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Wilfried Zaha: The Story So Far
CarlCon (DC United) 3 years ago
Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wilfried Zaha's journey to Old Trafford has been a long one, but at only twenty years old, the pacey, quick-footed winger still has a full career of top flight football in front of him.

Zaha made the move to England with his family at the age of four. By the age of eight, despite being a skinny lad, his talents were already obvious.

"There was nothing of him. He was very lean," says Aaron Smith, Zaha's school coach at Whitehorse Manor School in Croydon "...but he had immense strength in holding the ball. He had something that you just can't teach, a natural raw talent - his ability to take players on was unquestionable. He used to play central midfield and ran the show. I'm just very, very proud of him. He's still friends with the people he's known since he was a young boy. He's a lovable boy who's polite with good manners."

Smith also refers to the type of childhood Zaha could have had, if it wasn't for his positive attitude.

"Croydon's not an easy area - there were riots not long ago - and it's good to see someone who wants to work extremely hard getting on. Wilfried's not been born with everything on his plate but always wanted to be the best."

By the age of twelve, Crystal Palace's youth academy were on his tail. They immediately noticed his ball control, movement, and strength. Gary Issott, the director of Palace's youth academy talks us through Zaha's development: "Wilf was quite unassuming and a bit introverted when he came to us. We've had to be patient as he was a late developer physically. He's now an immense physical specimen. He's got fantastic feet in tight situations, he can sprint and can draw two or three defenders to him, then go beyond them. He's quite unique in that that he's got a terrific work ethic and can pick up the ball from deep positions, can play left side or right side and is comfortable in the middle."

With a good reputation for developing talent, Palace can boast players like Victor Moses, Wayne Routledge and Ben Watson as other players to spring from their academy to the Premier League. Issott continues: "We like to get them mixing with the older players. That's how they learn". And that's exactly what they did with Zaha.

In the 2009-10 season, he made a ten minute debut against Cardiff City under caretaker manager Paul Hart. The following season, he made a total of 44 appearances in all competitions for Palace, where his talents could be seen by all. Crystal Palace declared him their Young Player of the Season. However, it was the 2011-12 season where he really took off. Having only scored one goal in his first full season at the club, Zaha began his second with two goals in the League Cup against Crawley Town. The League Cup would turn out to be a terrific platform for the youngster, as he and Palace went on to defeat Manchester United 2-1, where Zaha himself had a great game, being a constant threat to United's defence, while wooing fans with some great touches and runs. It has been said that this performance was the one that put him on the radar of top clubs throughout England, with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, and United all monitoring his progress.

Later in the 2011-12 season, manager Dougie Freedman decided to play him in a more central role, moving him from the wing to play as a striker. Not only did he win Palace's Young Player of the Season award for the second year running, but he was also announced as The Football League's Young Player of the Year.

Zaha started the current 2012-13 season in good form, standing out despite poor performances from his team. Palace began stringing some wins together, and are now fighting for promotion to the Premier League. On January 25th, it was confirmed that Manchester United had signed Zaha, but he will remain at the club on loan for the remainder of the season. It is hoped that he will continue gaining match experience while trying to help the club he grew up with gain a much desired promotion.

On the day the news was officially announced, Zaha tweeted a "thank you" to his fans for their support, presumably aimed at both Palace and United supporters.

Stephen Browett, a chairman at Palace, suggests talents such as Zaha benefit a lot from being able to play in The Football League before moving on to bigger things, and had a lot of praise for the player he watched grow in his academy.

"It's been a great journey. He's just turned twenty but he's played around a hundred times which is an advantage for a promising footballer. He's got lots of experience of playing in front of big crowds and against men rather than boys. He's not the finished article yet. He is a work in progress, but his ball control is incredible. It's like the ball is glued to his feet sometimes. He can really mesmerise a full-back and skip past them."

Zaha has also played one international for England against Sweden, but could still go on to play for Ivory Coast unless he appears in a competitive international for England. Ivorian and Chelsea hero Didier Drogba is said to have been trying to get him to play for and represent his African birthplace by trying to convince him in the Africa Cup of Nations, but for now, Zaha remains available to England.

Zaha also made seven appearances for the England U19 and U21 sides before agreeing to play for the full team last November, so it would seem that England is where his international football career lies.

At the age of twenty, Wilfried Zaha has now been given the opportunity to show himself at the highest level for the next decade. At what is estimated to be over £15m in transfer fees, Alex Ferguson and Manchester United seem to think he can shine, but only time will tell.

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