WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES
Wilfried Zaha’s England call-up has once again turned the spotlight on the thriving academy at Crystal Palace, a youth set-up that has given debuts to 57 graduates since the mid-1990s alone. Under Simon Jordan and now CPFC2010, the academy has been placed at the heart of the club and the local community, while recent years have seen another gear shift in the quality of players produced under Gary Issott’s immaculate stewardship. Here, Bryan Davies takes a look at four of the best academy stars of recent times, and one player who could have been the best of the lot…
A late developer in youth terms, Zaha’s progress since his debut as a spindly kid in oversized kit and boots, bought for him by Dougie Freedman, has been remarkably rapid, and the Abidjan-born forward has matured into the finest player in the Championship.
His gifts are unique, his feet ridiculously quick and his repertoire of skills extraordinary. Regularly beating three/four/five players at a time, he leaves opponents agog and fans laughing in incredulity and gasping in admiration. Zaha’s talents aren’t superfluous, however; his tricks serve a purpose, and he has added considerable end-product to his game in recent months. Detractors point to a lack of goals, but there are mitigating circumstances. His 14 strikes (and multiple assists) have come playing almost exclusively wide, in a side that, for a long time under Freedman, struggled to embrace creativity and expression.
Zaha’s future may be central, given his ability to go either left or right when taking on defenders and running with the ball at blistering speed. Currently he is dovetailing beautifully with new recruit Yannick Bolasie, offering a vibrant team wonderful balance and an exhilarating counterattacking threat.
While he is yet to play at the highest levels, Zaha has made many very good players look very foolish, and his is a game that will transfer to any stage, especially in this age of absent-minded defending. His defensive discipline and upper body strength are underrated facets of his game and, whilst it is acknowledged he still has plenty to learn, especially in keeping a clear head in light of a chronic lack of protection from officials, it is scary to think how good he will be. A January departure is unlikely, but one thing is more or less certain: come the summer, he will be a Premier League player. At this rate, that may well be with Palace.
The next superstar off the rank. Having broken his leg last season, Williams has had to contend with a frustrating succession of niggling injuries. Such setbacks have restricted him to 27 appearances for Palace (12 starts), yet it is clear – all hyperbole aside – that he is very much the real deal. New Palace boss Ian Holloway has drawn comparisons with David Silva, while academy peers gave Williams the nickname Joniesta. Such comparisons appear lofty, yet are indicative of the way Williams plays the game, and he has the tools to reach the top level. He plays with a maturity and intelligence that belies his 19 years, with a technique not typical of many British players.
Comfortable across midfield but strongest as a No.10, Williams glides across the pitch, finding and creating space with aplomb. Like Paul Scholes, he creates pictures seconds ahead of the rest. He can pick a perfectly weighted pass and dribbles with precision. He also has a dream of a first touch; one adhesive take against Burnley last month – instantly killing an over-hit cross while arriving at considerable speed – lingers in the memory, far too good for the Championship. Despite his diminutive stature, Williams – to use Sunday League parlance – likes to mix it. He also times his plays perfectly, often drawing fouls from clumsy defenders. Such factors may contribute to the niggles, but it would be foolish at this stage to look to try and alter his game.
Williams has been heavily involved with Wales at various levels. He has played for the Under-21s, been on the bench for the senior side and looks set to be part of a dynamic Welsh midfield for years to come alongside Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Gareth Bale.
Moses arrived in England from his native Kaduna at 11 and quickly made waves with his talent. Spotted by Palace and given a scholarship to the highly-regarded Whitgift School, Moses made an instant impact; powerful, skilful, and scoring goals for fun, his schoolboy feats became playground legend. A potent mix of technicality and physicality, Palace had unearthed a diamond that needed little polishing.
