How Aaron Wan-Bissaka became the latest product off the Crystal Palace Academy line

Those who have watched the rise of the young Palace right-back tell The Independent why he can become an inspiration for south Londoners walking the same path

Matt Woosnam
Friday 30 March 2018 13:28
Aaron Wan-Bissaka's emergence from the Crystal Palace Academy is the latest success story at the club
Aaron Wan-Bissaka's emergence from the Crystal Palace Academy is the latest success story at the club

There are baptisms of fire, and then there is Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s start to his professional career.

The 20-year-old became Crystal Palace's first academy player to make a full league debut in 2,148 days when he debuted against Tottenham on live TV before clashes with Manchester United and then a trip to Stamford Bridge. His first three senior starts came against an elite Premier League triumvirate – Spurs, United and Chelsea – yet he was not remotely fazed.

Having come through that difficult opening run, a stand-out performance against Huddersfield Town has established Wan-Bissaka in Roy Hodgson’s first XI where he will start against Liverpool on Saturday, and Palace, who may have been in the summer market for a right-back, could have found something of a solution closer to home.

“To come in like he did against Tottenham and then Manchester United and Chelsea and now Huddersfield, that’s four really, really tough games,” Hodgson said after that 2-0 win at Huddersfield. “I’m amazed really at how well he’s handled it.”

Wan-Bissaka’s rise is a meaningful moment for a club whose supporters love nothing more than a local player coming through the ranks, and the emergence of the right-back has even earned him a terrace song already – to the tune of “Rock the Casbah”.

The Wan-Bissaka song

“Your wingers won’t like him… Wan-Bissaka, Wan-Bissaka” to the tune of Rock the Casbah

Chairman Steve Parish praised the defender, whose performances recently earned him a call-up to the England Under-20 side.

“It’s incredibly important that we continue to nurture and create players from our academy,” he told The Independent.

“Huge credit has to go to the staff there and to Roy for being brave in playing Aaron, but most of all to Aaron himself for understanding what it takes to be a Premier League player.

“If he continues his progress and dedication, not only will he fulfil his own potential but he will also be another great example and inspiration to the young people of south London in all walks of life of what can be achieved with hard work.”

Wan-Bissaka was thrown in at the deep end by Roy Hodgson but has not looked out of place in the Premier League

Wan-Bissaka was thrust into the team by fortune but kept his place by performing.

Palace had been hit by an injury crisis which, at its peak, left 12 first team players out, but it allowed their young full-back to catch the eye with impressive performances as he battled with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard. It surprised many, but those who have overseen his development were always confident he would step up.

Wan-Bissaka joined Palace from Croydon-based grassroots club Junior Elite at the age of 11. The club’s chairman and then-Palace Under-16 coach Colin Omegbehin was so convinced of his ability that he persuaded the club to take him on without a trial.

Initially a striker, and subsequently a winger, he imposed himself on games physically, technically and mentally. Such was his quality that it took just one training session for coach Winston Kelly to insist he play with an older team in the Under-8 age group. Leon Dillon, who coached him in his final two years at the club, recalls “his technique, in terms of first touch, was on another level to everyone in his team and who he played against.”

He top-scored at every age group until leaving in 2009 to join Palace, making an instant and lasting impression on his Under-11 coach Jamie Waller.

“He’s strong as an ox but he doesn’t have big shoulders on him,” explained Waller. “As a kid he was the same. He is a natural dribbler with great balance.

“He was the sort of lad who lived for it. He came in, grafted and would never give you a problem. Then there were moments where you would go ‘what a player he is’.”

Hodgson has been lauded for his bravery in trusting Wan-Bissaka 

Wan-Bissaka progressed through the age groups in the academy, being promoted to the Under-23 side at the age of 18, with boss Richard Shaw later converting him to the right-back position where he flourished and regularly trained with the first-team, making his mark as one of the few who were able to contain the talents of Wilfried Zaha.

He was named on the bench for the first-team squad four times last season and played half an hour as a second-half substitute against Liverpool in the Premier League Asia Trophy in pre-season. A loan move was initially planned for January but Roy Hodgson saw his potential and handed him his debut.

Going up against the likes of Tottenham, Chelsea and, on Saturday, Liverpool, has not fazed Wan-Bissaka

The Addington-born youngster was part of the Oasis Academy Shirley Park scheme, aimed at providing Palace’s academy players with more contact time alongside their education. Ben Garner, the former West Bromwich Albion assistant manager and Palace first-team coach, recalls how well he developed from the age of 14.

“He was one of, if not the, most improved player that year. Without doubt he benefited from that scheme and the extra contact time and coaching that he received. Aaron always wanted to learn and get better all the time,” Garner told The Independent.

Pace, technicality and ability to withstand pressure stand out as his main attributes, and have drawn comparisons to another Palace academy graduate, Nathaniel Clyne. But his background as a winger means he is more of a blend between Clyne and current Selhurst Park icon Zaha.

There is a clamour for more young talent to be given opportunities, sometimes irrespective of their supposed ‘readiness’, but Wan-Bissaka has shown that with luck, a manager who is willing to take a risk and hard work, it is possible to break through.

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