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      David Ozoh: A life-changing year for one of our own


      A week ago, David Ozoh celebrated his 19th birthday – but he remains anything but your ordinary teenager.

      With Crystal Palace Academy due to enjoy a proud moment when the Under-21s host Jong PSV in the Premier League International Cup final at Selhurst Park on Wednesday night (15th May, KO: 19:00 BST) – an occasion Ozoh enjoyed when he started last year's final – we revisit the story of an U21s graduate who continues to do the club proud...

      To find out more about the final, and purchase tickets, please click here.

      This interview originally appeared in the Crystal Palace v Chelsea matchday programme. You can shop for programmes by clicking HERE.

      In the last 16 months, Ozoh should have been worrying about school or exams, the potential search for a first job or for a university place, the possibility of moving away from home or taking a year to travel around the world. Instead, he has played Premier League football at some of the country’s biggest stadiums.

      In short, his life has changed. “It’s different – it’s changed a lot,” he says, sitting down to reflect on an extraordinary personal year. “I can’t really go out in Croydon too much anymore. I’ve got to watch where I go and the things I do, but I’m enjoying life now. I was prepared for it.

      “I get people are in uni and stuff, and it’s crazy how I’m just playing in the Premier League. It’s just weird. I feel like our lives are just completely different. I get [friends] telling me stuff about school, and all I’m thinking about is who I’m playing the next week.

      “They’re telling me about assignments, and I just can’t relate.” We put it to Ozoh, gently, that it is unlikely they can relate to spending the weekend playing at Old Trafford, either. The point is well taken.

      “It’s good having friends outside of football, because sometimes you can get caught up in it too much. People on the outside can ease your brain out of it a little bit. They’re happy for me.”

      A far cry from the nervous scholar who made his way up to senior training, Ozoh is now relaxed in the first-team environment, and chats freely about his journey so far. His friendly manner has won him friends from a young age, and in an industry as cut-throat as football it can be invaluable to have allies on your side.

      He picks out a perfect example. “My school teacher still comes to all my games,” he says. “I’m grateful to him – he has known me for a long time. There was a school trial in Year 7 and I didn’t go, but someone must have told him there was a Palace player in the school.

      He came straight to me and said: ‘You have to play for my school team.’ He would actually work the games around my training days. If I didn’t have training, he would rearrange the matches. I think he changed like 30 or 40 matches just so I could play.”

      Ozoh repaid him in the immediacy by scoring in a penalty shoot-out to win the national cup, but his blossoming Premier League career is a far bigger reward in itself. It’s a peculiar period breaking into the first-team while balancing Academy commitments. The step up to the top level is not one to be taken lightly.

      Quote Icons

      This is me now. This is my time to show everyone what I can do.

      David Ozoh

      “I was 16 when I first joined the first-team, so I was quite young and the pace of the game was really different,” he remembers. “It was quite weird, because I would train with the first-team and then I wouldn’t really know what the Under-21s were doing in terms of tactics, so I would have to come in the day before a bit confused. But playing with Premier League players week in, week out improves you.”

      It is natural to feel a bit of imposter syndrome as a young player, but Ozoh remembers the sudden realisation that he was exactly where he belonged. “There was a moment – when I first came through it was tough, I’m not going to lie to you,” he says. “But towards the end of last season I trained in the first-team and I felt: ‘I’ve got the pact now.'

      "I scored a goal in the small-sided game. It was a one-two with Joa [Andersen] and I got it back and smashed it bottom bins. I just remember the reaction from all the players and the coaches [and thinking]: ‘This is me now. This is my time to show everyone what I can do’.”

      Ozoh is a confident young man, but he is the first to admit that a Premier League debut is a daunting occasion.

      On Saturday, 21st January 2023, Palace were taking on Newcastle United at Selhurst Park, and the game was goalless heading into the latter stages. Suddenly, the midfielder was told to prepare himself to enter the fray.

      “When I got told to warm up I was really nervous,” he remembers. “When the manager told me to take my jumper off I was thinking: ‘This is getting real now.’ I remember [Joel] Wardy giving me my shin pads, and I pulled my hand out and I was literally shaking. I was shaking and thinking: ‘Wow, this is really happening’.

      “But once I was on the pitch I was good. The welcome I got from the crowd was really good, man – I was surprised. I was just getting a few touches in, trying to get my confidence up. I’m just grateful to the fans for making me feel welcome that day.”

      We begin to list the stadiums that Ozoh has featured at since. Old Trafford, the Etihad, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge, St James’ Park - “Goodison Park,” he interjects. It’s clear this is a player relishing every opportunity.

      “Coming on in those big stadiums when the atmosphere is lit up, it just gives me the confidence to come on and be like: ‘You know what, I’ve done it at the Etihad, I’ve done it at this place. I can do it in these stadiums.’

      “It’s what you dream of, isn’t it? Those 60,000 to 70,000 seater stadiums.” Is there one which stands out? “Old Trafford,” he says without hesitation. “That one, because my dad supported [Manchester United]. He was there, so for him to watch me come on and see me against the team he supported must have been very emotional for him. He was really proud of me.”

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      It was a heart-to-heart with the fans, just the love and appreciation and everything.

      David Ozoh

      Coming on in the thick of the action is never easy, but to do it against the league’s very best in a hostile atmosphere is even harder. “It’s not easy coming on because you’re sitting down for 30 or 40 minutes, then you’re on for 10 minutes throughout the game. The Premier League is really fast, so coming on is not easy,” Ozoh explains.

      “The players are 10 times smarter as well, so you have to get up with the pace of the game. For me, once you get that first pass or first tackle, especially the tackle, I just feel comfortable again.

      “I like to play these games, to try to show people what I can do against a big team. Especially when I came on at the Etihad, it was a lot of pressure. To come on at 1-0 down, and then to go 2-0 down, to come back was the best thing ever.

      “The tackle on [Phil] Foden [to win the last-minute penalty], I remember that. Obviously no one really knows who I am in the league, so I’m not really respected in that sense – Foden just thought: ‘Yeah, let me just try to go past him!’

      “I’ve backed myself when it comes to one-v-one duels, so I was confident when he was coming up to me. Celebrating in front of the fans as well, after that, I got a really good picture. It was a good moment. It was a heart-to-heart with the fans, just the love and appreciation and everything.”

      Selhurst Park roared a firm tackle from David Ozoh against Sheffield United back in January, but might they be celebrating a first professional goal soon? Now 13 games into his senior career, the message is clear: watch this space…

      “That was one of my dreams, to do that,” he says of the crowd’s reaction to his challenge. “I just love playing for the club, for the badge, for the fans. I want to do it again and again and again. “I need to get that goal at Selhurst. Me and Jes [Rak-Sakyi] were talking; he said he would prefer to score away, because the limbs are just crazy, but I think I need a Selhurst Park goal.

      “Every time I come on, every time I’m walking to the dressing room or anything, I just feel the love from the fans so much. I feel like a goal is just to show my appreciation for them, and show the love that I have for them.”

      An Academy graduate scoring at Selhurst Park to send the home fans wild – it’s hard to think of anything a supporter could want more. Does he have a celebration planned? “I haven’t got one, but I have been thinking. I need to get one soon, because I feel like it’s coming soon. Everything happens for a reason, and I think I could score an important goal soon…”

      Tickets for the Premier League International Cup final on Wednesday (15th May, 19:00 BST) at Selhurst Park are available from just £1; click HERE to book.