Ahead of today's friendly away at AFC Wimbledon, the club caught up with former Eagle and now-current Dons player, Kwesi Appiah.
Despite only making a handful of appearances for the club during his five-and-a-half years at Selhurst Park, when mentioning his name around the place to a few of Crystal Palace’s stalwarts in various departments, employees remarked on what a lovely guy Kwesi was from the training ground, to the canteen to media duties.
Those opinions were proved correct when Kwesi, true to his word, dropped the club a message to say he was back from his holidays and was happy to speak with us ahead of the game at Kingsmeadow.
Holidays may well be a bit of a stretch, too, with Kwesi revealing that despite getting married in Santorini, and following up the big day with a honeymoon in the Bahamas, a footballer can never truly ‘switch off’: “I was still running and working out in the gym; if you completely did nothing you’d be struggling when you get back to the club.”
Speaking to the striker at the end of his second season with AFC Wimbledon - a campaign in which former Palace coach, Wally Downes, had guided the club to a heroic escape from the League One relegation trapdoor - the buzz from survival was still alive in Appiah. However, we took him from the present day and back to when he became an Eagle.
“Being in Non-League [with the likes of Kettering Town and Margate] and scoring as many goals as I did, there had obviously been a few scouts coming to watch me in games. Therefore, everyone knew that when January would come around I would be gone, so it was just a case of where I was going to go.
“When I heard about Crystal Palace, it just blew me away to be honest; I actually had offers from clubs who were in the Premier League at the time but it just didn’t feel right.
“An offer from Blackpool got accepted but I didn’t end up going there and I also had a trial at Wolves.”
Appiah was in no rush to give up his ‘stable’ life and job working in a call centre for any professional club. And turning down a Premier League side in Wolves, as well as a club who had spent the previous season in the top-flight in Blackpool demonstrated that; Appiah was a player with his ‘head on his shoulders’ who knew what he wanted and what club he needed.
“When the club said you’re going to Crystal Palace it was just: ‘wow’. Because at the time I was working full-time in a call centre for ‘Transport for London’ as well as playing for Margate part-time, so it was a relief for me to get back into the full-time game and do what I love. However, I did enjoy that part of my life; I liked the normality, as being a kid in football your whole life, it was nice to have that stability and know what you’re doing.
“The manager, Dougie Freedman, was absolutely brilliant with me and knowing that I’d come out of Non-League, and with him being a striker like me, he spent a lot of time with me on the training ground and doing extra work on control, movement and finishing; he understood what I was coming in as and what I wanted to achieve.”
Appiah was always under no illusions that he was returning to the professional game at a later stage than most. Furthermore, competing with first-teamers such as Glenn Murray, Sean Scannell, Chris Martin, Jermaine Easter and Wilfried Zaha for those attacking places meant forcing himself into the senior setup wasn’t going to be the easiest of paths.
During the interview with CPFC, though, the then-21-year-old only comes across as a player who was delighted to be learning from experienced pros and enjoying the journey he was on. Therefore, when Palace sealed promotion to the Premier League at the end of Appiah’s second season at the club, a campaign which saw him make five experience-gaining appearances, the delight Appiah felt for himself and the team was clear:
“You don’t think from a selfish point of view [in terms of playing more regularly]; I was just happy for the club to go up to the Premier League because I knew how much of a big deal it was and excited by what had been achieved – even just to play a handful of games in a season like that was a big deal for me, as it was what I view as my first full proper season in the Football League.
“It was a good season for me because I spent time on loan at Yeovil Town, who got promoted to the Championship, and obviously Palace went up, too.”
The Premier League, naturally, raised the profile of the club and the players but what happened in 2015 to Appiah - just three years on from answering the phones for TfL - sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie script.
“Signing for Crystal Palace raised my profile and people within the Ghanaian setup started going: ‘Oh, who’s this guy?’ and they started paying attention as to whether I could be a future national team player.
“They told me they’d keep track of and see how I progress. Few years later, I am on loan at Cambridge United in League Two, having an okay season and the team is doing well and having a good FA Cup run which had just seen us draw Manchester United for the next round.
“At the time, Ghana had just appointed Avram Grant and he was looking for more European talent and younger players that he could mould during his time in the national team; he was looking for a wildcard talent that could shake things up.
“Meeting up with the 30-man squad was totally overwhelming at the time, and during that period before the tournament there are two cuts down to 27 and then down to the final 23-man squad.”
Footballers’ careers are short, however, despite all knowing this, not all do all they can to make it as special as it can be; not all push themselves to the limit and squeeze everything out of their careers.
Kwesi Appiah isn’t one of those players, though; he made things happen for himself and was rewarded with a story that he’ll never tire of telling and people of hearing.
“I made the first cut and ahead of the second cut there’s two friendly games, so I went to the manager and said: “My hunger is different to anyone’s; what have I got to do to make this final cut? What do you want from me?” and he simply said: “Show me what you’ve got.”
“I scored in the first game and that was it; I was in.
“Making the squad was great but now I was thinking where exactly do I fit in? You’ve got the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Jordan Ayew, Andre Ayew and Christian Atsu; big players who have played many games for the national team. I didn’t really know my place then but I knew I had been selected for a reason and that Avram could see my potential; I felt no pressure or nervousness, I was just hungry.”
Kwesi found his place: leading the line for the Black Stars in the quarter-final, semi-final and final of the AFCON, with Ghana narrowly missing out on being crowned champions via the cruel mistress that is the penalty shootout.
Sadly, for Appiah the nature of football means the lows are never far behind the highs, and after the euphoria of being one of the standout names from the 2015 AFCON, the next international chapter in his career resulted in a long-term injury.
Check out the Crystal Palace black new away kit in action v Nottingham Forest20 July 2019
“The timing of it was extremely poor in terms of my playing career, off the back of the AFCON tournament things were really hotting up for me; I signed a new contract at Crystal Palace, Alan Pardew was really interested in me and wanted to give me a chance to play in the Premier League – he wished me well in the summer and said he was excited for me to come back for pre-season.
“Being out for that amount of time, in a period where I knew I was about to reach my pinnacle, that was difficult to take. However, the support I had from the club, and the likes of Mark Bright, Steve Parish, helped me a lot mentally and physically.”
The timing of the injury for a young player making his mark on the international stage really does feel like one of those ‘what if’ moments. However, Appiah doesn’t dwell on those and looks back fondly on his time with Palace.
“Towards the end of my contract with Palace, we were actually in discussions over signing a new deal but for whatever reason we didn’t agree one and I was sad to leave; it is a club that I still hold dearly in my heart today.
“When people were aware I was becoming a free agent there were a load of phone calls coming in. However, I had maintained some great relationships from my earlier loan spell with Wimbledon, with the manager and coaching staff still there and that was one of the main factors for my return.”
That concluded our catch up with our former striker, though not before CPFC tried to extract a bit of scouting info on our opposition today. Laughing, Appiah refused to reveal trade secrets, however, he closed with the following comment: “Wimbledon are a rough and ready team and will bring a style of play that you won’t be used to in the Premier League. It is going to be a great occasion, hopefully the sun is shining and I’m looking forward to seeing my old club.”