There is one simple, startling fact that underlines why the five-year contract signed by Wilfried Zaha on Wednesday is of such importance to Crystal Palace.
The club have not won a single Premier League point without Zaha on the pitch since September 24, 2016, when a team managed by Alan Pardew – three Palace managers ago – defeated Sunderland away from home.
The intervening 690 days demonstrate the scale of Zaha’s influence and why chairman Steve Parish persists in saying that the player ‘is worth more to us than anybody would ever pay us’.
Wilfried Zaha has become an indispensable member of the Crystal Palace team since rejoining
The long-term deal, which does not contain a release clause, is estimated to be worth just under £130,000 a week and elevates Zaha to Palace’s highest-earning player. If, as the evidence suggests, it guarantees Premier League safety and indeed progression, the vast expense is entirely justified for Roy Hodgson’s team.
For Zaha, it marks the culmination of a magnificent renaissance in south London. After signing this contract, Palace supporters will hope he becomes an inspiring club icon – akin to Paolo Di Canio at West Ham or Matt Le Tissier at Southampton.
Zaha first joined Palace at the age of 12 and is now only 12 appearances short of 300 for his boyhood club, despite that ill-fated period as a Manchester United player.
Zaha scored in the opening day win over Fulham and has now sealed a new five-year contract
The club unveiled Zaha’s new deal after a summer of speculation linking him with a move away
He is worshipped by the local community and, increasingly, he is giving back, too. Last week, he spent time with 12-year-old former Crystal Palace academy player Damary Dawkins, who suffers from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and desperately requires a bone marrow donor.
As a child in Croydon, Zaha attended the Premier League Kicks programme, which provided sporting opportunities to youngsters in deprived areas. He recently attended a session, put kids through the drills and then spent time answering their questions.
Those who have worked closely with Zaha since his return to the club in 2014 suggest he is a man who has discovered renewed maturity and rediscovered his love for the game.
‘When he returned from United, his confidence was fragile,’ one former Palace coach recalls.
The young winger struggled under David Moyes after moving to Manchester United in 2013
‘Wilf is a local boy. He has a big family and he was often by himself up in Manchester. Coming back down here, it re-energised him. He needed to be built up again.
‘He needed to know how important he is. We kept re-enforcing positive messages, talking about what he did well. He is not somebody to be surrounded by negativity.’
At Old Trafford, the story was almost entirely negative. He was the final signing of the Sir Alex Ferguson era but by the time he arrived in the summer of 2013, Zaha was playing under David Moyes.
The picture was bleak from the start. Ahead of his first pre-season tour, he arrived at the airport in jeans as the rest of the team came along in official club suits. His time-keeping was questioned while he also challenged United’s patience.
One of the remaining edicts of Ferguson’s rule was that young players should not turn up at Carrington in sports cars. The club instead arranged for company cars but Zaha often arrived in his Audi R8.
Former Palace defender Brede Hangeland had previously questioned Zaha’s commitment
His training ground dedication was also questioned. Senior stars were baffled when, during a warm-up on a spin-bike, a veteran player demonstrated far greater intensity than Zaha. The death knell was cast when he then arrived 45 minutes late for a reserve match against Middlesbrough in Salford.
At Crystal Palace, he did not win everyone over immediately. His former team-mate Brede Hangeland said: ‘On some Mondays he’d come over and say, “I’m starting my program now!” We’d then go to the gym, he’d do five push-ups and leave. It felt like he had a New Year’s resolution every Monday.’
If that may be entirely relatable to every common man and woman in the gym, it is not the mentality required of an elite footballer. Zaha accused Hangeland of spreading ‘lies to remain relevant’.
Yet the sentiments were shared by the FA, particularly during England’s Under 21 European Championship in 2013. Those close to the camp in Israel felt Zaha, struggling with injury, simply did not want to be there and matters darkened when Jordan Henderson ripped into the winger following the final match.
Now an Ivory Coast international, he developed a poor reputation with the FA at youth level
The nadir came when he exchanged blows with Ravel Morrison during an England U21 qualifier in 2013, which further undermined FA trust in him.
As he fell out of the international picture, filed alongside players deemed untrustworthy such as Morrison, Jonjo Shelvey and Connor Wickham, Zaha eventually decided to play for Ivory Coast. However, he did play twice for the senior England team before reaching that decision.
At Palace, Zaha is a player reborn. He is Palace’s joint-highest scorer in Premier League history and the club’s Player of the Year for the past three seasons. He is the reason that supporters buy tickets to watch Palace – bringing a joy and abandon to the field and playing with a smile rather than a snarl.
Last season, only Eden Hazard attempted more dribbles in the top flight, and this, coupled with his nine league goals, explains why Liverpool and Tottenham were so interested in him this summer.
A recent Palace coach says: ‘We had to keep on top of him with time-keeping but the lads helped him with that too. He always wanted to do more individually to work on his finishing and crossing. We had to say, “Enough now Wilf, come off the training pitch.”
‘His fitness stats were always strong for us. His leadership has matured. He knows he is the main man in the dressing room and with age and experience, he has become more vocal and has his opinions. The boy has become a man.’
Club coaches speak of a more mature and responsible player with leadership duties