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Academy graduate Alex Wynter shares revealing account of his life at Palace

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Alex Wynter graduated from the Crystal Palace Academy to make his first-team debut aged just 16 in 2010. A south Londoner, he was part of the club for 12 years and made two competitive appearances before leaving permanently to join Colchester United in 2015.

He played over 50 times in League One and Two for the U’s and currently competes with Eastleigh in the National League. Now aged 28, it’s been over 11 years since Wynter made his Palace bow.

Recently, he launched a blog, Fly On The Ball, through which he intends to "give fans an insight into the journey of professional football and help the next generation understand what they will face on their own journey”.

In it, he shares memories from the various unseen aspects of professional football. There’s no hero-to-zero drama to share, but Wynter’s is a classic and honest example of a career in football. He has written the below column exclusively for cpfc.co.uk to shed light on it.

You can see the Holmesdale floodlights from my mum and dad’s bedroom just off Davidson Road, where I grew up. My dad and grandad are big Palace fans, while my uncle was also a passionate supporter. My great uncle, John McGregor, played for the club in the 1930s, and with both sides of the family growing up around Thornton Heath, Palace has always been in the blood.

So it was a massive honour to get into the Academy aged nine.

When I first trialed with Palace I didn't want to leave my friends from Sunday league, so I held myself back and ended up not signing. But fortunately I got a second chance a few months later, and this time realised the size of the opportunity.

At that age I just loved football and would play at any opportunity: the street, garden, mum and dad’s front room; you name it. I wanted to succeed and be that player on TV, playing in front of thousands. At that age you think football is all glamour because you see only the best side - the lifestyle, the fame - and it’s so appealing, especially for a young player.

The first thing I’d tell my younger self starting in the academy now is: ‘Yes, you’re in an Academy fighting for a professional contract, playing the best of the best, but enjoy every minute. As you progress through the age groups, the pressures to win and perform intensify. By the time you’re in men’s football you’ll have to perform to win, with people’s jobs ultimately on the line. The enjoyment you have now will start to give way to those pressures, so just enjoy those early years.’

I did well as I progressed through the Academy and at 14 was pushed up to the Under-16s. By the end of that season I found myself playing for the youth team while still at school. At this point it was only Jonny Williams and me who were still there from when I first joined. People falling from the system is natural in youth football, but you feel like you’re trying to succeed for them, to make them, your friends and family proud.

By 16 I was permanently with the youth team and sometimes the Reserves, while occasionally training with the first-team. I was part of a successful Academy group who came to the fore at that time: I played with Ibra Sekajja, Wilfried Zaha, Jonny Williams and Kyle De Silva, and the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Moses, Sean Scannell, Kieron Cadogan, Kieran Djilali, James Comley and Matthew Parsons are all slightly older.

This was 2009/10, so we were entering administration and a few players left to help fund the club. After a session with the first-team over Christmas, I was told I’d be travelling with the first-team to Sheffield Wednesday a few days later. I didn’t feel much fear or pressure at that age but found myself sat on a coach among seasoned pros like Claude Davis, Darren Ambrose, Shaun Derry, and Clint Hill, which as a young boy was an experience! I’d watched these players over the years and wished to be in their shoes. Now I was part of a matchday squad with them.

When we got to the hotel I was given a room on my own, which I found odd at the time because you’d normally be with someone else. I asked why at dinner and learned I was too young to share with another player; it was a safeguarding law! When the game came round the next day, I was one of just four substitutes - with no goalkeeper - and didn’t think for one second I’d end up playing.

The match went by and we took the lead through Calvin Andrew. Then, with a few minutes remaining, someone turned around and told me to get ready. Whether it was Mick Jones or Keith Curle I couldn’t tell you - it was all a blur; I thought I was only there for the experience! So I stripped off and came on at Hillsborough to play in the FA Cup third round: one of the country’s most historic stadiums, in football’s most historic competition. It made me the second youngest player in Palace history, and I’m extremely proud of that.

My dad, girlfriend and one of my best friends got the train up that day and were able to watch me make my professional debut. Dad always tells me that he was sat behind an avid Palace fan, who, as some fans do, was bantering, cheering and saying who was slacking etc. While I was waiting to come on, Dad tapped him on the shoulder and told him: ‘Look, don’t say a word about him. He’s my son and he’s making his debut, so give him a chance.’

