It is good to see Wilfried Zaha, a local boy made good and idolised by supporters, commit his future to Crystal Palace but in modern football such feel-good stories invariably come at a price.
It’s almost exactly four years now since Wilfried Zaha scored the goals that, no matter how the rest of his career panned out, ensured he would be a Crystal Palace legend for life. They came on the south coast at Brighton, two bullets in a pulsating Championship play-off semi-final that set Palace on their way to the Premier League, a sublime and precious parting gift from a player bound for greener pastures at the season’s end.
And then things changed, as in football they so often do. After two unhappy seasons at Manchester United, Zaha returned to the Palace fold, to the cradle of south London where he’d spent most of his formative childhood years and freshly rekindled a relationship that had been blossoming before his departure. Now Palace fans dream that the brace he notched against Brighton won’t turn out to be the most crucial he will ever score for the club.
For Zaha and those who worship him, it has been a good week. First, there was the opening goal in the rout of Hull that ensured Palace’s Premier League survival, then the thrill of seeing him best an irksome Tottenham troll on twitter and, to cap it all, the sweet music of strong reports that Zaha would be ignoring the reputed interest of a host of top clubs to pledge his future to Palace for at least the next five years.
As blessed as that must sound to the ears of Palace fans who have watched the 24-year-old develop into a winger-cum-playmaker of supreme class, it is surely to be welcomed by anybody with more than a passing interest in the soul and sanctity of English football. Zaha’s snub, if that’s truly what it is, to the powerful and wealthy represents a tiny, but precious, piece of evidence that the big clubs don’t have to get their own way all of the time.
It is also a move that makes sense. Just as Swansea boss Paul Clement talks sense when warning the coveted Gylfi Sigurdsson against a move to a bigger club. Like the Iceland international, Zaha has been down this road before, lured by the ambition and riches of a top six club, only to find when he got there that the pastures aren’t always greener on the opposite side. Zaha is unquestionably a more mature individual now, capable of making better decisions.
Back then he had just turned 20, had made his England debut in a friendly against Sweden, one of the hottest young properties in English football and when United came calling, how could a young man’s head not be turned? “I’m not a teenager anymore,” he said at the time. “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.”
As things turned out, though, Zaha is establishing himself in the Premier League and in international football (albeit with the Ivory Coast) without any assistance at all from Manchester United or their mega-rich counterparts. Why he failed at Old Trafford is a disputed question. As Alex Ferguson’s last signing for the club, it was certainly of no benefit that the manager was due to step down a short time later. “A major ‘what if’ for Man Utd,” one fan tweeted last week, capturing a widespread view that the failure was not all on the player’s side.
Perhaps it took that failure to make Zaha realise that there was a sense of belonging at Palace that he could never find anywhere else and that while a sense of ambition was important, it did not matter any more than personal happiness. Maybe that helped him pick up the pieces and forge ahead when he returned to south London, not in humiliation exactly, but as a humbler human being. He has a balance in his life now that makes him a better person and, probably, a better player too. Ambition will never change that.
What Clement says about Sigurdsson is right. However insanely difficult it is to withstand the temptation of joining a hugely wealthy club, it does not always have to be the right decision, especially when it entails becoming a squad member or filling out the bench. And not all players bounce back from ill-judged moves as readily as Zaha, as the likes of Wilfried Bony, Fabian Delph and Steve Sidwell can attest. Given how their careers have stalled, does the money seem worth it? It would be sad to think that the answer to that question could be in the affirmative.
There is a lesson for talented young footballers in all of this if they cared to listen. And it is especially true at the academy level where the brightest kids find themselves spoiled for choice between a range of clubs anxious to secure their services. Like a moth to a flame, they are naturally drawn towards the biggest clubs with the best facilities and the best reputations and often catastrophically overlook the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is that most of them are destined to fail at whatever club they decide to join but to even a far greater extent at one of the top six clubs where numbers and competition is at its most fierce. Take the case of Robbie Keane. Courted by his beloved Liverpool and a host of other top clubs as a teenager, Keane snubbed them all in favour of Wolves, a rather odd decision at the time that came to seem prophetic when he was playing first-team football and regularly banging in goals at 17. The big moves soon followed. But how many 16-year-old kids would have the maturity, or the solid advice behind them, to make such an enlightened decision for their careers? Not many is the obvious answer.
And yet, when it comes to Wilfried Zaha, there is a dirty word that has scarcely entered the discussion here: money. It’s all very well talking about his love of south London and his sense of belonging at Palace, but without the cushion of a reported £110,000 a week pay offer, how sorely tested might that sense of loyalty have been? We’ll probably never know. For the guts of £6m per year, most ambitions can be sated.
It’s not all that long ago that Sol Campbell shocked the game by becoming the first footballer to command a £100,000 per week pay package. Now it is so commonplace that Zaha is only the second Palace player after Christian Benteke to pass that milestone at a club firmly rooted in the bottom half of the Premier League. To fend off the interest of the bigger clubs, or simply to ensure the optimum sell-on price, this is the game clubs like Palace have to play and it is one fraught with danger too.
It is also a sign of the summer madness yet to come and the scale of inflation that shows no hint of abating anytime soon. Zaha’s wage increase puts him on a par with the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane, but you can bet with a fair degree of certainty that situation won’t remain for long as the agents for the Premier League’s hottest goalscorers agitate for more and more lucrative deals. For smaller and mid-range clubs, showing “ambition” becomes an ever more expensive business.
You can see what Palace are trying to achieve with Zaha. It makes a kind of crazy business sense to reward the player so handsomely in the hope that his performance radar points upwards again next season and his value increases with it. Thus a projected outlay of some £25m over five years doesn’t look so outlandish if they could command a £40-50m transfer fee somewhere along the way. The problem is, though, that the lion’s share of the television money Palace are receiving is being spunked on player wages and likely agent fees too and that is only sustainable while they keep their Premier League life intact and the tv money holds up.
That’s the state of play right now. It seems good that the talent can be spread out a bit more, that the big clubs aren’t necessarily scooping all of the cream, but at what price seems anyone’s guess. We should probably just enjoy it while it lasts.