Nervously clutching his kitbag, Wilfried Zaha shuffled in his seat and thought long and hard when asked how the last six months have changed his life. “I can't even put it into words,” he said. “It's just happened so fast really. I just thank God. I'm just... happy.”
Zaha – born in the Ivory Coast but raised in south London after moving to the UK at the age of four – was speaking after scoring his first goal for England Under-21 and being named man of the match in the 3-0 friendly victory over Romania on Thursday night. This came, of course, after Manchester United signed him in January, paying Crystal Palace a record fee for a Championship player that could eventually rise to £15 million.
Two months previously, Zaha had made his full England debut against Sweden in Stockholm to cap a meteoric rise that he is clearly still coming to terms with.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to it," reflected the young winger, who is seeing out the rest of this season on loan back at Palace, the club where he made his name.
"The difference is I am more star-struck when I'm playing with the senior England players as opposed to the Under-21s. Playing with the likes of Steven Gerrard is ridiculous, especially because of his passing range. I've been watching these players on Match of the Day for so many years and wanting to play like them and then to actually be called up and wear the England shirt is just a dream. Obviously I will have to get used to it and just try to do what I have to do. But it is also enjoyable playing with the Under-21s as we can have a good laugh and we're playing well together."
There is a certain innocence about Zaha that makes his story even more endearing. When England's Under-21 side last played in the European Championships in June 2011, he admitted he wasn't even aware the tournament was taking place.
Still only 18, he had already played a full season in Palace's first team fighting against relegation, having made his debut the previous season. Now, with over 120 appearances for the club he joined at the age of 12 under his belt, Zaha could be the star at this summer's European Under-21 Championship finals in Israel.
"It will be more practice for me for when I go to pre-season training with United," he added. "It's a chance for me to better myself in different ways and to go out on the big stage.
"It means a lot to me, because for all the stuff I hear from people about me being a good player, there's many others who say I'm overrated. This will give me the chance to show people what I'm all about and why I've got to where I've got now. It will be a crazy experience so I'm just looking forward to it."
The England Under-21 manager, Stuart Pearce, has used Zaha as a central striker in his last two matches and his burgeoning understanding with Liverpool teenager Raheem Sterling will have been noted by senior coach Gary Neville. Friends off the pitch, Zaha and Sterling are likely to be on opposing sides in one of English football's fiercest club rivalries next season but could provide the creative spark for the national team in the World Cup in Brazil next year and beyond.
"We have had a connection from the moment we met," said Zaha. "He's got that banter and the fact we went to the seniors together has made our friendship stronger. There's just that belief around the Under-21 squad. Seeing the players that we have got and the way we are playing means we know we have a chance."Reuse content