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      George Ndah: Writing history at Selhurst Park


      We caught up with Camberwell-born forward George Ndah – who celebrates his 49th birthday today (23rd December, 2023) – over the phone on the eve of Palace's game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was a calm Saturday morning – well, for us, at least.

      The now-49-year-old spoke with the same ebullience and sheer likeability he possessed as a youthful Crystal Palace Academy graduate. But these days, his responsibilities extend far beyond those he held in his record-breaking days as a young footballer – more on those in a moment.

      The former forward’s responsibilities no longer centre on just how he, and his Palace teammates, perform, but also how over 200 aspiring artists in south London fare under an altogether different spotlight.

      Camberwell born-and-raised, family man Ndah currently assists wife Nicole with running an award-winning performing arts academy in Surrey. “It’s grown so quickly – and it’s completely different to football!” he laughs.

      “It’s singing, all forms dancing, theatre, competitions… everything! Two of my three daughters go to the school, so my household – as you can imagine – is all-singing and all-dancing! I’m learning pretty quickly.

      “I’m helping out because the school’s grown so quickly, so we give thanks for that. Life is good. The most important thing for me is my family is well – so everything else is a bonus.”

      As you can imagine, time is scant these days for the father-of-four to return to his former clubs.

      Nevertheless, Ndah retains great affection for the rather different sort of Academy he himself found his calling in, having been pivotal to the Palace side which reached the 1992 FA Youth Cup final so often referred to by eventual victors Manchester United.

      Ndah playing for Palace in winter 1995
      Ndah playing for Palace in winter 1995

      Signing professional terms that summer, a place in Palace history beckoned the following winter; the young Ndah – then aged 17 years, 11 months and five days old – became the club’s youngest-ever Premier League player… and at Anfield, no less.

      “My youth-team days were brilliant,” Ndah recalls. “I rose really quickly to becoming a pro, and then into the first-team… it all happened so quickly under Steve Coppell and Alan Smith… you can’t imagine how that feels, especially when it’s your dream as a child to become a footballer. They’re memories you never forget.

      “I remember it very clearly. Back then, the youth-team players did jobs like cleaning boots or tidying the training ground, but Steve Coppell started to bring me to the first-team on overnight games. I was doing odd jobs on the bus, making the teas, so I just thought it was for my experience.

      “But on that particular day [in November 1992], I went into the changing room and saw my shirt was on the wall – I was one of the substitutes! Nobody had told me – I found out there and then. To be a sub at Anfield… it was unbelievable.

      “Even in the tunnel, before the game, it was nuts. Obviously you’re concentrating because you’ve got a job to do, but you have a little glance to your right and John Barnes – my idol growing up – was stood there with his Diadora boots… I just couldn’t believe it.”

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      I was running towards the away end with the Palace fans, and hearing their response whenever I did something positive… it was an unbelievable feeling

      George Ndah

      It would get even better for Ndah 73 minutes in – albeit with his side five goals down at that point. “I was up against Rob Jones, England’s right-back at the time – and Steve just said to me ‘the game is done George, so just go on and do your stuff – what you’ve been doing in the youth-team and the reserves. Play forward and attack – enjoy it.’ I did!

      “I ran at Rob [Jones] a couple of times and got past him once or twice. I was running towards the away end with the Palace fans, and hearing their response whenever I did something positive… it was an unbelievable feeling.”

      Ndah's Palace squad photo in 1996
      Ndah's Palace squad photo in 1996

      South London has a well-earned reputation for being a conveyor belt of pure footballing talent, and one well harnessed by Palace’s Academy – but it would take just over 30 years for Ndah’s record to be broken.

      At the tender age of just 17 years, eight months and 15 days, David Ozoh’s late appearance in the 0-0 draw with Newcastle United in January saw the midfielder surpass Ndah as the club’s youngest Premier League debutant – a record which had stood since the competition’s very first formative months.

      “I saw that!” Ndah exclaims. “I was like ‘wow’ – 30 years!

      "I was shocked. First and foremost, it amazed me it had been so long, with the number of brilliant players who have come through at Palace. I was surprised it hadn’t been broken earlier than that.

      “I was shocked, but also delighted for the young man. For him, now, all you can say is to keep patience and keep doing the same things he’s been doing. He’s obviously done really well to make his debut at such a young age and the club clearly think highly of him.

      “If he keeps working hard, learning from the players around him and listening to the manager, his chance will come again – and he’ll be ready to take it. He must be a very good player.”

      Ndah was less surprised to see Palace’s Academy secure Category 1 status – awarded to the country’s elite academies – three years ago, nor the stunning £20m redevelopment to its facilities in recent years.

      “When Dougie [Freedman] first came in as Sporting Director, he told me there were going to be changes – improvements to the Academy, to the infrastructure…

      “He’s been true to his word. Palace, as we know, is in a great catchment area, and now you’ve got the Category 1 Academy, everything is in place for the club to go from strength to strength.

      “The fans should be really happy and proud of the way their club is, and the direction it’s going in. We keep looking forward, improving and getting bigger each year. It’s good to see, it really is.”

      Pacey, skilful and persistent, Ndah would go on to represent Palace with acclaim, becoming the club’s then-second-youngest Premier League scorer against Leicester City two years later.

      In the summer of 1997, with 11 goals in 101 Palace games to his name, he departed south London for Swindon in search of more regular first-team football.

      After two highly successful years – including a goal 12 minutes into his Robins debut, and an international call-up for Nigeria he was sadly ruled out of through injury – he made the move to Wolves at 24-years-old.

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      At Palace I was still young, still growing up, whereas at Wolves I was a man... I had more know-how

      George Ndah

      Sadly, however, the forward was denied the chance to make an equally impressive immediate impact in the Midlands – but his voice carries no undertone of regret, merely contemplation.

      “I’d been there for a week and, in my third game, in the Black Country derby against West Bromwich Albion, I broke my leg in a tackle with a good friend of mine, Matt Carbon” – adding: “these things happen in life.”

      “I was out for a year with that. I was riddled with a lot of injuries which was disappointing, but when I did play, things went really well. My best memory of Wolves was winning promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 22 years. It was a great achievement – to be part of that team is something that can’t be taken away from me.

      “You know Wolves are a big club, but until you get there, you don’t realise quite how big. Their fans are very hard-working, fair and honest, so even if you weren’t playing well, they’d back you if you were giving a hundred percent. But they didn’t suffer fools lightly!

      “To use an old football cliché, my career was a game of two halves! Palace and Wolves were two halves of my life. At Palace I was still young, still growing up, whereas at Wolves I was a man. I became a father. I had more know-how – but for me, they were both great experiences.”

      But does Ndah still have time to watch Palace, or is it the more theatrical sort of performance which draws his attention these days?

      “I’m a football fan, so I’ll always have a special lookout for the team. But I like to watch from afar, quietly, and let these new guys do their stuff!

      “I’m just happy to know that Palace is in great hands.”