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Southgate, Giggs & Man Utd: How Zaha has proved everyone wrong

COMMENT: He's the joker. The anomaly. Not on the pitch. He's now too consistent for that. But Wilfried Zaha has become the asterisk in the careers of many of those (and their groupies) so sure in their methods...

It was revealing. Explosive. Even at times bombastic. But Zaha didn't miss in that interview on Saturday with the Daily Mail. Now 26, the quotes that took the headlines were his announcement that it was time to move on. Having rebuilt his career - shattered, as he says, by the experiences of Manchester United - it was now time for he and Crystal Palace to part ways.

But as we say, during this interview, Zaha didn't miss, slaying a few myths along the way. David Moyes copped the brunt. The Scot seeing nothing in Zaha during his ten months in charge at Old Trafford. But Zaha also alluded to Ryan Giggs as a contributor to his demise. The club legend placed squarely in a meeting by Zaha as he was told by then United manager Louis van Gaal to effectively 'jog on'.

After one training session in front of the pair, "...I go inside, have the meeting with them and they just said: 'We just don't think you're good enough'. So I said 'OK then, I just want to go on loan'."

Now in charge of Wales, Giggs isn't the only national team coach. Young national team coach. To get it so, so wrong when it comes to Zaha.

By rights. At least those of us who think the same as Steve Parish, the Palace chairman. Zaha should be a first-choice for England. But Gareth Southgate. The Southgate of Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling. He just couldn't see what the fuss was about. Even accusing the Palace attacker of leaning on him to be capped.

"I have to focus on players who are desperate to play for England," Southgate, a former Palace captain, declared in response to Parish publicly lamenting that Zaha was now committed to the Ivory Coast and not England. "If you don't feel that 100 per cent passion, I am not sure it is for me to sell that to you."

It was a claim by Southgate that led Zaha and his management team to produce a formal riposte: “Wilfried did not impose a timescale or set a date by which he had to be selected by England. There was no 'disappearing egg-timer'.

“His 'desire' or 'passion' should never have been publicly questioned for making that decision. Wilfried is very proud of his family and very proud to represent the Ivory Coast."

Giggs. Southgate. Even Van Gaal. All celebrated today. For their work with young players. For the football their teams have produced. But Zaha is their asterisk. The one they called horribly wrong.

But one manager who did see something in the Ivorian. And in the process has smashed every negative stereotype so many have thrown at him since this union. That one manager is Roy Hodgson. Actually we could say two. As for all his woes at United, it was Sir Alex Ferguson - like Hodgson also in his 70s - who saw something in Zaha others didn't.

At Palace, this wasn't supposed to happen. Hodgson's system wouldn't suit Zaha. Zaha would refuse to bend. And Hodgson would move him on for someone more workmanlike. Or so the manager's old England critics had us believe.

Instead, Hodgson's approach. His tactics. His man-management. His motivational powers. It has brought the very best from Zaha. At 26, the attacker. Whether it's on a flank. Through the middle. Or as an out-and-out striker. Zaha is playing the best football of his career. Form which has him now regarded as - realistically - an €80m player.

"I see Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, these types of players, and dribbling wise I'm up there with them but they have been given the platform to perform," declared Zaha.

Bombastic? Perhaps. But listen to his manager. Not exactly one for the hyperbole.

“His dribbling ability and ability on the ball has been good for a long period of time, so what step can he take to get himself up there to be recognised the same as Alexis Sanchez or Eden Hazard?" queried Hodgson last year.

“I believe that with his qualities, there's no reason he can't take that step and be even better."

Where Zaha stands today. With a pick of Europe's best clubs. And the biggest stages. Much of that has to do with his partnership with Hodgson.

A year ago, when Chelsea and Roman Abramovich were taking a close look, this column argued Zaha should stay with Palace. Build a legacy.

Now twelve months on and that legacy has been established. An example. An inspiration. Someone for the next generation coming through Palace's ever improving youth system to draw from. That's what Zaha will leave when Parish receives the offer he feels he cannot refuse.

And with it, for good and bad, that asterisk in the CVs of so many of the coaches whom Zaha has come in contact with will only appear bolder.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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