Crystal Palace's latest jewel Wilfried Zaha ready to sparkle for adopted country

Zaha's surprise England call-up is culmination of careful nurturing by south London club

By the time Victor Moses was 14, the experts at Crystal Palace had already marked him down as a future first-team player. But at the same age Wilfried Zaha, England's newest recruit, was just another young hopeful. Gary Issott, Palace's academy manager and the man who brought on both players, told The Independent yesterday that "you knew Victor would make it, but Wilf was a late developer. He was doing OK at 14, 15. At 16, he was doing better, but no one called it that as soon as he went full-time he would take off."

Zaha's breakthrough came under George Burley in the summer of 2010. "George said 'give me your best youngster to train with us for two weeks in pre-season'," remembered Issott. "We sent Wilf. He never came back."

Two and a half years later, Zaha is poised to make his international debut and is on the January shopping list of clubs such as Arsenal and Liverpool. Zaha, 20, came to Britain from the Ivory Coast at the age of four, the youngest of eight children. "That has probably helped him," said Issott. "Younger siblings often benefit from playing with their elder brothers and their brothers' peers. And I'm sure he had to fight for every scrap at meal times."

He joined Palace at 12, progressed slowly, then had his first taste of life around the first team under managers Neil Warnock and Paul Hart as Palace slid into administration. "I brought him in to train with the first team at times just as I had Victor Moses," said Warnock. "I'd never seen kids like them. He had tremendous ability, like Victor, he had so much natural talent – he didn't have to practise anything. He was also quiet, well-mannered, all the young lads at Palace were, Gary had done a great job with them."

"Flair players... often learn from playing," said Issott. "Wilfried would get the ball and I'd be on the touchline muttering 'set it Wilf' and he'd go and beat three people and score. He's a great lad, a bit shy, easy to manage. His dad has been first class. You get some problem parents in youth football but his dad didn't interfere.

"Then when he became a regular, [manager] Dougie Freedman shielded and protected him. He was very conscious of the pitfalls and stopped Wilf doing things that would raise his profile before he was ready. He's done a very good job on that. Like Sir Alex Ferguson did with [Ryan] Giggs and [David] Beckham."

Freedman, now managing Bolton, said: "He trusted me, the family trusted me, I trusted them. I'd been coaching Wilfried since he was 14, I was coaching him as reserve-team manager. I know him inside out and it's been a long process of development. I remember certain games when we were in relegation battles when I've felt it wasn't the right stage to put him on. It is so tempting but I needed to look at the bigger picture for the kid's development and for the club."

It is a process that has paid off. If Zaha stays, he could lead Palace into the Premier League. If he goes in January, Palace should earn in excess of £10m. And just as important for a club with an emphasis on developing their own, his call-up this week has shown other aspirants what can be achieved by staying at Palace.

There is still sadness at Selhurst Park at the fate of John Bostock, who became the club's youngest player at 15 years, 287 days in October 2007 but walked out to join Tottenham in a £700,000 deal seven months later. Ten months older than Zaha, Bostock has yet to feature in the Premier League for Spurs and is currently on loan and in and out of the team at League One Swindon. Palace subsequently held on to and developed Moses and Nathaniel Clyne before selling them to Premier League clubs who put them straight into their first XIs. "Wilf saw a pathway here," said Issott. "At other clubs, you go into their youth system, here you can be an established Championship player while still 17, 18. Players learn off coaches, but they also learn off other players."

Even Issott doesn't know where Zaha will finish up playing on the pitch. "In the youth team, he played as a No 10. In the first team, he began wide left, and can now play wide right. He can go both ways so maybe being in the centre might help him." And wherever he plays, added Issott, he does the "dirty" side of football. "Some flair players take time to get that part of the game, but he does the defensive work willingly, he would track back and do all that was asked of him.

"It is great for us to have an academy graduate who has stayed at the club and still been called up by England," he said. "It is a proud moment for us and Wilf, and – on his performances this year – quite deserved."

League of their own: second-tier caps

* Jay Bothroyd: Cardiff striker was capped by Fabio Capello for the 2010 friendly defeat against France, but despite a move to QPR, has been unable to add to his tally of caps.

* David Nugent: Preston form resulted in cap against Andorra in 2007 under Steve McClaren. Not recalled, despite scoring.

* David James: Held on to goalkeeping jersey despite West Ham's relegation in 2003.

* Stuart Pearce: Already a regular as Nottingham Forest went down in 1993, the left-back maintained his place in side.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world