Zaha: Unless I'm looking at Ronaldo or Messi, I don't think anyone's better than me
22:30 GMT, 12 November 2012
When Wilfried Zaha reported for England duty for the first time on Monday he was offered a valuable piece of advice. ‘Train like you belong,’ Steven Gerrard whispered in his ear at the team hotel in Manchester, and the young, slightly apprehensive Crystal Palace winger appreciated the support from the England captain.
But deep down Zaha already felt he did belong. Deep down he believed he had the ability to be in the company of Roy Hodgson’s senior international players. ‘Unless I’m looking at Ronaldo or Messi, I’d never look at someone else and think he’s better than me,’ he said in his first major newspaper interview.
Seven heaven: Wilfried Zaha is set for a full England debut
'In training the senior players will try and smash me all the time'
This is the kid who spent 10 years perfecting Ronaldinho’s tricks with a tennis ball and he is now desperate to use them against the best possible opposition. Against Sweden on Wednesday night as well as the Premier League’s finest.
‘I think about the Premier League all the time, wondering when I’m going to come up against better defenders,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’ve come up against a defender when I’ve thought “What can I do to get past this guy” If it was Ashley Cole I would be working it all out before the game, knowing he would stick tight to me. I’d drift inside and then run at him.
‘Maybe he’ll be able to deal with it, but that’s when I can test him, isn’t it That’s my time.
‘If someone’s on my back I’ll stand on the ball and put it in a position where the guy behind me can’t see it, then I can roll him whichever way I want.
‘Even when I played against Fabio in the Carling Cup last season at Old Trafford, I was so nervous before the game, but if I wasn’t good enough I wouldn’t have been playing.’
He was in the company of the elite on
Monday, training at Carrington with England and road-testing those
exhilarating runs that have taken Palace to the top of the Championship.
First glimpse: Zaha takes on Fabio as Palace beat Man United in last year's League Cup quarter-final
Selhurst Park’s secret is out, the finest player outside the Premier League has been promoted from the Under 21 team less than a day after his 20th birthday.
He is the best player to come out of Selhurst Park since Ian Wright, a wonderful blend of trickery, pace and outrageous skill. The Palace winger can play across all three positions up front but has been switching wings of late as Ian Holloway’s team strive to reach the Premier League.
Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson claimed he was simply ‘unplayable’ after Zaha’s performance at London Road won another three promotion points for Palace last Saturday.
There is even a billboard on London’s south circular with a giant poster exclaiming ‘He’s just too good for you’, in recognition of his remarkable progress.
‘In training the senior players will try and smash me if I try anything,’ he revealed. ‘One time against Paddy McCarthy (Palace’s central defender) I did a double touch, brought it back and tapped it past him — he just wiped me out.
‘I thought “yes, I expect that from you” and I don’t mind because defenders aren’t going to let you mug them off in front of their own team-mates, are they’
Poster boy: Crystal Palace celebrate the Selhurst Park chant saluting their star
'I’m not saying I’m leaving Palace … but the Premier League is the place to be'
Zaha revealed he worked it all out in the summer, using a core stability and conditioning programme and combining it with long spells refining his mesmerising skills with a tennis ball playing with friends.
His development has been breathtaking as he operates at a different level to the rest of the Championship. Nobody can get the ball off him now.
‘Last season Guly do Prado at Southampton grabbed me and said, “Respect me”. I thought, “Why should I respect you I don’t know you”. Against Blackburn a couple of weeks ago, Colin Kazim-Richards tried to get into my head. He went through me and after that said, “You’ll have to be sharper than that, lad”. I thought, “Shut up, fool”.
‘It even happens before games now. Brighton’s manager Gus Poyet said Will Buckley is better than me, but I don’t see the point of coming out with nonsense like that. Even last season, when Ian Holloway was at Blackpool, he was saying, “What about your barnet, mate” because I had a different hair style.
‘When I found out he was coming to Palace I thought, “Oh no”, but after I met him I realised just how good he is. Now I don’t bite, I just keep my head down and don’t care. When I’ve got the ball at my feet I do wonder what goes through a defender’s head when the Palace fans are singing, “He’s just too good for you”.’
Wing wizard: Zaha has been tormenting Championship defences all season
Zaha hears that every game at Selhurst Park and even the manager sings it to him in the dressing room after Holloway was taught it by the co-chairman Stephen Browett’s son, Ben.
