Welcome to Last Word on Football’s ‘Returning Players’ series. In this edition, we take a look at Wilfried Zaha.
He played 110 games during his first spell at Selhurst Park, starring in Crystal Palace’s promotion to the Premier League over the 2012/13 season. Zaha joined Manchester United at the end of that campaign, making just two appearances for the Red Devils before returning to south-east London in 2014.
Returning Players – Wilfried Zaha
First Spell at Crystal Palace
Growing up in Thornton Heath, after his family relocated to London from Ivory Coast, Wilfried Zaha came through the ranks at the Crystal Palace academy before making his professional debut for the Eagles in 2010.
Once the club was no longer threatened by liquidation, thanks to a buy-out led by Steve Parish at the end of Zaha’s first season, the stage was set for the new kid on the block.
After being mired in the lower reaches of the Championship for three seasons, Palace burst into life under Ian Holloway. Glenn Murray’s 30 goals made him Holloway’s talisman that term, but he was ably backed up by a youthful Zaha, who netted on eight occasions.
The Ivorian international’s form piqued the interest of Sir Alex Ferguson, who swooped to sign Zaha for Manchester United in January 2013, in a £10 million deal that allowed him to stay at Crystal Palace until the conclusion of that campaign.
As Palace’s record sale at the time, a bright future for Zaha at Old Trafford was eagerly anticipated.
Teams That Zaha Played for in Between
Zaha’s first matchday experience as a Manchester United player could not have gone much better. He was named in the starting lineup, played 61 minutes and collected his first major honour on debut, appearing in the Community Shield.
However, that would be the teenage sensation’s highlight at United. He made only one more appearance all season under new manager David Moyes, which came in the League Cup. The man who was said to be key to a new Moyes dynasty that would arise in Manchester was ostracised, cut adrift and eventually cast away to Cardiff City on loan.
The handling of Zaha serves as a chronological parallel to Moyes’ tenure: it started rosily, laden with optimism before stagnating and, despite the plea that time would be the elixir, was ruthlessly cut short with haste.
Zaha fared little better at Cardiff either, failing to score in 12 appearances. It looked like, in the space of a season, he would go from teenage prodigy to wasted talent.
Return to Palace
Having suffered relegation whilst in south Wales, Zaha was keen for a fresh start.
Fortunately for Zaha, Palace were prepared to give him another chance and came calling to snap him up on loan for the 2014/15 season.
Whilst not being the most clinical of players (a trait he has failed to alter throughout his career), Zaha’s sumptuous skill and flamboyant flair were enough to convince the Eagles to re-sign him on a permanent basis that February.
The Holmesdale Fanatics and all of Crystal Palace were happy to welcome their Wilfried back with open arms, and he has certainly re-payed since returning to SE25.
A prolific player up there with the world’s best he may not be, but Zaha has certainly been a talismanic figure for the Eagles, becoming almost synonymous with the club’s second spell in the Premier League, which is nearing a decade.
After an Undoubted Impact, What Will Wilfried Zaha’s Next Move Be?
Zaha has earned the status of cult hero at Crystal Palace in the six years since he was welcomed home.
Previous questions surrounding the player used to be on the subject of whether Zaha alone would be good enough to keep Palace in the top flight.
But times have changed. The Eagles have evolved into an almost ever-present Premier League force, never consistently dragged into a dog fight near the bottom three.
Now, the question is: Has Zaha become too good for his boyhood club? On the evidence of Palace’s refusal to sell to other top tier rivals, with Arsenal and Everton being shooed away by an £80 million price tag, it seems that the Selhurst hierarchy think not.
Zaha himself previously indicated a desire to play European football, but has not come to blows in public with Parish or Roy Hodgson after he was not allowed to leave two summers ago.
Although Palace could yet turn a new page, with a stadium redevelopment rumoured to be top of the club’s wish list, you get the feeling that Zaha will not remain a one club man throughout his career.
Whatever his fate, the connection between player and club after a dream move to Manchester United never quite worked out proves Wilfried Zaha and Crystal Palace were simply meant to be reunited.