Wilfried Zaha is possibly the proudest graduate Crystal Palace’s Academy has ever produced, and today he was present as the new facilities which will help create the next Zaha were opened to the publicly.
The Palace winger viewed the redeveloped site with his teammates, former teammates and ex-managers, before watching Gareth Southgate and Steve Parish officially open the buildings.
Speaking with Palace TV inside the Academy dome, Zaha said: “It’s amazing. Obviously would have been nice to have this when I was coming through the ranks. It’s nice to see the club’s invested in the Academy the way they have; it’s a joy to see.”
Today Zaha is one of the most senior players in Palace’s squad, particularly when joined by players aged 16 from across Copers Cope Road.
He has the likes of Jesurun Rak-Sakyi, David Omilabu and Jack Wells-Morrison competing with the first-team, and revealed how the players approach younger prospects.
“When they come with us they just have to understand how demanding it is. When I was going through it was about biding your time and watching other players. Now it’s if you have the quality at the age of 16 you get thrown in the deep end. It’s not like us back in the day.
“When youngsters come with us and train it’s like: this is what’s expected of you. There’s no time to be babied. They come and it’s like: you’re first-team now, there’s no time for me to treat you like a baby. I expect the best from you. If you want to be the best you have to expect the best from yourself.”
Zaha joined the club over 15 years ago, when its youth programme operated from portacabins and damaged pitches.
He recalled those formative years, and compared them with the site he stood on today:
“It was nothing like this. We didn’t have pitches like this at all and the standard wasn’t this high. Now you can actually compete with the other elite clubs because it’s all the players back in the day when you go to Arsenal and Tottenham and Manchester it’s cool because you have all these facilities.
“But now I feel like Palace have one of the best academies in recruitment and stuff and now they have the facilities to go with it. It’s a different class now.
“I’ll be honest, when you’re young the places you train at and the facilities make a massive difference because when you come you want to feel special. I feel like players coming here now have the wow factor and that will drive them into wanting to be part of everything here.
“Academy football I enjoyed. It only got difficult when you get to Under-18s, Under-21s or Reserves because those are the moments where it’s make or break: either you make it to first-team and Reserves or you don’t. During that whole period of the Academy I enjoyed it because with Palace there was such a togetherness and that sums up Palace, that whole family vibe. I enjoyed my Academy periods, all of them.”