This interview first appeared as the main feature in the Chelsea matchday programme.
"YOU'RE GOING TO GET AN EVEN BETTER WILF IN FUTURE!”
These are ten words that will strike fear into Premier League defences and get Palace fans even more excited for 2016. On 200 occasions they’ve gasped and cheered at the local boy done good’s displays in red and blue, and on the occasion of his double century of Eagles games his promise that there’s even more to come can only raise excitement levels in SE25 for what the next 12 months may bring.
The dawning of a new year sometimes feels like a new chapter of a book waiting to be written, and Wilfried Zaha is turning over the page in more ways than one. The first week of 2016 falls perfectly in his Crystal Palace career as completed his 200th appearance for the club, allowing him a rare chance to look back as well as forward.
It’s been a double century of games that have been so electrifying and brought so much joy to those packed inside Selhurst’s stands that his place among the Palace pantheons is already secure.
His highlight reel of wondergoals and incredible physics-defying pieces of skill could already keep fans entertained for days, but perhaps the most exciting thing about Wilf is that he’s amazingly still only 23-years-old.
Despite having seemingly been in the Palace first-team for as long as anyone can remember, it is less than six years ago that his studs first made their impression in the most famous turf in SE25. Week by week Palace fans have had the pleasure of watching his development, but he is still far from being the finished article.
On reaching 200 matches, he said: “I’m buzzing about it - being able to play that many games for the club is amazing. I’ve had so many memories; we’ve gone from administration to being sixth in the Premier League. I’m just so proud to be a part of it.
“It means more coming from the local area because I’ve seen Palace go through so much. Before I joined I used to live like a minute away, so I used to see the lights in the stadium and I used to wonder what was going on inside.
“I’ve been here since the age of eight so I know the club like the back of my hand and I’ve literally watched it go from where it was to where it is now. We’ve always had talent in the team but people see us as underdogs. It must inspire new players because they come here not knowing the history, so I enjoy telling them the stories about the teams that we’ve managed to beat when we weren’t expected to. Just being part of the history is amazing for me.”
He has played more than just a part in the Eagles' recent history – Zaha has defined it. A product from the academy who was thrust into the spotlight due to a lack of options with administration in 2010 biting hard, his rapid rise mirrored that of Palace’s as both have established themselves in the Premier League.
Of course things could have been very different. Zaha was nearly released as a youngster when he was struggling to make the grade at under-16 level, and had a loan clause not been inserted into the deal that took him to Manchester United then the Eagles star would have missed out on his most iconic moment.
It doesn’t take him long to consider what has to be his most spellbinding night in a Palace shirt: “Brighton away in the semi-final when I scored two goals. But it wasn’t just about the goals, it was the atmosphere too.
“I was coming back in after the warm-up and one of their fans was screaming at me, saying that the game was over because Glenn [Murray] was injured. The spearhead of the team had gone.
“Someone had to step up and if it wasn’t me then it would have been Yannick, or someone else. We’d got that far and just couldn’t accept that we were going to lose, so that night was something that springs straight to mind.”
There were a few other choices that ran that glorious night close, as Zaha also reels off the 2-1 League Cup win against Manchester United in 2011 and the play-off final at Wembley (“the memories of that game are so strong that it feels like it was yesterday”), but he delves deep into the memory bank for his best performance – “on my birthday against Peterborough [in 2012]. I ran from my own goal past the halfway line and set up KG [Kagisho Dikgacoi] and I played really well – I can’t believe I didn’t score though!”
You can probably look back at any of his 200 games and unearth at least one moment of magic from the Croydon-made winger in each of them, but you won’t have to look particularly hard in this season’s encounters as Alan Pardew aims to take his diamond in the rough to a new level.
You very quickly forget that Zaha was re-signed permanently just less than a year ago, but he was a shell of his former self after a tough time at Old Trafford. The exuberance and confidence of youth had been repressed which stunted his progression, and it is only since Pardew’s arrival that Palace fans are beginning to once again recognise the Zaha that they know and love.
The old tricks have been encouraged but a disciplined defensive approach has also been coached into him, making Zaha a much more valuable asset to the side. You’re now just as likely to see him scamper back in pursuit of an opposition full-back as he is dazzling them into submission with step-overs, and he is seeing the benefits of being back where he belongs.
“As soon as I signed in January I knew it was the best decision because I was coming back home and the gaffer liked me,” he said. “He was going to give me a chance to play and that’s what I needed – a chance. I think I’ve repaid him.
“He’s helped me massively. It’s been more the mental side of the game that I’ve needed to fixate on because it’s not just about doing tricks and flicks, it’s about knowing how to defend and where to be, understanding the game and concentrating all the time.
“The first 200 games were me finding myself as a player. When I was younger you could get anything from me, but now I’m beginning to understand what type of player I am and I’m going to try and be consistent for Palace. Just know that you’re going to get an even better Wilf in future!”
That is a tantalising prospect, and one that can only benefit club and country. It’s now over three years ago that Zaha was handed his first England cap by Roy Hodgson, but despite not yet establishing himself in the national side a rediscovery of his old self is putting him on the brink once more.
Hodgson himself recently admitted that his name narrowly missed the cut for November’s friendlies with Spain and France, and Zaha knows that if his quest to surpass his best from his first 200 games is successful then it can only give him the greatest chance possible of adding to his two caps so far.
“The best football of my career was when we were coming up,” he admitted. “That’s not when I was at my peak – I mean I’m still only 23 – but at the time I was performing the best that I can remember. However there’s more to come from me.
“Right now I’m just trying to be consistent with my team. Eventually I want to play for England again because that’s the main goal. I was playing for them and then I had a hiccup at United but it’s nice to hear that I’m not being ignored and my good performances are being seen.”
Whilst his displays have fluctuated at times, one thing that has been consistent is the affection Zaha is afforded in south London. In this day and age, he is a rare breed of player who can identify with the man in the stand as someone playing out their dream of featuring regularly for their local club. He grew up on the same streets as them, attended similar schools alongside them and possibly had his early experiences with a football on the same pitches against them.
He stands up against negativity surrounding Croydon in the media, gives a portion of his wages to local charities and attends Palace Foundation coaching sessions to help inspire the next spindly winger from the area to make it through to the first-team. Quite simply, he is the personification of South London and Proud.
On his affinity with the Palace fans, Zaha revealed: “It has started since my debut. I only played like five minutes but when I came on the support was immense. No-one knew anything about me but I just had a feeling I can’t really explain when there’s thousands of people behind you and you could feel the faith from them.
“I’ve had the fans on my side for ages, even when I’ve had games where I know I haven’t played the best they’re still rooting for me. That’s the difference with Palace – they have home-grown fans who will love you no matter what. You can’t go from a hero to a zero with them because they’re not fickle and they remember what you’ve done for the club.
“Even though I went away and came back they have the same love for me. I even played for Cardiff against Palace and they could have booed me like what happens at other clubs but they didn’t and still supported me. That’s why I appreciate them so much.”
The feeling is mutual, and if the first 200 games were anything to go by, then the next 200 could – like Zaha – be something truly special.