Why Wilfred Zaha is one of the most under-appreciated players in the Premier League
In the seven years since Wilfried Zaha made his professional debut for Crystal Palace, he's come up his fair share of doubters but just like all the best sportsmen, he's always found a way to silence his critics when the heat is truly on.
To those who watched him score his first goal for the Eagles in August of 2010, (complete with a pair of comedically oversized shorts) his journey has been one of triumph in the face of adversity but to plenty outside of the Crystal Palace bubble, Zaha is a player who provokes disdain, often for reasons far beyond his own personal control.
It took Wilf little more than three years to graduate from the new kid on the block to a star worthy of attention from those at the very top of the game. Earning a move to Manchester United, becoming Sir Alex Ferguson's last ever signing as Reds boss following a sparkling individual display against Peterborough (managed by Alex's son Darren at the time), both he and Palace's fan-base could have been forgiven for assuming he was set for life.
After going out in a blaze of glory by helping Palace reach the Premier League via promotion in the play-offs, Wilfried arrived at Old Trafford bright eyed and bushy tailed, only to be met by a manager in David Moyes who flatly refused to give him the chance he had earned previously.
Perhaps the former Everton gaffer was struggling too much with the enormity of the job on his hands to think clearly about what he had at his disposal in Zaha but the preferential treatment Moyes gave to Adnan Januzaj, coupled with disgraceful lies relating to Wilfried and Moyes' daughter saw him looked upon as an unprofessional chancer rather than a supreme talent; predictably it hit him for six.
A loan move to Cardiff was agreed the following season but after the emotional battering he'd been taking in the North West, Zaha was in need of TLC rather than a battle to prove himself all over again. It seems so obvious now but the deal which eventually saw Wilfried return to Selhurst Park, first on loan and then permanently soon after, was the only move which would guarantee him getting back to his best and retreading a path which would see him leave even his biggest critics with egg on their faces.
Under the guidance of Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce and now Frank de Boer, Zaha has shown the world that he's more than capable of mixing it with the cream of the crop in the Premier League. Routinely kicked, merely as a consequence of being too good for the defenders tasked with handling him to do their job, he has had a few ups and downs since coming home but in all honesty, his trajectory has been on an almost constant upward curve since stepping back into the club's Beckenham training base.
Wilfried himself has happily given Alan Pardew a great deal of credit for advancing his game during the time he spent in charge at Selhurst Park but as a fan who has watched his every move in recent years, I can honestly say that he appears to have gained different attributes from each of his Palace bosses. Despite often being labelled as a "difficult" character by those who are happy to believe what they read in the press, you won't hear a bad word said about Zaha from any of the men who've managed him in SE25, proving that, regardless of the gargantuan PR machine that operates around Manchester United, certain players can overcome "failure" at The Theatre of Dreams and still go on to be considered legends by fans of other clubs.
The last year or so has seen Wilfried's end product go up a notch or three, with goals and assists coming at a rapid rate and with that, the rough treatment handed out to him by defenders has also seen a dramatic rise, not that many in the press seem particularly keen to acknowledge it, preferring instead to defer to age-old inaccurate stereotypes about his character in the pursuit of "humour" with John Cross from The Mirror being the latest high-profile name to spew bile in Wilf's direction.
As recently as last weekend, Zaha was subjected to racist abuse from "fans" of other clubs via his Instagram account, simply for being extremely good at his job. It's an issue I'm sure he's dealt with privately on many occasions previously but in this particular instance, he was quite right to make the existence of the messages public, drawing attention to the ridiculous lengths people will go to to bring an elite athlete down to their grubby little level. Wilf is no stranger to apathy, having worked extremely hard to impress England's coaches for the first six years of his professional career only to them be subjected to an incredible level of criticism from all corners for deciding to represent the country of his birth at international level instead. Looked at in isolation is seems ridiculous but when you bundle it all together with other hurdles Zaha has been forced to leap over in his still young career, it's no wonder he, his coaches and Palace's fans feel as though he's capable of beating anyone that stands in his way as the 2017-18 season approaches. If you are happy to be spoon-fed lies about Wilfried both on and off the field, that's your prerogative but next time you hear a member of the media write him off as a show-pony, take a second or two to remember how much the winger has already achieved in the game at the age of 24.