The Return of the Native: How Zaha came home to Palace

Bringing in a £10-million England international winger for £1.5 million should go down in anyone’s book as a “good bit of business”. That the deal that will see the return of Wilfried Zaha to Selhurst Park, , initially on loan from Manchester United, was done at all depended on Crystal Palace actually having a manager in place.

Tuesday night showed that Wilf Zaha, back row, is nowhere to be found in Louis van Gaal's plans at Manchester United

Tuesday night showed that Wilf Zaha, back row, is nowhere to be found in Louis van Gaal’s plans at Manchester United

But the role of Neil Warnock in the deal was minimal.

But the delays and prevarication over the appointment of a replacement for Tony Pulis as manager might have seen Zaha slip through Palace’s fingers and join QPR or Newcastle, among others. Had that happened, it will have only underlined the potential damage suffered by the club in the last fortnight.

Zaha’s Manchester United career reached its nadir on Tuesday night. A bit like Louis van Gaal’s. It is possibly the only thing the two have in common.

As the once mighty United went down 4-0 in the League Cup to a franchise side at a town most famous for its concrete cows, Zaha was pointedly left on the bench, surplus to requirements. If Zaha couldn’t merit a place among the shambles that was happening in front of him, then he would surely have little prospect of ever playing for United under van Gaal.

The signs had been there for a while. Bought by Sir Alex Ferguson in January 2013 for £10million, Zaha moved to Old Trafford at the end of Palace’s promotion-winning 2012-2013 season. The additional clauses in the transfer that might have added up to a further £5 million for Palace were never activated: there were no Premier League appearances, no further England caps.

For Ferguson’s replacement as United manager, David Moyes, Zaha was “not his cup of tea”. Zaha was loaned out to Cardiff earlier this year, where he cut a disconsolate figure and failed to impress in a mediocre team that was heading for relegation. His exile saw him unavailable when Ryan Giggs, surely someone who would recognise the talents of a flying winger, took temporary charge after Moyes’s dismissal.

A new manager offered a fresh start for Zaha’s United career, but one that he spurned. If ever he needed to impress, then surely it would have been in pre-season training for the man who had just guided the Dutch, boosted by the performances of attacking wide man Arjen Robben, to the World Cup semi-finals. But when the United squad had an “optional” training session at Carrington before the start of pre-season, Zaha was the only squad member who failed to show up.

Van Gaal made his position very clear. On the pre-season summer tour to the United States, Zaha was one of the last United outfield players to be given any game time. And in the Dutchman’s preferred 3-4-1-2 formation, Zaha’s attacking skills were less in demand than those of a tracking-back wing-back who could tackle.

A long way down the pecking order for a place in United’s front three behind Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Juan Mata, the £60 million arrival of Angel di Maria did not improve the south Londoner’s prospects at all.

If any further revelation was needed for Zaha, then it came on a wet Tuesday night in Milton Keynes as Marnick Vermijl, Reece James and Saidy Janko all got to start and Andreas Pereira and James Wilson were called on as subs. Clearly, van Gaal has a cruel streak.

Happy days: Zaha's got cause for the thumbs up today

Happy days: Zaha’s got cause for the thumbs up today

Today, 21-year-old Zaha was finally put out of his Manchester misery. This morning, he was back at Palace’s Beckenham training ground (presumably having kept to the speed limit in his Lamborghini), to undergo the statutory medical. The terms of the loan deal will see Palace pay the player’s £1.5 million wages this year, with the option of a permanent transfer at the end of the season for a fee in the range of £8million.

The season’s loan arrangement could be important for Palace, too. Effectively, Zaha will be on trial: having not played regular football for for 16 months, and given his Cardiff performances, Warnock will expect him to work hard to re-establish himself as a first-team, and possibly England, player.

The role in Zaha’s return of Steve Parish, the Palace co-chairman, has undoubtedly been key. It is thought that the Zaha deal was one of a number of transfers which were discussed in the showdown meeting with Tony Pulis two weeks ago which saw the Manager of the Year quit Selhurst Park. Zaha has all the appearance of being a Parish player, not a Pulis one. Time will tell whether Zaha is a Warnock player.

Zaha’s presence in and around Croydon for the last couple of weeks, including that speeding ticket in Coulsdon, was one indicator of his desire for the return move to go through. “Wilf would walk over broken glass to return to Crystal Palace,” a source close to the player told Inside Croydon two weeks ago.

The squad that Pulis moulded, but was never allowed to build, will change under Warnock, if not immediately, then in January when the next transfer window opens. Warnock will need to deliver some league points, and quickly, if not at Newcastle on Saturday, then certainly at home in the six-pointer against Burnley, which comes after the fortuitous, for Warnock, international break.

That the structure and blend of a playing squad can be developed so much on the whim of one or two people is amply demonstrated in the Zaha signing, and also, perhaps, in one line in a report in a national newspaper today: according to Palace sources, Jason Puncheon, a hard-working midfielder in the Pulis side which finished 11th in the Premier League in May, could “be allowed to leave if the right offer comes in”. The first press conference of Neil Warnock’s second coming as Palace manager is at Beckenham at 5pm today.

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2 Responses to The Return of the Native: How Zaha came home to Palace

  1. arnorab says:

    Crystal Palace is a wonderful club, magnificent… least off the field.
    There is never a dull moment, one way or another, and the pies are the best in the Premier League. What more could you want.

  2. derekthrower says:

    The truth is Zaha has not been good enough at the top level. That is the only reason a big club will let a player go for a great loss. He will not prove to be the panacea for Palace this season with the huge problems they now face.

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