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First Team

Portrait of an Icon: Football meets Wilfried Zaha

28 March 2020

The sound of Wembley stadium was deafening around 5:30pm on 27th May, 2013. Amongst the streaming colour and the buzzing din of jubilant fans, Jonny Williams sought out Wilfried Zaha, his friend of over 10 years, through the throng of players and staff, through the noise and the chaos.

They came together and, over the drums and music and chants of 35,000 roaring south Londoners, Williams called out: “Thank you for what you’ve done. Go and enjoy playing for Manchester United, you deserve it.”

READ: Portrait of an Icon: The making of Wilfried Zaha

Seven years later, when Williams looks back at his framed squad photos from the Crystal Palace Academy, he can see two constants: himself and Zaha.

Zaha, he says, gets taller with every picture, while Williams remains the same. 

“I’ve known him most of my life,” the 27-year-old looks back. “I didn’t get to start playing with Wilf until I was 13 or 14, that’s when I started to see what he was capable of.”

As the 2009/10 season reached its dramatic climax, Zaha began to pull away from the Academy - his home of nearly 10 years - by training and playing with the first-team instead.

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Throughout his earliest months of senior football, the 17-year-old endured a career-defining baptism of fire.

“I remember us going up to Middlesbrough for one game,” former first-team coach John Pemberton recalls, “and we were on the bus waiting to go and Wilf came late.

“We were all sat on the bus waiting and I remember going to get him, almost kicking his arse and saying: ‘Get on the bus.’ He just didn’t quite get it. He got on the bus and the players hammered him. I think one player almost pinned him against a wall. 

“Wilf was quite a tough kid... He had it in him, that character and that toughness. You can’t give people that: you’ve either got it or you haven’t, and he’s certainly got it.”

A no doubt welcomed pause for Palace’s 17-year-old winger arrived with the summer months of 2010. After that breather, Zaha arrived back at a club under new ownership, secure both in its league status and financial future. 

But the squad was still light, and the appointment of George Burley as manager saw Zaha thrown straight back into first-team football. As Academy Director Gary Issott explains, it happened in the flash of an eye.

“We reported back for pre-season with eight [senior] players,” he recalls. “George wanted to make a statement. He said: ‘Send your best young player over because we’re struggling for numbers.’ 

“We sent Wilf back and then we never saw him again. That was it. You’d think you’d send him for a couple of sessions and he’d be back down with you or it would be up and down. He just never came back.”

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There was a reason for Zaha’s one-way trip: a phenomenal 77 minutes against Leicester City on the opening day of 2010/11. In just his second competitive outing, the teenager landed a breakthrough - his unmissable step onto the professional scene. Scoring once and assisting twice, Zaha led Palace to a 3-2 victory almost single-handedly.

That match-winning afternoon preceded a campaign in which Zaha would play 44 times - the fourth most of anyone in the squad and 43 more games than he’d managed the season before.

When Jonny Williams earned a call-up of his own, just a year later, the midfielder entered a side with his former Academy teammate at the core of its success.

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“He had the most naturally gifted ability with the ball I’ve ever come across,” Williams says, looking back at his step-up to Zaha’s tier. “It was a joy to play with because it made my job easy - I just had to pass him the ball.

“He’s got that raw ability where you give him the ball and nine times out of 10, he’s going past the defender. As a player, when you know you’ve got someone in your team like that, you’ve got to get him on the ball as much as possible.”

Zaha continued to excel, with his performances gaining him more and more attention. Palace dispatched Manchester United from the 2011/12 League Cup and went on to push their way towards promotion the following season. A managerial change ensued - with Dougie Freedman handing the reins to Ian Holloway - but Zaha’s talent remained a constant.

Speaking with Palace TV, Holloway describes his first memory of the developing starlet: “I didn’t believe what I was being told at [co-owner] Stephen Browett’s house. His family were saying: ‘Wilf, he’s just brilliant. He’s just too good for the division.’ 

