EXCLUSIVE: I'm ready for the Premier League, says United, Arsenal and Spurs target Zaha
22:39 GMT, 29 December 2012
Perched on the sofa, Wilfried Zaha resembles any normal 20-year-old being gently ribbed by his older brother, smiling widely but also wondering what is coming next. ‘Remember the time you refused to come swimming with us because you had training the next morning’ teases Kel, one of Zaha’s eight siblings. ‘Even Mum was telling you to come, we thought you were being a killjoy. But you knew the dedication you needed, and you were right – at only nine years old.’
The warm family scene in south London is the calm before the storm. In just 48 hours on New Year’s Day, the starting pistol in the January transfer window will be fired and, from relative anonymity, Zaha, of Crystal Palace and England, will become the most talked about player in the country with clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham chasing his signature.
King of the Palace: Wilfried Zaha relaxes at his south London home
If Zaha is nervous about being thrust into the limelight, he is doing well to hide it. Unlike his footballing idol Ian Wright, a natural extrovert who thrived on a bling-bling image, Zaha is quiet by nature, the eighth of nine children who came to England from the Ivory Coast as it was about to erupt into civil war, and sends a portion of his 3,000-a-week wages at Selhurst Park to charity projects back home.
But far from being intimidated if Palace get an offer they cannot refuse in January from Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger or Andre Villas-Boas, Zaha would relish the challenge, fuelled by a desire to join his friends and England team-mates Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling in the big time.
‘I’m not a teenager any more,’ he says firmly. ‘I’ve played more than 100 first-team games and this year is crucial to develop my football career. I want to establish myself in the Premier League and in international football.
‘I’ve played a lot in the Championship so having that new challenge in the Premier League, where everyone wants to be, would be great. To be honest, if I had the chance in January and Palace agreed, it’s something I’d want to go for.’
Hotshot: Zaha lashes home against Huddersfield last weekend
Zaha’s progress has been staggering; quick, direct and with enough tricks and ‘skills’ to give any defender twisted blood. Ferguson had a front-row seat when he tormented Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and twins Rafael and Fabio to help Palace to a shock League Cup win at Old Trafford last season. This term Zaha has led Palace, pre-season favourites for relegation, towards the top of the Championship with their fans creating a new chant in his honour: ‘He’s just too good for you.’
His England debut against Sweden in November made him the first lower division outfield player since David Nugent in 2007 to win a cap. That experience opened Zaha’s eyes. If he wants to be selected by Roy Hodgson for the Brazil friendly in February and World Cup qualifiers the following month, he may have to step up in his club football.
‘The little bits we did in training with England were more intense than I’d been used to,’ he admitted.
‘Playing with Premier League players tested me, it was a great challenge but I felt comfortable in that company. Steven Gerrard’s shooting made the biggest impression on me. I don’t know how he got that amount of sheer power, it was impressive!’
International recognition: Zaha appeared for England against Sweden in November
Significantly, his best friend with England is Sterling, two years younger but already with a long-term contract at Liverpool in the bag. ‘I have a good relationship with Raheem, he’s 18 and I can joke around with him. We have that understanding,’ said the Palace player.
‘There was an article where people thought I was comparing myself to Ronaldo and Messi.
‘He was bantering with me about it, saying, ‘‘You think you are better than those guys!” We laughed about it, because he just knew that wasn’t my personality at all really.
‘We’re on PlayStation, and I wish him good luck before games and things.
‘Some of my friends, who play in the Premier League, joke around and ask me what is taking me so long. I just tell them I will be there at some stage.’
The Zaha story shows that England has become as much a land of opportunity as the USA. His parents, Tiende and Delphine, arrived in London with all their children, including four-year-old Wilf in tow, to seek a better and safer life.
Rolling back the years: Zaha as a seven-year-old
Tiende worked for the railway to support his family. The children all spoke English in school and French at home, and Delphine became active in the local church.
It became clear from an early age that Wilfried possessed special talent with a football. He started training with Palace at eight, and Dad ensured he did not blow the chance.
‘He would take me training whatever the weather. If the car was acting up, we would take public transport,’ recalled Zaha.
‘We had an old Rover Metro that cost 500 and was always breaking down. When I was 11, I had to get out the car and give it a push to get home for dinner.
‘Luckily, I was wearing a club tracksuit and some Palace fans spotted me.
‘One of them joked, “I will help you because you are a Palace player”. I wish I knew where he was now – I’d give him two match tickets! He got the car started and we were off.
Wing wizard: Zaha takes on Nottingham Forest's backline on Saturday
‘My parents helped me so much. Some other kids were as good as me, but they wouldn’t turn up to training or their parents wouldn’t drop them off. I’ve seen so many wasted talents. Now Mum and Dad are in their sixties and thinking about going home to retire. All I want to do until then is give them the best, do whatever I can in football to make them feel proud.’
Of course, Zaha is a Palace player and until chairman Steve Parish and manager Ian Holloway receive an offer they think acceptable, he will remain at Selhurst Park.
Parish has reportedly valued the winger-cum-forward at 20million, a steep opening gambit for a player with no top-flight experience. But the moment of truth will come if any of the suitors offers a more realistic 10m, particularly as the Londoners are currently in a play-off position. Parish admitted on Saturday that Palace may do business. ‘You can never say never, 1,000 per cent. It depends on the deal,’ he said.
Bold ambition: Zaha believes he is ready for the Premier League
Arsenal and Spurs are interested but are likely to bid 7m to begin with. Ferguson is a fan but already has plenty of talented wide players at Old Trafford, so his January activity may depend on the future of Nani.
One option is that United sign Zaha then loan him back until May, as they did previously with Chris Smalling and Fulham.
Zaha, a boyhood Arsenal fan who is now in contact with his first hero ‘Wrighty’, has to weigh up several factors; will he get enough first-team matches, does the club’s style of play suit him and so on. If he remains at Palace beyond February 1, he will do as much as he can to help them overcome a recent wobble and fight for promotion.
But if he does seal his dream move, he promises: ‘I’ve done a lot of learning in the Championship. Now I’m ready for the Premier League.’