Zaha is handling the expectation, turning it on in front of Arsenal chief scout Steve Rowley when Palace won at Leicester last month, and earning the respect of Tottenham’s Les Ferdinand and Tim Sherwood at Peterborough last Saturday.
Stoke City and Wigan were willing to pay 3million for the Championship’s young player of the year last season and Palace turned down 6m from Reading days before August’s transfer deadline.
Everyone inside the Palace boardroom knows he is destined for the Champions League, but co-chairmen Steve Parish and Browett will resist any bids until the summer at least.
Zaha added: ‘I see people criticising, when they are thinking like, “20m My a**e”, but I never put a price tag on my head.
‘I remember when people were saying Palace should sell me for 1m because I wouldn’t do anything in the game — that was hard.
‘The Premier League is where I want to go but I’m not saying I want to leave Palace right now.
Accolade: Zaha is presented with the npower Football League Young Player of the Year Award earlier this year
‘John Bostock left Palace when he was
16 and playing in the first team, but he left for the first club that
came in for him — that’s kind of stupid.
‘Me, I’ve played over 100 games in the
Championship. (Alex) Oxlade-Chamberlain went from League One to Arsenal
and didn’t play anywhere near that.
‘I spoke with Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling and they both said the Premier League is the place to be. I’m not saying I’m leaving Palace but that’s where I want to play.’
Zaha is learning fast, coming to terms with the attention that comes with being marked out as the best Championship player.
On Monday Nike couriered customised boots to the team hotel with the St George’s cross stitched into the side panels as Zaha prepares for his bow as an England player. His family, including five brothers and three sisters, were booking tickets to travel to Stockholm to watch his full international debut.
At first he was fazed by the call from Hodgson on Sunday night, confused after Didier Drogba tried to convince him to play for the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
Word in the ear: Drogba is still hoping that Zaha will commit to play for Ivory Coast
'I see people criticising me but I never put a price tag on my head'
Zaha was born in Abidjan, leaving the Ivory Coast at the age of four when his mother and father, along with his eight siblings, moved to England. He has never been back.
But the pull of playing for the Ivory Coast in tournament football early next year is serious. England’s clash against Sweden is a FIFA-recognised fixture but it is classed as ‘non-competitive’ and Zaha could still switch to the Ivory Coast even if he plays on Wednesday night.
He said: ‘Didier called me and I was shocked, to be honest. He’s a humble guy and he was just talking to me about the Ivory Coast.
‘I was born in the Ivory Coast but all I know is England. It’s 50-50 at the moment but it’s a choice I will have to make at some stage.
‘I’ve been with the Under 21s and, now that I am with England, I will have to make a decision.’
He has come a long way from the skinny south London kid who used to cry into his pillow at night when he was overlooked for the Palace youth team.
Versatile: Zaha is capable of playing on either wing
He was kept out by Nathaniel Pinney, two years older than Zaha and now at Carshalton Athletic.
the intervention of Palace’s highly regarded academy director, Gary
Issott, he was almost released at the age of 15. ‘I couldn’t get
Nathaniel Pinney out of the team and it would break my heart,’ he
recalled. ‘My mum would come home and find me with my head buried in my
pillow and say, “Don’t be like this, your time will come”.
Pinney for your thoughts…
Nathaniel Pinney, who kept Wilfried Zaha out of Crystal Palace’s Under 18s, now plays for Carshalton Athletic. Pinney, 21, said: ‘People always said he would be good in a few years. Now he’s showing everyone what he can do. He’s always known what he wants to do. It’s difficult but he runs past players in matches like he does in training. It works. The England call-up is a bonus but he deserves it. Hopefully he’ll get his chance to play – good luck to him.’
‘I would invite all my family to the games, expecting to start, and then I’d be told I was close but not close enough.
‘My mum had always been good for my game. She said I was trying to play football before I could walk. I don’t know if I was born with it, if it’s natural. Maybe it’s 50-50.
‘I spent hours with a tennis ball doing tricks, little drag backs in my bedroom and watching YouTube clips of Ronaldinho and stuff.
‘I’d just try and pull it off… and then I’d do it for Palace.’
On Wednesday night, he will get the chance to do it for England.