Moses was a first-team certainty, and sure enough earned a debut at 16 under Neil Warnock. He flattered to deceive initially, but by the time of his departure he was unplayable, scoring special goals and able to drift past defenders with ease. Administration forced Palace’s hand in selling Moses for a meagre sum and, while he was much-admired, only Wigan had the foresight to force a deal. Moses took a while to settle in unfamiliar environs, but the faith of Roberto Martinez was unwavering and the boss was rewarded, particularly last season, as a scintillating Moses helped the Latics avoid relegation once again with some penetrative and, at times, old-school wing play.
Moses has been in and out of the Chelsea side since his summer move, understandable considering the presence of Mata, Oscar and Hazard, but he has impressed when given a chance, demonstrating previously unheralded aspects of his game – notably his strength, aerial prowess and ability to produce a delicious pass. Still only 21, he is sure to be a vital player for Chelsea and Nigeria in the years ahead. Nigeria won the race for the international services of Moses against a dithering and complacent England, and, with the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on the horizon, he is a key player for the appropriately monikered Super Eagles.
Now most famous for that penalty, that advert, and some reasonable but grey TV analysis (natty dresser though), it is easy to forget that Southgate was a fine player. Best remembered as an accomplished centre-back, Southgate played exclusively in midfield for Palace, captaining the First Division-winning side of 1993/94, under a manager, Alan Smith, who had reportedly told him at 17: “Son, no fucking chance.”
He was a combative and efficient central midfielder, capable of intense box-to-box play and the odd screamer. He served the club with distinction before moving to Aston Villa in 1995, where he successfully converted to centre-back. His reading of the game was perfect for the position and he was particularly adept in a three-man backline, making him a classic fit for the England of Terry Venables. He famously missed with an anaemic penalty against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 96, but he had a super tournament.
Rarely was Southgate invited back into midfield, though he was, disastrously, employed as a defensive midfielder by Kevin Keegan in the infamous 0-1 reverse to Germany – the last England match for Keegan and Old Wembley. Southgate won an impressive 57 caps. To be honest, his talent probably deserved more silverware and a bigger club than Palace, Villa or Middlesbrough.
His spell as Middlesbrough manager was average, though his record at promoting players from another excellent academy was encouraging. Following relegation and the inevitable (though somewhat delayed) sacking, he was appointed head of elite development at the FA in 2011, helping to establish plans to vastly improve the technique of young English players and the quality and quantity of youth coaches. Having left that role he is, for now, exclusively to be seen covering ITV football, enduring the passive-aggression of Roy Keane and the curiosity that is Adrian Chiles.
The One That Got Away. In hindsight, that was a good thing. A Palace season-ticket holder, Bostock made his debut at 15 years and 287 days, making him the youngest player in Palace history. He spoke of his desire to captain his boyhood club. Then he left, for Spurs. Palace were furious.
Bostock spoke of stagnation and a dislike of Warnock’s style, but his words appeared to carry little merit. Thanks to some self-serving advice, he made a decision that has to this point backfired spectacularly. Nearing his 21st birthday, he has played for four loan clubs and made a grand total of 43 competitive appearances. He has yet to play for Spurs in the Premier League. Currently on the periphery at Swindon, his attitude has been questioned upon the early termination of previous loan spells. It would be foolish to disregard a player who is still a young man, but it’s nearing crunch time.
Not all promising players flower as hoped, but at 15 Bostock was warmly regarded globally. However you splice it, the move to Spurs was a poor one, and that has been great for the Palace academy – the perfect pointer for players considering supposed greener grasses. While Bostock has floundered, his contemporaries have blossomed, aware that the trappings and the riches will come later.
Football must come first, and the vast majority at Palace understand that. In February, the much sought-after Reise Allassani signed a contract, the largest ever offered to an academy player, acknowledging that Palace will allow him to flourish. The scouting and coaching at Palace is first-class, and the emphasis on youth will only grow further. Holloway wants to focus on the academy, and co-chairman Steve Parish has spoken of strangling playing budgets slightly to force the issue of promoting youth.