As a player, you expect to take some stick, but people forget that you have family in the crowd who have to sit there and listen to it. Thankfully this fan kept his thoughts to himself - even though I was on for only a few moments - and Dad remains very proud of that day, especially with it being for the club he supports.

Thankfully making my debut at that age didn’t change me. I’ve always been humble and hate being the centre of attention. I’m naturally quite quiet, so don’t like the bravado that comes with success. My instinct at the time was to brush the accomplishment off and focus on making it the beginning of my career, but it’s only now I realise that I could and should have soaked it all up.

You start to understand that you need to enjoy every accomplishment when you begin to struggle and see the other side of football. For me, that was a loan to Portsmouth aged 20. I’d had loans to Eastbourne, Sutton and Colchester as I stepped into men’s football, but Portsmouth was by far my biggest challenge.

It’s an incredibly well supported club and an amazing one to play for. Stepping out in front of 15,000 every other week at that stage of my career was incredible. But at that point I’d only been used to highs and no real struggles, so when things started going the other way, I didn’t know how to deal with it.

As a team we were struggling and I didn’t have the best time on the pitch. I started to look on social media, where of course I found abuse which I took personally. I was living alone with no family nearby and didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone, because I was in football and no one else was.

In my head I couldn’t speak to anyone within the game because I thought struggling was a sign of weakness, which is a common misconception in football. So I tried to keep a brave face and brush it all off. Looking back I was at a real low point, struggling to cope mentally, and know that I should have spoken to someone.

What I do know is that if I’d turned to someone at Palace or within my family, they’d have been there for me. It was my own stubbornness and insecurities that prevented that. I didn’t want to admit I was suffering, but it could have been a different story if I had.

This isn’t a tale of woe. It’s just football and growing up. Ideally, any young players reading this will think: “I’m struggling, but it’s not the end and won’t always be like this. Let me go and speak to someone.”

I believe everything works out the way it’s meant to and maybe all my experiences have brought me to this point, where I am able to share with the next generation. Whether that’s showing them how I managed to achieve my boyhood dream, or to help them where I struggled, I believe it will benefit a lot of aspiring professionals.

This is why I started Fly On The Ball. Fans and those outside the game aren’t always aware of what the journey is really like, they see only what is shown. Young players want the lifestyle and perks of being a professional footballer, but aren’t prepared for the realities. People in general have a preconception of a footballer’s lifestyle and I want to give those people an honest, real view into what the journey is like.

I don’t tend to describe events as ‘regrets’ and wouldn’t change a moment in my career, no matter how tough it was. But I would love to have gone on to play competitively in front of the fans at Selhurst Park. That’s one real wish of mine. I spent my whole youth career with the club and would have been honoured to make many more appearances for them.

Although I played in the FA Cup, the League Cup following promotion, and was on the bench numerous times at home, I never got a chance to play in front of a packed Selhurst. I had some amazing nights at under the lights in the Youth Cup and was on the bench for that Danny Butterfield masterclass against Wolves, but I would love to have gone on and made a name for myself at the club. Who wouldn’t?!

I didn’t ever want to leave, but in 2015 decided it was best for my career. I needed to be playing men’s football and when Palace were promoted to the Premier League, I knew deep down that my opportunity had gone. But I’ve always followed the club and to see players like Wilf and Jonny go on and do incredible things has been amazing.

Hearing the fans back in the stadium has been great. I was watching the Tottenham game the other week and the atmosphere actually gave me goosebumps just sat at home. I know how incredible that ground can be and although I haven’t been down for a few years because of my own career, Palace will always be the club I refer to as home.

It will always be the club that gave me an opportunity and it will always be somewhere I’d love to return to, because of the impact it’s had on my life as a person and as a player.

I love the club, just now it’s from afar. I am so glad to see them going from strength to strength. It’s great for the club and fans firstly, but more importantly for the good it’s doing in the community.

You can’t help but fall in love with Crystal Palace, especially when you spend 12 years there as an Eagle.

You can read more from Alex via Fly On The Ball here, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram here.