Long road to Crystal Palace riches for Yannick Bolasie

Winger has gone from Hillingdon Borough to Premier League via Malta, Bristol and Plymouth and, after such a tortuous journey, is determined to stay there

Tottenham Hotspur is not an easy place to go but neither is Libya, where Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie won his second international cap for Democratic Republic of Congo seven months ago.

It was a World Cup qualifier in Tripoli’s June 11 Stadium, in front of 35,000 fervent fans. It was Libya’s first competitive home game since October 2010; they had played their last few “home” fixtures in Egypt, Tunisia and Mali, because of the civil war.

Under tight security, DR Congo flew in and played out a 0-0 draw. “It was tough, it was a different atmosphere,” remembers Bolasie, 24, who could have been forgiven for wondering what he had got himself into. “It was a bit scary, to be fair. It was their first game in three years over there, and their fans were at it, because they had a chance to qualify for the World Cup.”

Bolasie’s debut had come a few weeks before, in the home game against Libya, in the Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa. It is some way removed from the enforced seating and pristine pitches of the Premier League. “The stadium is all right,” Bolasie tells me this week at Palace’s training ground in New Beckenham, south-east London. “The pitch is synthetic, 3G, but it’s OK. There are 80,000 to 100,000 fans, it’s noisy, with drums. It’s like a party in the stands.”

 

DR Congo did not make it to the World Cup, and nor did Libya, with Cameroon winning their group and then the play-off to take their place in Brazil this summer. The next focus for Bolasie is qualification for the 2015 African Cup of Nations in Morocco, especially after he turned down the chance to play at the 2013 competition to help Palace win promotion to the Premier League.

Born in Lyons, France, and brought up in Willesden, north-west London, Bolasie would have liked to represent England but was delighted to play for his parents’ homeland. “It was something I always wanted to do,” he says. “The first priority would have been England, but you have to look at the circumstances, England have got a lot of good, young talent coming through so I thought I’d go and play for my mum and dad’s country.”

“My dad – Gaby Yala – played for the Congo national team as well, at Under-21 level. When I see him playing, even today, I could see he’s got something about him. He’s got a different style to myself, and I think he plays more like my younger brothers.”

One brother, Ruddock Yala,  20, plays for Harrow Borough in the Ryman League Premier Division. Another, Glenn Yala, 23, plays for Chalfont St Peter in the Southern League First Division Central. Far away from White Hart Lane, where Bolasie will play today – at least in football terms – but certainly not unfamiliar to him.

It was in the Southern League First Division SouthWest that Bolasie made his start in senior football, representing Hillingdon Borough. He started off with the Under-18s, playing Middlesex County league, and for their Sunday league team, while still trying to represent his school, West London Academy, when he could. His enthusiasm was obvious and at 17 he was given his senior debut.

“I made my debut at Didcot Town,” remembers Bolasie. “It was tough. That was the first time I came into proper men’s football and it was hard. I knew I could get past them, but what restricted me a lot was when they put their body weight on me. It just made it hard to get past any man. But I adapted well and eventually started pushing on.”

Bolasie admits that opponents tried to kick him – “a lot of the time I was a bit too quick” – but looks back on his non-league start – and Hillingdon’s Middlesex Stadium – with real warmth. “When I looked at Hillingdon Borough at the time, their main stadium was actually decent. Flat pitch, you could run with the ball, it was good actually. Away games were harder, the likes of Didcot Town, Harrow Borough and Wealdstone FC, the pitches weren’t the best, on slopes.”

It was not the grounding in the game that many teenagers get but Bolasie knows that is no bad thing. “I didn’t know any better, really. I just enjoyed my football at the time.”

While Bolasie started in non-league and is now at the top, some of his childhood friends have gone in the opposite direction. “In Willesden I was surrounded by quite a few footballers, but a lot of them have fallen off, and that’s not something I wanted to do.”

Kerrea Gilbert and Phil Ifil are both from Willesden, both two years older than Bolasie. Gilbert was at Arsenal as a teenager, Ifil at Tottenham. Both played for the first teams before dropping down through the leagues and out of the game.

“I used to look up to them. They played first-team games but I don’t exactly know what happened. There are a lot of distractions in London, which is the downside to things, for a lot of young footballers as well, and my aim is to beat that. I don’t want to get distracted by anything, my aim is to concentrate on football and do the best I can.”

That ambition took Bolasie abroad at the age of 18, when his cousin Lomano Tresor LuaLua arranged a trial for him in Malta. It turned into a contract at Floriana, even though the Maltese league only allows three foreign players in each side.

From there Bolasie came back to England with a contract at Plymouth Argyle, before productive loan spells at Rushden & Diamonds and then Barnet before signing for Bristol City and then, in 2012, for Dougie Freedman’s Crystal Palace. Last year, first under Freedman then Ian Holloway, he enjoyed the best season of his career, setting up the opening goal in  Palace’s play-off semi-final win over Brighton & Hove Albion.

Finally, Bolasie was in the top flight. “I had always wanted to be in the Premier League, but obviously the journey that I have taken wasn’t straightforward.”

Since then, it has not been easy, but for Palace and Bolasie things are looking up. The winger has started their last four games, played well, and can hope for another game at Tottenham today, where he will not be cowed.

“When we played Man City, I was there on the pitch lining up, thinking ‘Am I actually here?’ But it’s good. For me, it’s all about playing with no fear.”

My other life

I’ve had a little one recently, he’s nearly five months old now. He’s called Kaidy Bolasie. So when I’m not playing I just chill out with the family really. I’m in Ickenham, by Uxbridge.

Aside from family time, I listen to a lot of music. I don’t know if you’ve heard of grime? I listen to a lot of grime. My favourite artists are Skepta and Boy Better Know.

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas