Zaha’s move to United and the test of true greatness

Ian LamontWith the January transfer window about to close, Crystal Palace’s £15m “lend-lease” deal for Wilf Zaha to move to Manchester United in the summer is looking like one of the best pieces of business in the past month. IAN LAMONT, left, assesses the benefits and pitfalls that may await the 20-year-old England winger

Sir Alex Ferguson would probably have been aware of the silky skills of Wilfried Zaha long before the Crystal Palace attacker helped heap misery on Manchester United in last season’s League Cup.

On his way: Wilf Zaha, a £15m transfer from Palace to Manchester United

On his way: Wilf Zaha, a £15m transfer from Crystal Palace to one of the world’s biggest clubs

Since then, one of the longest transfer sagas in recent Palace history has been played out and last week the Old Trafford boss finally got his man in a deal that could eventually be worth £15 million.

But is the 20-year-old Palace winger really worthy of some of the accolades being given to him? Is the suggestion that Zaha will become the greatest English player of his generation too lofty?

After all, according to the Inside Croydon reader’s poll (the apostrophe is deliberately placed), young Wilf is a long way short of even being Palace’s all-time best player.

Some wonder whether Zaha has moved too early in his career or to the “wrong” club. The hard lesson is there in John Bostock’s move to Tottenham; he’s now playing on loan at Swindon.

When Wayne Routledge made his acrimonious exit to Spurs, one Palace fan remarked to me: “He’s done nothing at Palace and he’ll do nothing at Spurs.” Routledge is on his fifth club since, albeit at Premiership Swansea City.

John Salako certainly has a point that Zaha has the world at his feet. Ferguson has a habit – with the odd exception – of either buying players who he can develop or who are at their peak and who prosper.

Nobody can guarantee super stardom. Victor Moses and Ben Watson both signed for Wigan Athletic from Palace. One is making a decent Premiership living, while the other, former Whitgift pupil Moses, was sold to the European champions Chelsea last summer and made 14 starts and nine substitute appearances before going off on national duty for Nigeria at the African Cup of Nations.

Zaha’s enthusiasts insist on praising him to the hilt. He will be a ready replacement for Nani, they say, once he joins up in the summer after spending the rest of the season on loan back at Selhurst Park. Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs have even been mentioned in the same breath. Much is expected of that rarity – a Championship player given a full England cap, albeit only in a friendly last November. And for just five minutes as a substitute.

Amid the hyperbole, the words of George Burley ring most true. Burley was the Palace manager who gave Zaha his debut at 17 and watched him earn man of the match in a 3-2 win over Leicester. Burley’s Palace were in administration. He had to use what he had: youth players.

Zaha took his chance and, more importantly, kept his place once Palace exited administration, at which point they could have easily replaced youth with cynicism and experience. But that isn’t the way of a club who had nurtured him since the age of 12.

Burley says Zaha has the potential to be as good as Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, players the former Scotland manager helped develop at Southampton and who were sold for big money to Spurs and Arsenal. But those are not Burley’s most significant sentiments.

“They knew when to pass it, they knew when to go short or long, when to hold it and so on,” Burley said of Bale and Walcott. “Wilf doesn’t have that in his locker yet but it’s something that will improve. He’s also incredibly brave. He puts his body there and basically asks to be kicked. That’s not something you can teach a player.”

So, Zaha has found the fight to progress this far, but the raw diamond needs much polishing. That won’t happen if he is left to languish in United’s reserves, though Ferguson is not one for shelling out millions on a player just to send him out against journeymen and players returning from injury.

The plethora of competitions in which United participate will give Zaha the chance to make his mark. Where some clubs might not have the strength in depth, United tend to give younger players an opening in the League Cup early rounds at least. However, Ferguson will not tolerate the step-overs, the back-heels, the tricks and flicks if there is no end-product, although he does like his teams to play with flair, to entertain. And while Ryan Giggs might think he is Peter Pan, he surely can’t go on for ever.

Ryan Giggs: will Zaha get much of a chance to learn from a wing commander?

Ryan Giggs: will Zaha learn from United’s wing commander?

Don’t expect to see Zaha back out on loan anywhere else next season. Giggs is likely to be a mentor, at least, as Zaha learns about all the deficiencies Burley was quick to pinpoint. As long as Zaha settles in after moving from his south London home, big clubs know how to look after players if they display a willingness and aptitude for learning.

Ferguson will have his own scouts watching to add to Burley’s critique. But he will be patient. He will protect the youngster from his own spotlight and price tag.

There is nothing wrong with being a late developer, of course, or starting in the lower leagues. David Beckham went on loan to Preston to start his career and Ian Wright, one of English football’s finest finishers, started at, well, Crystal Palace. According to Inside Croydon reader, he remains the club’s finest ever player.

So what would consistute the greatness that many want to bestow upon Zaha?

He is certainly in the right hands, under Ferguson (however long he goes on as manager) to become a star. It may seem a little unfair to want to see him hold down an England shirt as well as a United one, but for me that would be the true test of greatness.

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