From the moment a 17-year-old Wilfried Zaha broke into the Crystal Palace first team in the Championship it has been almost impossible to engage with anyone from a particular corner of south London without hearing breathless odes to the young forward’s skills or immoderate comparisons to the world’s best.
The highlight reels were certainly eyebrow-raising but doubters pointed to relatively low numbers in his goals and assists column. Even a two-goal performance in the 2013 play-offs as Palace won promotion to the Premier League and a high-profile move to Manchester United failed to convince those whose skepticism would soon turn to smugness as the erratic youngster flopped at Old Trafford.
A reported £12m transfer bid for him last year from Sunday’s opponents Tottenham demonstrated the gap in the perception of Zaha between members of the Selhurst Park congregation and the unconverted. Chairman Steve Parish described it as a “ridiculous bid”, adding: “I can’t imagine that they’re really serious.”
Still, criticisms have continued. His “delivery hasn’t been good enough”, Harry Redknapp said last year while describing Zaha as “a big disappointment”. Alan Shearer’s assessment was similar: “His stats are not good enough for a guy of his ability.”
Such complaints have rarely emerged from within Selhurst Park and Zaha’s impact on Palace following his return from injury at the beginning of the season has emphatically demonstrated why.
The 24-year-old was absent for all but the first of Palace’s seven consecutive goalless losses at the start of the campaign but his return has coincided with the Eagles’ recovery, with Zaha starring in a 2-1 victory over champions Chelsea and a two-goal comeback against West Ham last weekend.
Nearly all of Palace’s attacking stats have risen following his reintegration as a striker. Without him, Palace averaged 5.8 shots per game from inside the penalty area but that nearly doubles to 9.8 with Zaha. Shots from inside the six-yard box jump from 0.67 to 1.5 per game, dribbles from 17.3 per game to 23.3 and key passes from 8.7 to 9.3.
Zaha can certainly take credit for the dribbling increase as the top player in the Premier League for successful take-ons per game with 3.75. His influence in other areas may not be felt directly — Zaha has not been a bountiful chance creator – but his position as the spearhead of Palace’s attack has driven them forward.
“He has got the X-factor,” said Palace manager Roy Hodgson last month.
“He can dribble and beat people, which not every player in the league is capable of doing. Most of all he has a special place in the hearts and minds of the Crystal Palace supporters.
“I think they will feel more comfortable now that he is back, believing he is the type of person who, with his ability, can change a game and turn a defeat into a victory.”
That may just be Zaha’s best asset. Those 18 dribbles he produced against Chelsea and West Ham — almost a third of the team’s total — were performed to the sound of seats cascading upright as fans rose to their feet in excitement. Each step over, flick or faint stirs a crowd for whom Zaha engenders an almost parental sense of pride far more than any of his teammates.
In a week in which Palace colleague Ruben Loftus-Cheek earned his first England call-up, it’s hard not to believe that Zaha would be included too had he not been shirked by then England boss Hodgson and declared for his native Ivory Coast instead last year.
Thankfully for Palace fans, Hodgson is now the latest convert in the congregation. This Sunday morning, Tottenham may experience for themselves what prompted such passion in this particular Parish.