Wilfried Zaha, what’s not to like? A proven Premier League performer with over 450 Crystal Palace appearances, 89 goals and 76 assists.
A talismanic attacker with a remarkable fitness record for someone who is a target for tacklers and the league’s most fouled player by some way since his return to Selhurst Park in 2014.
A player so influential that former Eagles manager Patrick Vieira – replaced by Roy Hodgson this week — believes he will deserve a place in the Premier League’s Hall of Fame.
Despite all that, the answer to the opening question from some of Zaha’s doubters might still be ‘a few things’.
He is set to become a free agent this summer, which has revived talk about his future and perceptions of the misunderstood Ivory Coast winger.
Wilfried Zaha has 89 goals and 76 assists in over 450 appearances for Crystal Palace
The Eagles star could be set to leave the club this summer with his contract due to expire
Palace are said to have offered him the most lucrative deal in club history, worth close to £200,000-per-week. Sportsmail revealed this month that Al-Ittihad, Cristiano Ronaldo’s rival Saudi club, have proposed a deal worth £9million-a-year, or £320,000-per-week.
In Europe, AC Milan are among the clubs monitoring his situation. They might well be considering the issues that Zaha’s critics have seen in him. Dan Cook, the Eagles fan behind the HLTCO podcast and YouTube channel, is like most of a Palace persuasion, having no desire to see Zaha leave. But Cook is also among those who believe the myths around Zaha are incorrect and has challenged them for some time.
‘The three biggest ones are about his end product, attitude and that he is a diver. When the chips have been down and we have needed him to come up with big goals or moments, he has been there time and again,’ said Cook, before reeling off just some from key games against the likes of Brighton, Watford, Hull and Chelsea.
‘He’s able to get himself up for big games and hold his nerve. It’s as though the more pressure on him, the better he performs.’
Zaha’s status as Palace’s main man has brought him unwanted attention though. Since 2014 he has been in the Premier League’s top three most fouled players seven times, topping the list four times. In that period he has been fouled 806 times, compared with the next closest, Sadio Mane’s 493 and Raheem Sterling on 445.
Some of the fouls have left such an impression on Zaha that he remembers exactly who is responsible for scars on his body.
The treatment also left him grateful VAR was introduced to help prove he does not go to ground too easily. In its first season, Zaha was booked against Arsenal for diving before that was overturned and Palace awarded a penalty — instant vindication.
‘I refuse to believe that anyone can find a clip of him actively trying to fall over without being clattered first,’ Cook insisted.
Since 2014, he has been in the Premier League’s most three fouled players seven times
Palace chairman Steve Parish said in 2018: ‘There’s an agenda against Wilfried Zaha. It’s outrageous to accuse him of being a diver. The reality is he’s fouled all the time but he doesn’t get 50 per cent of the decisions. ‘
A by-product of what Zaha feels is a lack of protection are displays of frustration. ‘He’s been kicked consistently for 15 years now,’ Cook said. ‘That’s developed into a chip on his shoulder, reasonably I think, because he’s worried he’s going to get injured and his opponents don’t get the bookings they deserve.’
Further fuelling that frustration is a desire to win. That was evident in a young Zaha who, when he was on his PlayStation, had to be told to calm down and reminded it was just a game.
Until more recent times, a sense that he was not being sufficiently surrounded by what was needed to support his ambitions at Palace has also underpinned his exasperation.
This season has developed into a battle to beat the drop again, with Palace’s form costing Vieira his job.
‘He just wants to do the right thing but often his winning mentality gets misconstrued,’ Cook said.
‘The perception people have of him is that he’s this arrogant, moany person, but it’s the desire to win that shines through. I fully believe if we were on the cusp of Europe, even if it was the UEFA Conference League, he wouldn’t be going anywhere. He’s tried for so many years, strived against relegation battles and sitting around 14th tried to get us into that top half and European picture. I think every sane Crystal Palace fan appreciates that.
‘It bothers me that he has this supposed attitude problem because it couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s had different characters as managers and they wouldn’t suffer him if he was a complete nightmare.’
Zaha sets a good example and is an impressive trainer which rubs off on his team-mates
Cook can speak from first-hand experience. Zaha sent congratulatory messages on his wedding day and the birth of his son. Last season Zaha sent him a signed shirt as a thanks for his support.
‘He just genuinely is a good guy,’ Cook said.
The hundreds who benefit from Zaha’s charity work — he has donated to charity at least 10 per cent of his salary throughout his career, founded an orphanage and also arranges food parcels for those in need back in his homeland, among other things — will agree.
At the club Palace prospects, especially young black players, look up to Zaha, not just because he came through the academy but due to the example he sets. He has a high profile but is an impressive trainer too, something that rubs off on others. Having that standard-bearer at the club would be a spin-off benefit for Palace if Zaha stays.
There is a view held by some in the club, though, that a move might be good for Zaha, but locally he is widely admired too. Michael Lacey, who has worked at the Palace for Life foundation for over 20 years and coached a teenage Zaha, said: ‘The whole area looks up to him. They’re proud of him.
Zaha has his doubters and there are perceptions over the misunderstood Palace winger
‘Wilf made a lot of the youngsters support Palace because they aspired to be him. Before, they’d never been to a football ground.
‘He looks after himself and keeps himself to himself. He’s not one of these so-called flashy people.
‘He knew what his intentions were for his life — he wanted to play football and stuck to it. If you don’t know someone, you can’t judge them, but I’ve known him a long time.’
When Cook released a podcast titled ‘Wilfried Zaha — misunderstood with no desire to be understood’ the winger endorsed the sentiment by adding the phrase to his social media biography.
The onus is on others to do their due diligence. If they choose not to, Palace will forever be where he is welcomed with open arms.
‘It’s the perfect environment for him to flourish with supporters that understand him,’ Cook said. ‘If he was to leave, and we don’t know if he will, that last home game is going to be very, very emotional. For the fans and for him.’
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