How a £200,000 per week contract offer, the Premier League’s oldest manager and a hamstring injury could all be inter-woven into the future plans of one of the greatest players ever to strut his stuff on the Selhurst Park turf
Was the sight of Wlfried Zaha limping off the pitch less than an hour into Saturday’s game against Bournemouth on Saturday the last that Crystal Palace fans will see their GOAT – greatest of all time – in their team’s shirt?
That was certainly the view of the Palace fanzines and newspaper correspondents as the Eagles, safe and secure in the Premier League for another season, despatched Bournemouth 2-0 in the south London May-time sun.
Extraordinarily, when considering the complete dependency the team once had on Zaha’s silky skills, the mood was less one of panic, as it might have been a couple of years ago, but of warm gratitude and acceptance that, at 30, the time may have come for their star player to move on.
The injury that saw Zaha subbed on Saturday is one reason for such pragmatism from even the most devoted of fans. That hamstring has pinged too many times for the comfort of either the player or the Selhurst physio staff.
While it lasted, Zaha’s performance on Saturday was as close to sublime as it could be, the Cryuff turn to make space in the Bournemouth penalty area for the cross that provided the opening goal as good as it gets.
One major reason for Zaha being able to shine so brightly was because he was alongside the likes of Michael Olise, Jordan Ayew and Eberechi Eze, the scorer of that first goal.
And the scorer of the second, too, the kind of strike which will have rivaled all of Zaha’s own Palace goals of the seasons.
Zaha and that deadly trident of attacking players up front have been given the freedom to play the kind of joyful, flowing football by veteran manager Roy Hodgson which the Selhurst crowd loves, which has salvaged the Palace season in a handful of games, and which has even prompted the club directors to consider offering their 75-year-old soccer sage a one-year contract to run the side again next season.
This really is the story of the ages.
Hodgson, the Premier League’s oldest-ever manager, spoke on Saturday of how much enjoyment he was getting from his task, able now to enjoy the Selhurst atmosphere that was denied to him during his covid-affected previous spell.
And in Olise, 21, and Eze, 24, he has unleashed two of the most impressive young talents. Olise has chalked up 10 assists this season, Eze 10 goals. Both offer younger legs, and similar skills, to the potentially departing Zaha.
Olise’s 10 assists is the most by any Palace player in a Premier League season. Including Zaha.
Six of Eze’s goals have come in Hodgson’s eight games in charge since succeeding Patrick Vieira. Remember, when Hodgson took over in March, Palace was a team that couldn’t score any goals.
“I just feel like I am more free,” Eze said on Saturday. Hodgson “has given me licence to run at people. Under him I do my best to positively affect the games”.
There was no immediate, official prognosis on the damage done to the precious Zaha hamstring, but with the final home fixture of the season only 12 days away, it is possible that after a 20-year association with the club, the Palace No11 may end his club career on 457 appearances, and never make it to 458.
That was certainly the view from the stands on Saturday.
The people behind one Palace podcast tweeted, “I can’t lie. I felt quite emotional when Wilfried left the pitch today.
“Ten years on from arguably his most iconic performance, those pesky hamstrings aren’t what they were, but I’m still not ready to say goodbye just yet.”
And leading fanzine Five Year Plan laid out its view: “Wilfried Zaha is the GOAT.
“There is no other. No one has been as consistent, as dominant, as single-handedly brilliant.
“If today was the last day, we can only be thankful for everything he did.
“Without him, we wouldn’t be a Premier League club.” And they should know.
But now the parting of the ways does seem very likely.
Zaha’s contract expires on June 30. Although there has been the disruption with the sacking of Vieira and arrival of Hodgson, it would normally be expected for such a star player as Zaha to sign a contract renewal months ago. That he has not done so suggests that this Eagle wants to stretch his wings.
His misadventure at Manchester United is now put down to experience, or rather inexperience (perhaps Zaha could have a word in the ear of Eze about the “big” clubs that are now looking at signing him?). But as he enters the final few years of his career, and with that hamstring to think about, Zaha may well be considering more lucrative options.
Matt Woosnam, the Palace specialist at The Athletic website, last week reported that Zaha, the best-paid player in Palace’s history, had been offered a massive pay rise, from £130,000 to £200,000 per week to stay at the club.
“This would take him to a new stratosphere,” Woosnam wrote.
Zaha wants a four-year deal, the club is offering three.
“It is difficult to imagine him getting a more lucrative offer in England or a major European club,” according to The Athletic.
The chances of that big-money move to a Champions League club appear to have faded over the last couple of seasons, when the club had been looking to sell their star asset for a major transfer fee, if nothing else but to help with the down payment on the spaceship-shaped new stand they want to build.
That no such deal was ever forthcoming shows that Palace’s price tag was a little too steep, even in the crazy world of European football transfers.
Complicating the position now is Zaha’s representation. Woosnam reports that the player may soon be changing agents, something which he has been prone to do in the past. Coming in the middle of his playing contract negotiations has probably not been helpful.
But Roma, where Jose Mourinho is manager, Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain have all shown an interest in Zaha, who is also thought to have received a mega-money offer to end his career in Saudi Arabia.
And then there is Zaha’s relationship, a positive one, with Roy Hodgson and his assistant, Ray Lewington. No one will have enjoyed seeing the side’s performance, and the play of Eze and Olise in Saturday’s dominant display, than Zaha himself (however much he may have been pained by his latest injury as he looked on after being substituted).
If the “right” move can’t be negotiated, might Zaha decide that home is where the heart is?
Which brings us to today’s report in The S*n, under the headline “O.A.PLEA”.
The tabloid reports that Steve Parish, the Palace chairman is understood to be seriously considering handing former England boss and Freeman of the Borough of Croydon Hodgson – 76 in August – a one-year contract.
“He has made it clear he does not consider himself to be ‘retired’ and would like to manage beyond this campaign,” the paper says.
“Apart from a significant upturn in results under Hodgson, Parish is said to be impressed with the way in which forward Eberechi Eze has improved under the veteran.
“And Hodgson also has an excellent working relationship with Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha, who is out of contract this summer and yet to agree new terms.”
And consider the alternatives. Sam Allardyce anyone?
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