While reminiscing about the first football arenas he graced, Ebere Eze gives an indication of the lasting imprint that playing in them can leave on him and his fellow Londoners.
‘You can see the cage in him,’ Eze said of close friend Ovie Ejaria, Reading’s ex-Liverpool prospect and one of a number of players Eze spent many-an-hour alongside on south London’s enclosed concrete pitches.
What does that look like to the untrained eye?
Crystal Palace’s Ebere Eze is one of the most highly-rated youngsters in the Premier League
The attacker has gone from a young cage footballer to establish himself as a top-flight talent
‘It’s the control he has of what he wants to do,’ explained Eze, 22, who also played in the same Sunday League side as Ejaria as well as Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham.
‘If he wants to do something and there is an opportunity to do it, he’ll do it. He won’t be afraid to take that opportunity, to try it or be worried about what anyone thinks and whether it comes off or not.
‘It is “I’m here to express myself and do what I want to do as best as I can.”‘
That could just as easily be a description of Eze, Crystal Palace’s wonderfully gifted attacker, a £19.5m addition last summer.
‘I guess so,’ he said. ‘That’s what I think cage football brings out of loads of players.
Eze is one of several south London youngsters currently cutting it in the Premier League
‘The freedom to express yourself and not worry about whether it works or not or whether this person will be happy with you but do what you feel is right at the time.’
The capital city’s cages are where Greenwich-born Eze and many other London-raised players get their first taste of football and begin developing their skills, in his case ones he is now displaying on the Premier League stage.
Eze said: ‘You do a lot of learning in the academies and get exposed to different types of players. That had a huge impact on me. But you can’t take anything away from the cage.
‘You see in south London especially the amount of talent that has come out from playing in cages.’
They would spend all day there when they could.
Eze was born in Greenwich and his passion for football came from the south London streets
Sometimes school had the audacity to get in the way but even then these football-mad youngsters could not be stopped.
‘You would get home from school at four o’clock and be there until nine, 10,’ Eze smiled. ‘Your mum is calling you in but you don’t want to go in because all you want to do is play football.
‘You would maybe be the first one there and not know who was going to come out, who was going to be playing.
‘One day it would be 10 guys, five v five, and it was the first taster you would get of playing against someone and being competitive and wanting to win.’
With a watching crowd wrapped around the outside of the cage to impress, it was also about expressing yourself, showcasing your talents and doing things to that made you stand out – bamboozling opponents with outrageous tricks and flicks, winning one-on-one battles and thriving in front of an audience.
At times it can be survival of the most skilful as much as anything.
The 22-year-old admits that playing street football was fun without the input from coaches
Eze said: ‘There’s no judgement from any coaches, no scrutiny from anyone. You are just literally enjoying yourself which is what you want do and at as high a level as you can.’
One of Eze’s major inspirations, therefore, is no surprise given the football environment he was trying to shine in back then.
‘We would come home from school, go on the computer and just type in Ronaldinho,’ he said.
‘He’s a player I have watched pretty much every day from maybe the age of seven, eight, with my brothers on the computer watching YouTube videos and whatever he is doing.
‘The same videos over and over again on Ronaldinho and how he played.
‘There’s probably not a video of him you could show me that I haven’t seen before. Even now I type in Ronaldinho and watch him. That’s how much impact he’s had on me. He was an inspiration.’
Eze admitted to watching videos of former Barcelona star Ronaldinho with his friends at home
The influence of the Brazilian icon combined with the cage football upbringing is clear to see in the player Eze has become – a joy to watch, effortless and at ease on the ball and capable of moments of magic.
‘Growing up watching Ronaldinho he is the perfect example of an entertainer,’ he said.
‘Of course I don’t play the same as him or anything like that but it is just having that idea of ‘I want to enjoy myself.’
‘And while I’m enjoying myself, I’m positive I will be entertaining people as well while also being as effective as I can as a footballer for my team.
‘There are things, in terms of the way you’re brought up, the resilience you get from playing in the cage, from experiencing different things that it numbs the feeling of someone else’s opinion on you.
Eze made his name at QPR in the Championship before making a £19.5million move to Palace
‘I play football because I have fun doing it and I’m so grateful I have got this as a job. That for me is the most important thing.
‘As long as I’m enjoying it, the stats and all that type of stuff will come as well.’
Eze’s performances since rising to prominence at QPR suggest he has found the right balance while Palace have quickly witnessed his knack for scoring spectacular goals, with all three of his efforts so far in the special category.
Eze said: ‘I don’t know why [I don’t score simple goals]. I wish I did. I wish I had a lot more tap-ins and easy goals. I wouldn’t be working so hard to get a goal! But I will take them. As long as they keep coming I am happy.’
It was only this week that Eze received a reminder of just how far he has come in his football career.
‘I see some tweets come up the other day of things I was tweeting in 2013, ‘I know I’m going to get there’, ‘I know I am going to do this,’ he said.
