Wilfried Zaha had a point to prove when he stepped out at St James’ Park on February 25th, 2010.
It was a bitterly cold north-eastern night and Zaha, just 17-years-old, was on the cusp of a game that would shape his career forever.
The teamsheet for that evening didn’t even spell his name right - the second ‘i’ in Wilfried stumping its author - but the teenage No.9 was beginning 90 minutes of football that would turn him from an overlooked hopeful to a world-renowned icon.
The month before, he’d struggled to secure a place on the wings of a competitive Under-18 team. The month after, he’d make the first of 370 competitive appearances in professional football.
This is the story of how he did it.
Growing up, Zaha was an unassuming, quiet boy who kept himself to himself until he took to a football field. He’d been part of Crystal Palace’s Academy from the age of eight, when a club scout scooped him from the hashed Sunday League pitches of Whitehorse Wanderers and set him on the path to global stardom.
“He was very introverted,” recalls Academy Director Gary Issott, who’s known Zaha since the age of 12. “He would come in, do his work and be no problem.”
As an adult, Zaha could trigger the rippled drumming of 25,000 seats clattering against their supports as Selhurst Park collectively rises with the winger on the ball. The effect was - and still is - staggering: a humming Mexican wave of plastic striking metal, a unified intake of breath, silence, and then - with Zaha’s boots conducting the orchestra - bedlam.
But for eight years as he grew from a child to a teenager, the youngster didn’t leap out as a star in the making.
“He was a good player and a top player,” Issott continues, “one of the top five in the group. But he wasn’t someone who, as a 16-year-old, played up in the Under-18s, which lots of players have done and continue to do as early developers. His was a slow process.”
Zaha’s reserved nature and reluctance to draw attention meant that when he reached a crucial stage in youth football - 16 - he’d spent four years under the parapet, and, in his strides towards adulthood, only the odd individual had their attention caught by the dazzling prospect.
Shaun Derry, who would captain Zaha just months later, recalls watching him play for the first time against a backdrop of administration and turmoil.
“The first-team and the scholars used to share the site,” he says, “and we’d always see Wilf watching sessions and watching our players conducting themselves.
“I remember watching one of his earlier training sessions and seeing this young boy who played football like I’d never seen football played before. Something very raw took place on the training field, something off the streets. As a 30-year-old who’d been in the game for 14 years, it was a new occurrence for me.
“Being captain of a team that was plunged into potential relegation on the back of falling into administration, to see this young kid play the game with absolute freedom was enlightening for me.”
Fellow Academy graduate Kieron Cadogan remembers his first encounter with a future teammate, too: “I was walking over to the Under-18s pitch and we passed the Under-16s game and I stopped and said: ‘Wow, who is that?’ His feet were an absolute joke; so quick. And he was just bursting with confidence.”
With the speed of a lightning bolt and the trickery of a conman, Zaha earned a place in the Palace Academy full-time - but, just eight months off his professional debut, the teenager had a long way to go yet.
Over 10 years later, Issott remembers it well: “For the first three or four months, he was getting used to full-time training and the professionalism of everything and he didn’t play as much as he’d like in the Under-18s.”
For Zaha himself, that period stands out. “When I reached Under-18s,” he told Palace TV last year, “I went through a spell where I wasn’t playing at all. I’ve never been through that phase, you know, as a footballer, where you go through rough patches. That was the first time.
“I used to go home and actually cry at times because I was thinking: ‘What do I do?’ It’s a thing where you’ve got to be mentally strong. I was just like: ‘You know what? I just need to carry on’ and I pushed through that spell.”
Perhaps, with trademark resilience and determination being hallmarks of his game today, Zaha’s turbulent start forged the inner strength that went on to define the sportsman. It certainly paved the way for solidifying a place in the Under-18s and, having proved his worth, Zaha’s name steadily became the buzzword across youth football.
“Steve Bould made a comment to me about Wilf when he was taking Arsenal’s youth team,” Issott reveals. “So did Gary Brazil, who was a long experienced coach at Fulham. [They said] how many problems he caused them, what a handful he was on the day and how difficult he was to play against.
“There were more and more people outside of our club who we were playing against and he was making a mark. People would think that’s commonplace, it’s not. It’s only every now and again that people comment on special players in your team.”
Something was changing within the club, too, and the once unnoticed youngster was fast gaining attention; fast catching eyes and clanging seats, commanding his watchers to stand. Issott elaborates: “The first-team were off and Mick Jones came to a friendly game [v Leyton Orient] - he was Neil Warnock’s old assistant.
