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      Zaha's final Crystal Palace programme interview


      His legacy secured as one of the club’s greatest-ever players and his mural affirming the pride of south London, Wilfried Zaha – in his final interview with the Crystal Palace matchday programme, printed on the last day of 2022/23 and republished here – talked profound realisations, stepping up as a leader, and enjoying his chance to shape the Eagles' next generation.

      How does one try to distil the essence of Wilfried Zaha into just a few words? It’s like trying to capture the importance of Mr Rolls to Mr Royce, or of Eric Morecambe to Ernie Wise. Palace and Zaha have been separated before and yet they are inseparable; they are iconic names in and of themselves, but together have achieved so much more.

      The distillation of Zaha at Selhurst Park could be boiled down to a few sounds. The clatter of plastic seats as thousands rise to their feet in anticipation. The throaty, hoarse ‘GO ON’ from the stands as the chance grows clearer. The split-second silence as the ball races through the air, almost in slow-motion. And then the explosion of noise as the Palace No. 11 wheeled away, leaving the net bulging and the opposition goalkeeper sprawled in his wake.

      But to sum him up in just those terms feels too simple, so why not let Zaha do it himself? “There are a few words you can associate with me,” he said earlier this year. “One of the main ones is: ‘Passionate’. However I feel, I will express how I feel.” Passionate is right – it’s how he conducted himself over a long and successful career in south London.

      “What I do when I step on the pitch is try to stamp my authority on each game,” he explained. “Obviously, that’s going to have an influence on your team if you try to do that every single game. I will try to show that I'm one of the better players each game – every game – year after year after year. I didn’t think I would have the impact that I did, but I'm happy because I tried to keep the same standards every single time I played.”

      Don’t let that last sentence trick you into thinking Zaha has anything but the very highest levels of self-confidence. Plenty of players can have a very good season, and many can even have two or three. To be a standout performer for a period approaching a decade takes a different level of talent, dedication, self-belief and – you guessed it – passion.

      Zaha travelled with the first-team before making his debut. The players he looked up to were from the ‘old-school’: tough, demanding and with the most bulletproof of mentalities. Paddy McCarthy, Shaun Derry, Julian Speroni. There was plenty of room to grow, but no forgiveness for anything less than 100 percent. When he came on for his debut against Cardiff City in March 2010 at just 17-years-old, he had to show that he belonged.

      “I travelled so many times with the team, gaining experience, watching the team and how hard and physical it was,” Zaha remembered. “But it didn’t deter me. I still wanted to get out there and show what I could do.

      “I was obviously very anxious, and just wanted to be able to show off my talent. I remember that the week leading up to that game, the manager was asking me: ‘Are you ready?’ From there I thought I may get an opportunity.

      “When he called me up I remember on matchday I just couldn’t stop smiling, because it was all I ever wanted. It was a dream come true to be able to actually just get on the pitch and play.” Play he did. It was his sole appearance that season, but it marked the changing of the guard. At Hillsborough two months later, Palace survived from the brink of extinction; on the opening day of the following season, he started and scored. The rocky 2000s were over, and the Wilfried Zaha era had begun.

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      When I was younger I was very skill-based, taking on players, but now I feel like it’s just: move past someone and have a shot straight away.

      Wilfried Zaha

      Palace would change enormously in the decade and more since, but Zaha would remain the club’s standout player – a sign of his adaptability. “I feel like it’s changed in terms of the way we play,” he said. “It’s totally different. We’ve got more players who are more silky players out wide.

      “We’ve got a load of ball-playing defenders. Over the years, the game changed. Now you’ve got defenders who are so good on the ball, so before it was like you could close down the defender and he may panic and move the ball out, but now you’ve got centre-backs that could play in midfield half of the time!

      “I feel like our team has progressed with the talent all over the pitch, really. I feel like that’s the main thing I’ve seen over the years.” And yet, he remained crucial. It meant changing his own game too. “Me personally, I feel like I’ve just become a bit more effective in my game,” Zaha explained. “When I was younger I was very skill-based, taking on players, but now I feel like it’s just: move past someone and have a shot straight away.

      “That’s my mentality every single game – it’s to try and score a goal every game. It’s difficult because sometimes I can’t. Some games just don’t allow you to do what you want to do, but my mentality is to get at least get three or four shots off every game and try to score a goal. Me before, it was just try to get nutmegs and stuff like that, which is nothing! You come off the pitch and think ‘am I trying to make a YouTube compilation?’ When I think about it, no one cares!”

      It’s quite a profound realisation and is a change in strategy that speaks to a holistic outlook on how the game is played – a recognition of what benefits the team, rather than his own reputation. It is one he has passed on to the younger Palace players around him. “When I speak to the youngsters, like Michael and Eze, it’s like: ‘No one cares about the YouTube videos’ – at the end of the day, is your name on the scoresheet?

      “You can play horrid, but at the end of the day, if you’ve scored, that’s it. When they show Match of the Day, that’s it – that’s all that matters! That is what I try to tell them every single time: when you get your opportunity, go past them and score, go past them and shoot, because that’s the only way you’ll be remembered.”

      What became clear was Zaha’s increasing role as a leader within the dressing room. He still felt as young as ever – “I’ve had some good times, man – I can’t believe I'm 30!” – but he recognised that he has an immense amount of wisdom to offer. “Seeing players born in 2000… it’s like: what do you get up to?!

      “It’s enjoyable. We compete with the little things. We’re doing finishing in training and I’m like: ‘Let’s see goals!’ It’s nice to be part of the generation coming up with so much talent. I can still add my little bit, speak to them, and then they give me their insight into different things. It’s all about perspectives, because they could see something in a different way that I hadn’t seen before. I’m just glad I could be part of the new generation of ballers that are coming through.”

      That willingness to share, but also an enthusiasm to learn from those of a different generation, are tell-tale signs of a player who grew into his seniority – and it didn't go unnoticed. Zaha captained Crystal Palace on numerous occasions, including in 2022/23 under Roy Hodgson, and it is a role from which he drew immense pride.

      “One moment, a proud moment for me – and this was nothing to do with me being at Manchester United before – was captaining the club at Man Utd away,” he recalled. “The good thing is we managed to win and I scored two goals that day, but who I played for aside, me being the captain of a club I’d been at for so many years was obviously a proud moment for me.”

      After all these years, there is one bond which will always be unbreakable: Zaha’s connection with those lucky few who got to watch him produce moments of magic every week. “Me, personally, I feel like Palace have the best fans in the Premier League,” he said, looking back on his time in SE25 with pride.

      “It’s one team that supports you no matter what. The fans support you through thick and thin. We’ve had so many games where, even us, we know we could’ve done better, but you’re not getting abuse – they genuinely care not just about you as a player, but the messages I get show they care about you as a human being. They care about you off the pitch.

      “Football gives so much to people, so me being here, it’s like a proper family. That’s the only way I can really put to being part of Crystal Palace for this long – being around with people here, people that work here, people that love the club, they’re good people. It’s no real surprise. If I could be anywhere for 13 years, Palace is one of the best places I could've been at.”

      Zaha was right: football gives so much to people. His tone was one of gratitude, but his modesty was misplaced.

      Football has given so much to all of us, and when it comes to Crystal Palace, nobody has given more than Wilfried Zaha.