‘It’s amazing to see that’s how I was feeling at that time. To be in this position now I’m honestly so grateful and humbled.’
Amazing because Eze was part way through a roller-coaster rise to the top at the time and while the ambitions he went public with eight years ago have now been realised, making it happen has been far from easy.
Four times Eze, whose story shows the value of persistence, was released – by Arsenal, Fulham, Reading and Millwall – before he finally found the environment he could flourish in at QPR.
Eze was let go by several clubs including Arsenal and Fulham but got his chance in the EFL
Only at Millwall did Eze get a reason he can remember for being let go, his mercurial talents not fitting with their style of play.
At the other three clubs the reasons were less clear but he accepts: ‘Every club, manager and person who had a decision on me or other players who have gone on to do good things, there are obviously reasons and I can’t imagine me doing what I’m doing now and performing how I’m performing now and getting released so that’s why it’s a bit of a hard one [to say if he suffered due to a need to conform too much in English football’a academy system].’
One small crumb of comfort was that none of the clubs let him go because they had concluded he was not a good player though he recalled, still: ‘It shook me, for sure, my family, everyone. Going through that will shake anybody so it’s not easy.’
Though not once did he consider an alternative career.
Now at Palace, Eze admits he never considered giving up football despite the career struggles
‘The thing that kept me going was the idea of how much I wanted to be a footballer, how much I really thought this is possible,’ Eze said.
‘The belief and my mindset was ‘I didn’t know how I’m gonna get there but I have to get there.’
‘The support from my family, my loved ones, my faith in God, that’s honestly what has got me to this position.’
It was at QPR where everything started to come together under coaches Chris Ramsey, Paul Hall and Andy Impey.
He said: ‘They put that belief back in myself as an 18, 19 year old that I had when I was young, at Arsenal. I am talking nine, 10, 11. Once I had that in the 23s I felt unstoppable.
Eze has benefited from a wide variety of coaches putting faith in him during his development
‘I’ve always tried my best and to give everything I can. But it wasn’t until I got to QPR that I got that click with those guys in the 23s, that I started to unlock new levels I didn’t know I had in terms of my work rate, my running stats, stuff like that.’
The more their advice paid off the more Eze listened and he was rewarded with a first team debut in the FA Cup against Blackburn in January 2017.
The following campaign included an eye-catching, half-year loan spell at Wycombe before what turned out to be another season of learning of a different kind for Eze.
At QPR they remember Eze for what he did on the pitch but also being the same humble character when he left in 2020 as the one who arrived in 2016.
Those who have worked closely with him during his career also highlight his ability to remain level-headed as a key quality and saw it resurface in his unfazed reaction to his stunning solo strike against Sheffield United which was contrasted with the fuss it caused on social media and beyond.
Eze is known to shut out any outside noise when critics and supporters start talking about him
Only briefly, during the 2018/19 season after being handed the No.10 shirt by Steve McClaren and producing displays that got the rumour mill going, did he let outside noise affect him.
He said: ‘What was to my detriment was looking at too much Instagram and seeing things that people say, comments that he’s linked with this place and that place, he’s going here and it got into my mind that I need to perform if I want to get to this level. I wasn’t free, I wasn’t enjoying my football. I was allowing the opinions of others to affect me and overthinking. I don’t know how I played so many games  that season,’ he admitted.
‘Use QPR as your playground’ was among McClaren’s advice and Eze certainly put that into practice during his final season, scoring 14 goals and setting up eight more to earn his big-money move to Selhurst Park.
‘That is for me the biggest point of my career,’ he said of his switch to Selhurst Park.
At Palace under Roy Hodgson Eze is continuing to learn, adding further elements to his game to supplement his obvious attacking ability.
And in talisman Wilfried Zaha he quickly found someone he could learn from.
‘I’m enjoying playing with Wilf because he’s so talented it’s unbelievable,’ Eze said.
Eze (left) admits he is learning from Palace star and talisman Wilfried Zaha (right) at the Eagles
‘When we talk the conversation that we have, I feel like there is always something I can take from him, something I can learn from him and to have someone like that, similar to me in that sense, that’s done it before, been in my position, knows what it feels like to be in my position is perfect.
‘Within the first month of me being here I saw immediately, ‘ok, this is where I’m going to get what I need for myself in order to get to the next level.’
‘It’s about enjoying yourself, entertaining, but he’s also taught me that you need to make sure you’re being as efficient as you can be and if you have both sides you’re causing trouble for people.’
Eze has been doing just that, looking at ease in the Premier League as he no doubt did in the cages where it all began.
‘I’m grateful I’ve been through all I’ve been through,’ he said. ‘It’s shaped me to be where I am today.
‘If it wasn’t for those releases and I was comfortable going through God knows who I’d be, the type of player I would be right now and the type of mentality I would have right now so I’m just so grateful that all these things have happened and God has brought me to this position now.’