Portrait of an Icon: Williams and Holloway discuss Zaha's promotion heroics28 March 2020
“He pointed Wilf out. He said: ‘Who’s that?’. ‘Oh, it’s Wilfried Zaha, he’s just got in the team, he’s doing really well.’ He said: ‘I really like him, he’s got something.’ I then remember Dougie [Freedman, the assistant manager when Zaha earned his debut] coming up one afternoon and watching him and saying: ‘Who’s that?’ ‘That’s Zaha; he’s decent.’”
And then it came: the turning point, the night Wilfried Zaha’s name would pass from the hushed lips of London’s youth coaches to the attention of Crystal Palace’s manager, board and fanbase.
St James’ Park, February 25th, 2010. Wilfried Zaha has a point to prove as he steps into a bitterly cold north-eastern night on the cusp of a game that would shape his career forever. The month before, he’d struggled to secure a place on the wings of a competitive Under-18 team. The month after, he’d make the first of 370 competitive appearances in professional football.
Palace were playing Newcastle in the FA Youth Cup against an Under-18 side including Paul Dummett and Sammy Ameobi. The Eagles had Jonny Williams, Ibra Sekajja and Alex Wynter, but 'Wilfred' Zaha was the only name on the teamsheet that mattered.
“Newcastle away was when I thought: ‘He’s got a major chance of playing in the first-team here,’” Issott recalls.
“We lost on the night 4-2. Wilf had won two penalties and was outstanding. I remember texting [Palace CEO] Phil Alexander on the way back: ‘We lost the tie, but I’ve seen a performance tonight that’s given me real hope of someone that can play in our first-team.’”
Issott’s intuition was right, and it was perfectly timed, too. Palace’s management had an eye out for new recruits to bolster its threadbare squad as, days after Zaha’s Newcastle masterpiece, Paul Hart, John Pemberton and Freedman took hold of a club hurtling towards relegation under the weight of administration.
Pemberton, the then-first-team coach, describes it vividly: “We needed to see what was in and around the youth-team because we could hardly stick subs together,” he says. “We had no players.
“I said to Paul: ‘I’ll go and take the youth-team and I’ll do a couple of sessions and just see what’s in there.’ And Wilf was one. We looked at Wilf and said: ‘He’s alright, Wilf, this kid’s alright. Let’s bring him up with us.’
“The first thing I noticed about him when he trained with the first-team was that some people can ruin a session - he never did that as a young player. He added a quality to our training sessions. The other thing I noticed about him was he obviously had really good feet, his technique was good, but he was quite tough. The first-team players would kick him all over the place and he’d just get on with it.”
Already established with the seniors, Cadogan elaborates on the youngster’s qualities and how he made his opportunity count: “Stepping up to the youth-team he was confident, and stepping up to the first-team he was the same. You are playing with men, with experience, but he didn’t give a damn. He was himself.
“I don’t think he needed any advice; he just came through and did what he does. I don’t remember him ever asking for much advice on how to play or adapt. And that’s why he has gone so far in the game; he just does what comes natural to him.”
“I used to be there and not say a word,” Zaha remembers. “I used to literally go out and just try to prove that I was good enough to be there, not go out there and muck about because you get hammered instantly if you’re not giving 100%.”
Zaha was at the zenith of his career so far, and yet he was right back where he’d started: unassuming and quiet, keeping himself to himself until he took to a football field. He retained an attitude fine-tuned by tunnel vision and a skillset unmatched even amongst his professional superiors.
Then, on 27th March 2010, it all paid off. After almost 10 years of quietly working in the Palace Academy, Zaha was finally preparing for his professional debut.
Palace were trailing Cardiff City 2-1 at a drizzly Selhurst Park. The No.36 was held up as Stern John trotted from the field. On the sidelines, a 17-year-old Wilfried Zaha waited eagerly, his loose long-sleeved shirt billowing over his shorts; his shorts, in turn, billowing around his knees.
Stepping on to the turf, a smile took over his face. ‘This is all I wanted,’ he thought, before making number one out of 353 and counting Crystal Palace appearances. ‘This is everything I’ve gone through.
‘This is finally it.’
Part two of Wilf's story - Portrait of an Icon: Football meets Wilfried Zaha - is now live on cpfc.co.uk and the official Palace app. Hear from Jonny Williams and Ian Holloway on Zaha's breakthrough to professional football and his launching the club to the Premier League.