“Because I’d had some wingers who I thought were really good - Tom Ince and Matt Phillips - I thought: ‘You can’t be that good.’ So I watched that game [v Blackburn Rovers] and he did things I didn’t think were possible.” 

Zaha’s name had moved from the topic of regional excitement to nationwide debate, and it wasn’t long before the south London wonderkid received an offer he couldn’t refuse: a contract with England’s biggest club.

In January 2013, Manchester United scooped the winger’s services as Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing, but Palace were flying high in the Championship, and Zaha wasn’t about to forget his roots.

“When I signed for United I specifically asked if I could go back to Palace on loan to finish off the season,” he says. “We had unfinished business.”

“After he’d come back from United on loan,” Williams picks up, “I remember we all had a chat about Wilf. Holloway sat us all down on the pitch before training and explained the situation. Wilf was there and I think everyone was just making sure he was still on side. 

“I had no doubt that Wilf would, when he was in a Palace shirt, play his heart out... The meeting was just about him staying grounded and staying focused and what an opportunity we had as a team. Then I think Wilf stepped up another level. 

“The second half of that season, he was electric. He was just running riot - carnage. He was scoring goals, winning penalties, assisting and he then took that into the play-offs. It was amazing to be a part of.”

Speaking with Williams for this feature, we take the chance to apologise for using his time to talk solely about somebody else. Before recalling Zaha’s play-off denouement, the Wales international cuts us off: the pair have been friends for over a decade, after all.

“He’s one player I can’t speak highly enough of,” Williams rebuts our apologies. “I’ve known him most of my life and he’s helped me in my career. If there’s one player I’d like to talk about, it would be Wilf. If you’d said anyone else, it might have been a bit more of a struggle. It’s a credit to talk about Wilf.”

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That settled, Williams turns to the play-offs, picking up on Palace’s penultimate game of the season: Brighton & Hove Albion away, the semi-final’s second leg.

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“He pretty much got us promoted himself,” the midfielder summarises. “It was an amazing night, won by a player that teams can only dream of having. And, luckily enough, we had that player on our team that night. He was the difference. 

“Those moments, they give me goosebumps because they’re life-changing, not only for him but for us as players. Playing in the Premier League is something I never thought I’d dream of, and that was down to Wilf at the end of the day.”

But Zaha had one more hurdle to leap before the season ended: a play-off final against Watford under Wembley's towering arch. One more game for the south Londoners, one last chance to define their history: the biggest match of his career.

Naturally, then, Zaha excelled.

Holloway recalls it: “I made a plan for Wilf to go with their worst defender - I said: ‘Keep running at him and you’ll get a penalty, mate. Just keep taking him on and he’ll get booked or sent off.’ 

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“They [Watford] moved him four times to try and get him away from Wilf: put him left-back, put him right-back, put him sweeper and I just said: ‘Stay there.’ My lads knew, so they all moved and we kept feeding Wilf. And what happened?”

Zaha span across the pitch before launching his fist into the air in celebration. The hallowed Wembley turf cut up into the sky around him as it dawned on Watford’s Marco Cassetti: he’d been duped, and Zaha had unlocked the door to the Premier League.

The final whistle would blow 15 minutes later and Zaha would find himself still on the Wembley turf, drained by 120 minutes of exhausting football but high on promoting his boyhood club to the top of the English game. He would be bombarded with teammates' embraces, his jaw open and his eyes wide and the pitch he had just made history on would become a pandemoniac arena of sound and colour, ecstasy and elation.

Then, through the throng of players and staff, the noise and the chaos, Jonny Williams would find his friend of over 10 years and call out: “Thank you for what you’ve done. Go and enjoy playing for Manchester United, you deserve it.”

Part three of Wilf's story - Portrait of an Icon: Zaha's hero's journey into Crystal Palace history - is now live on Hear from Yannick Bolasie, Roy Hodgson and the man himself on Zaha's Premier League triumphs and how he became a club icon.

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