He may be unknown to the majority of the Palace fanbase, but this season has seen academy midfielder Will Donkin make a name for himself in East Asia. His displays for the Chinese Taipei national team, despite being only 17, have seen him become a regular international, and here he tells Jonathon Rogers how his amazing story came about.
In a season filled with remarkable stories surrounding Crystal Palace, perhaps none is more extraordinary than a 17-year-old in their academy already boasting more international caps than the majority of Premier League players.
Thousands of miles away, Will Donkin has rapidly become a surprise sensation after amassing five full caps for Chinese Taipei since his unexpected call-up in November. The midfielder had only been at the Eagles a matter of months after a five-year stint at Chelsea, and he had barely found his feet in south London before he received a telephone call sending him to the other side of the world.
Qualifying for Chinese Taipei – the official name for the state of Taiwan – through his mother, Donkin’s family had alerted national team boss Gary White of their son’s eligibility, and the Englishman swiftly persuaded the Palace youngster to pledge his allegiance to the East Asian nation.
Taking up the tale, Donkin said: “It all happened quite quickly. I had just finished my GCSEs and Gary White asked me to come to Qatar for a training camp ahead of an Asian Cup qualifier against Turkmenistan.
“I obviously had to give it some thought but it was too good an opportunity to pass, so I decided to go for it. It was definitely a bit of a shock to get a full senior call-up having been used to playing under-18s football. I was a little nervous but I decided to go out there and just play with no fear, and fortunately I got to come on for the last minutes of the game. We lost 2-1 but I was very grateful that I was able to make my senior international debut at 16.
“In December I was called up again for an international tournament against Singapore, Laos and East Timor. I got a lot more minutes as I played in all three games and contributed two assists. Because of flight delays to one of the teams, we ended up playing three games in three days so that was tough, but another good learning experience. Then in March, we had our final Asian Cup qualifier against Singapore when I made my first start and played 88 minutes in another win, taking our home record to six consecutive victories.”
Having drip-fed the teenager international minutes, White’s success means his methods cannot be questioned. They had taken a scalp by beating Bahrain during qualifying and December’s tournament success clinched the country’s first silverware in 49 years, propelling them to their best ever FIFA world ranking of 121st.
Already adored by the nation’s fans, Donkin has affectionately been nicknamed “Doughnut Boy” due to his surname’s translation into Mandarin, a language he has a basic grasp of. “Football in Taiwan is really taking off,” he added. “Lots of people are getting into it since Gary White has taken over, and the team is playing really well. He’s got us playing much more attacking, exciting football and everyone in the country is being drawn into it.”
Donkin has also been enjoying success 6,000 miles away back in SE25, playing 10 times for Paddy McCarthy’s under-18 side that recently claimed the U18 Professional Development League South title, and both player and manager believe that juggling the demands of international and academy football on opposite sides of the planet has seen his game develop at a faster rate.
“Going out there and playing against international footballers at such a young age has definitely helped,” he said. “I’ve had to adapt to the men’s game as it’s more physical; I try to use my body more, move the ball quicker and take less touches.
“Now when I come back to Palace, I can continue the momentum and bring a bit more confidence into playing in the league, so that’s good for me. Paddy has said that my game is improving because I’m playing at a high level, so it’s been a really good opportunity at such a young age.
“Being a full international is a little surreal but I just need to keep using the confidence I gain from it to work hard at the club. The last few months have been a great experience and now I have the chance to keep on building on it."