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.

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