From scoring two vital goals to send Crystal Palace to Wembley in 2013 to making his first appearance for England and signing for Manchester United, the rise of Wilfried Zaha has been eventual to say the least. Having made his debut In March 2010 for his boyhood club Crystal Palace, the winger has enjoyed success in all six of his seasons at the club.
Over the last couple of years, Zaha has thrived working under the likes of Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce and after signing a new five-year deal in May 2017, his fairy-tale story from Croydon schoolboy to international star is set to continue in SE25 as the club embark on their fifth straight season in the Premier League.
South London Revolution
When Wilfred Zaha made his Crystal Palace debut as an 18-year-old winger against Cardiff City in March 2010, the club was known for producing talented youngsters. He was set to follow in the footsteps of Victor Moses and Nathaniel Clyne and Zaha, and signed a two-year deal in April of that year.
Following the club’s near liquidation that summer which forced the sale of several high-profile players, Zaha went from hot prospect to first-team in a matter of months. He started the club’s first game of the 2010-11 season alongside fellow academy prospects Kieron Cadogan, Nathaniel Clyne and Kieran Djilali, scoring his only goal of the season in a 3-2 home win over Leicester. He went on to make 44 appearances in all competitions that season.
The following season, Zaha really kicked off, making 48 appearances, scoring nine goals and contributing a further five assists. The winger played a vital role in the side’s League Cup run to the semi-final, assisting Darren Ambrose for his wonder strike against Manchester United. In March 2012, Zaha’s hard work was recognised as he won the Football League Player of the Year award and attracted interest from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United.
Promotion to the Premier League
Wilfred Zaha started the 2012-13 season as one of the club’s key players following the sale of Darren Ambrose and Clyne. He enjoyed a year he will never forget, earning to promotion to the top flight with Palace and a move to Old Trafford, along with the small matter of winning his first cap for England.
His season started off brightly, forming a pivotal relationship with 30-goal hero Glenn Murray and fellow trickster Yannick Bolasie in a frightening front three that laid the foundations for eventual promotion. With four goals already to his name by early October, Zaha was rewarded with an England call-up, making his debut in a win over Sweden in November 2012.
Palace endured a difficult end to the 2012-13 season, going from title candidates to just scraping into play-offs on the final day of the season. Following a 0-0 stalemate with arch-rivals Brighton in the first leg, the Eagles travelled to the Amex as big underdogs and with top scorer Glenn Murray out injured, it was up to Zaha to steal the show on the south coast.
With the home side getting closer and closer to the breaking the deadlock, the Eagles stunned the Seagulls in the 69th minute when Yannick Bolasie’s in-swinging cross was headed in by Zaha. With the home side stunned, in the 88th minute, the winger turned his marker in the box and produced a thunderous strike to send the Eagles to Wembley.
Two weeks later, Ian Holloway led his side out in the play-off final against Watford and with Murray still out, it was up to Zaha to produce for one last time in a Palace shirt. With the game locked at 0-0, in the 105th minute Zaha won a penalty which Kevin Phillips duly slotted home to send the Eagles to the top flight.
After a fantastic three years at Crystal Palace which saw the winger move from hot prospect to key player, interest in Zaha had risen over the years and in January 2013, Manchester United signed the attacker on a five-and-a-half year contract for a fee rumoured to be around £15 million. He was loaned back to the Eagles for the final part of the 2012-13 season as part of the transfer, but on his debut for his new club in the Community Shield victory over Wigan, he played 61 minutes and won his first major honour in club football.
Chances after this were limited, however, and he was deemed surplus to requirements by David Moyes. In January 2014, he was loaned out to Cardiff City in attempt to gain more first-team football. The winger went on to make 12 appearances for the Bluebirds, including a game against former club Crystal Palace where the Eagles ran out 3-0 winners.
The following summer, Zaha moved back to Palace, signed on loan by Neil Warnock. On the final day of the January transfer window, he made his move back to South London permanent on a five-and-a-half year contract.
In his first full season back with the club under Alan Pardew, Zaha recreated the form that had the Red Devils after his signature in the first place, making 34 appearances throughout the campaign. He was rewarded with the club’s Player of the Year award.
At Christmas, the club found themselves in the top six of the league, and although form in the league dropped throughout the campaign, the club had a run to the FA Cup final, in which Zaha played in every round. Despite this success, he only scored two goals and contributed one assist, drawing some criticism for his lack of end product.
The following season, the winger produced one of his best seasons for the club yet, scoring seven goals in the league, providing nine assists, and retaining the club’s Player of the Year award. The Eagles endured a tough start to the season and Pardew found himself axed from the club with the side just above the bottom three. Sam Allardyce was called in to save the season.
From a personal point of view, this was by far the best season of Zaha’s career. He had silenced his critics and performed to the top of his game. Having helped the club secure survival, he signed a new five-year contract to squash fears that he might be off to Tottenham. Regardless of who manages the club this season, he is sure to be one of the club’s biggest threats and form a devastating partnership with Andros Townsend and Christian Benteke.
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