Wilfried Zaha is an enigma. Among Palace fans he is held in the highest regard but to a wider audience our protestations of his brilliance seems to fall on deaf ears, with age-old clichés about the ability of our mercurial winger preferred to the cold hard facts his statistics and performances present. He’s got ‘no end product’, a ‘bad attitude’ and he’s on par with Tom Daley as a diver in the eyes of his naysayers – even Harry Redknapp weighed in back in January labelling him a “big disappointment”.
Well, enough is enough.
When the England squad was announced for this week’s internationals I took one look at the list, noticed the names of Nathan Redmond, Jesse Lingard and Michael Antonio and smiled to myself. Why? Because Wilfried’s name should have been on that list.
Let’s just take a closer look at those names a little closer, shall we, and how they’ve all done this season. Wilf has notched 6 assists already this season, 4 more than Lingard and 5 more than Redmond. He has the same goal tally as Redmond but has achieved it in less games, also dominating Lingard in the scoring department having netted 4 more than him. Only Eden Hazard and Adama Traore have taken on more players this season and let’s not forget the kind of company that puts him above: Sanchez, Mahrez, Pogba, Sterling… I’ve made my point.
Disregard his statistics for a second, because Wilf is the single most exciting player I have personally ever seen pull on a red and blue shirt. When he gets the ball in the final third and you see him face up to the defender in his way a knot moves inside your stomach as you begin to hover off your seat, just waiting for that moment where he hoodwinks his opposite number with a stepover or flip-flap, anticipating the moment he makes the defender wish he’d been left out that day as he makes him look amateurish with sheer chicanery and brilliance. He is breathtaking at times.
Last year the argument that to be a ‘top’ player he needed to do more may have had some traction, the statistics aren’t as impressive for sure, but it’s worth bearing in mind that he was part of a Palace side that in the second half of the season plummeted down the table faster than an articulated lorry that had been dropped from 10,000 feet. This season Palace have struggled, arguably more, but he has been one of the few shining lights throughout the whole campaign, the player that has single-handedly won us games through his mazy runs.
The sad reality for England is that Wilf wasn’t even available for selection and will never pull on another of their shirts again. Back in January the winger jetted off to Gabon to make his debut for the Ivory Coast, putting pay to any possibility of a recall to the England squad that he ever-so-briefly was a part of a few years ago. Prior to his departure in January, Gareth Southgate supposedly wanted to hold talks in an attempt to dissuade him from committing his international future to the Ivory Coast. He clearly didn’t make the right promises because now the figurative horse has bolted and the door is firmly locked now.
I fear Gareth wasn’t too bothered in all honesty, but why that was is conjecture. The argument that he doesn’t fit the system holds about as much water as a canoe that’s just received a volley of machine gun fire – the new 3-5-2 system didn’t stop out-and-out wingers being called up to the squad this time around. It’s his age then? Only Nathan Redmond is younger. I can only imagine that the rumoured fallout back when Zaha represented the Under 21’s was a factor and Southgate doesn’t rate him nearly as highly as I do.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against players like Lingard, Antonio and Redmond, they’re great players in their own right, but I think Zaha is better. I also don’t begrudge Zaha’s decision; he had to do what was best for him on a personal level and he clearly felt the England door was closed sufficiently hard a couple of years ago that he wasn’t going to get back through it and to represent the country of his birth will have been a huge honour for him.
It’s just a crying shame, for both Zaha and for the England setup. For me, he’s one of the best wingers in the country at this moment in time, on purely an ability level there are few players I would rather have lining up in a Palace shirt when we face Chelsea next weekend. I’ll be accused of seeing him through my rose-tinted glasses but I don’t think that is the case here, I will freely admit that it’s all-too easy to heap praise on players that have a purple patch but that isn’t what’s happening here.
So Wilfried Zaha will never play for England again but thankfully he will continue to play for Crystal Palace and we’re all grateful for that. I can only hope for a few more players like Wilf, because if every ‘huge disappointment’ turns out like young Wilfried we’re onto a real winner…