me learn a lot. I've played for some good clubs, played in all four divisions, played with some good players. I've got to count those blessings and be happy with that.”
As he says, Puncheon's road to the top has been far from straight forward and there were times when he felt disillusioned with football, falling out of the game temporarily in his late teens, though he credits his agent Nabile Hakimi with helping him through the rough patches.
“Nabile’s a good guy, he’s my friend," he said. "I fell out of football, trying to get back in, and he sort of came and put his arm around me and said, just stay away from what you're doing and concentrate on your football. To be honest we have never looked back. He’s a successful agent, and I’m doing what I’m doing, and I can only give him most of the praise for where I am now.
"I was out of it (football) for like nine months and just sort of up to no good really. At the time I was not sure what I was going to do, and then Nabile came along and gave me that belief again and sort of stood by me.”
He considers himself one of the lucky ones, as there are plenty of young players who don't make it professionally. Puncheon feels an obligation to help guide young players similar to himself, offering them the helping hand that he was afforded a decade ago.
“You have to look at statistics. Not everybody is going to make it in football," he said. "These young kids have to understand that they might not make it here, at Palace. But they might make it somewhere else.
"If there are 20 of you, three of you may make it in the Championship, five in League One, six in League Two. It's a career. You can make a very, very good living and career just by playing in the Football League. It doesn't have to be at the top of the Premier League. For me, that's why I'm trying to help these young kids. They've played football all their lives. That's all they think about. If suddenly, at 20 or 21, they're released and they can't play football any more, they feel lost. You've got to make the most of it while you can.”
“I think its just being able to relate to them," the Croydon native said. "I grew up around this area so I know what it is like around here, the surroundings and London in general. I know how hard it is, the tests you get that may be a lot different to other places.
"So to be able to relate to them and even if its just 2-3 minutes you can take out of your time to talk to them, it can help them. They are young kids, they are going to see different things in life, and not all of them are going to make it, so if you can help all of them to understand, they all might not make it at Crystal Palace, but they might make it somewhere else.”
As a young player, Puncheon admired Liverpool great Steven Gerrard for playing for his local team for so long and at such a high level.
“I saw Gerrard scoring screamers every week, dominating the Premier League. As a kid of 11 or 12, you grow up watching players like that. It drives you on," he said.
"For me, he was a local lad playing for Liverpool, his club. To know that local lads and young kids can push on, come through and play for their clubs was a massive driving force for me. So I told him [in May].
"I told him: 'Massive credit to you for what you've done in your career. Thanks for being on the same pitch as me.' You don't play for a club like Liverpool for the length of time he did, and do what he's done, if you're not a very good player. He was tremendous at his peak, a real credit to the Premier League. There aren't many midfielders like him in the modern game.”
He feels that manager Alan Pardew, another south Londoner, also understands what it means to be from that part of the capital and Puncheon is particularly complimentary of his teammate Wilfried Zaha, who was raised in close proximity to SE25, suggesting he has the potential to achieve incredible things, having played nearly 200 times for the Eagles by the age of 23.
"I look at Wilfried. If he'd had Sir Alex Ferguson at United, he might have had a bit more time at that level with them," he said. "I still think he can get back to that level. He's a bloody good player. People won't understand it unless they've lived in London, lived in those parts of London, the challenges and difficulties people face every day. It is a lot different to the north of the country. I'll always stick by that. Understanding people... Some of those kids have had very hard upbringings. Some of those kids' parents have never come to watch them. Ever.
"They've never had that support, that guidance," he continued. "Some of them may come from single family homes. It's difficult, it's hard. And this manager understands that. He's seen it, been around it, has been around those players and gives them that time. He's there to help them, and that's a good thing.”
"Someone like Wilfried, the more he plays the more he gets it. And he has come on leaps and bounds since he has come back. People might not see that, but mentally, and just the way he is as a person, he has come on leaps and bounds from the person who first walked into the building when I was here, to now. And that’s because he has been playing the games, getting the chance, and he realises how he can affect the game and he can do this, and [it's helped] his mental state.”
Palace have enjoyed plenty of positive changes over the last five years, particularly during the time Puncheon has spent at the club, and he feels that there is much more to come.
"If you'd said to me when I joined Crystal Palace on loan that, in three seasons, you'd be playing European football I'd have laughed," he said. "The turnaround in the dressing room, the training ground, the set-up... It's unrecognisable.
“We have massive amounts of potential and very good players, people coming to good ages," he added. "We still have people like Wilfried, the young side of it. But we have to achieve something. Us, as players, have to achieve. I don't know what that means necessarily, whether it is getting into Europe, getting to an FA Cup final. We have to target something and achieve it.
"For me, it would be a let down of the ability this team has if we don't. It's one of the most talented teams I've played in. I've played with some good, good players but, on the whole, this is one of the most talented sides I've played in. A lot of the people in that dressing room would say that as well.”