It was always going hard to be for him or any young player for that matter, to say no. When Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson come knocking, you take the chance or look back and wonder what might’ve been. Unfortunately for Wilfried Zaha, right now he may feel the latter for the wrong reasons.
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There is no doubt of the talent that the 22-year-old possesses; why else would Fergie splash £16 million on him? But with only two league appearances to his name, both as a substitute, Zaha returned south to the familiar pastures of Crystal Palace on transfer deadline day this past week for a reported cut price £3 million.
So where did it all go wrong?
Former United defender Phil Neville was a coach in Zaha’s first year at the club and explained to The Guardian last year perhaps why Zaha has struggled; “Wilf is a diamond. People say: ‘Why is he not playing?’… The first six months… forget the games, just being a Manchester United footballer, the intensity of training, the expectation, it’s really hard. It blows you away.”
The spotlight was truly on Zaha from day one. A young man moves from London to Manchester, from Championship, to Champions League; but gone are the days of bleeding players into a system, both on the pitch and off of it.
The level of expectation of Manchester United can be too much for some fresh shoulders; just ask Paul Pogba, now a star at Juventus but once a troubled teen who lacked the discipline to be a United star. At Palace, Zaha was the cornerstone of the team. At Old Trafford he became just another talented youngster in a sea of international stars. Not only did he have to prove his worth all over again, he had to excel. He had to make everyone around his sit up and say ‘So that’s why he’s worth £16m’. Perhaps the burden of it all was too much.
Not that he was given much of a chance.
Ferguson’s successor David Moyes was allegedly never won over by Zaha’s raw abilities and a loan move to then league strugglers Cardiff was quickly drawn up in January of 2014. Things never improved under Louis van Gaal, who gave Zaha a pitiful 45 minutes of action on their U.S. pre-season tour and deemed him surplus to requirements.
It’s not all bad news however
England fans should be rejoicing to see Zaha back at Selhurst Park, getting regular first team football again. The winger currently has two caps to his name and if he can rediscover his form, he could easily find himself in the hunt for a place in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad.
Expect him to quickly form a bond with boss Alan Pardew, with both men having an experience and understanding of Crystal Palace and the culture behind the club. Pardew knows a maverick when he sees one from one from his time at Newcastle with Hatem Ben Arfa, and he knows he cannot let the youngster follow in the footsteps of the wayward Frenchman.
So give him time to settle back home. Then give him the ball and watch him go. Zaha may look back and ponder on his move to Manchester United as a mistake, or he may see it as the best thing to ever happen to him. His time is now and ‘Wilf’ has to take it.
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