Crystal Palace: Welcome Back Wilf & We Must Strike Sterile Newcastle

Another helter-skelter week in SE25...
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Another helter-skelter week in SE25...

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Crystal Palace: Welcome Back Wilf & We Must Strike Sterile Newcastle

“He’s just too good for you...”

As the club starts to step away from the wreckage of the last two weeks, the smoke is finally clearing to reveal there is still life after death. So much has happened in that hectic helter-skelter of a fortnight that it seems ridiculous to think that on 14th August Tony Pulis was still in charge and we were steeling ourselves for our opening match at the Emirates. Most clubs do not have this much excitement in a couple of seasons but down at Selhurst we sure love a stramash aka a disorderly commotion. As each piece of bad news filtered through, a series of departures and non-arrivals put Palace in the limelight but it was a harsh, unforgiving light. Everyone ridiculed us for our inaction as we limped from one crisis to another.

And now in the wake of Warnock’s return, which did not gain universal acclaim there is the prospect of Wilf coming home and for that we should be eternally grateful. We all felt for him as the misery of his one-year sentence at Old Trafford unfolded. He was Alex Ferguson’s last purchase, which is a reasonable thing to have on your cv and that was about as good as it got for Zaha as Moyes took over and he was not part of the new manager’s plans for whatever reason. From the outset he was a fringe figure at Man United, playing an hour in the Community Shield and then basically shunted to the sidelines like some sort of dilapidated afterthought, discarded and unloved. Eventually shunted off to Cardiff Zaha’s career had hit the buffers. But this was a young man talented enough to have played for England and to have lit up the Championship the year before. It will be interesting to see how he recovers from this spell in the wilderness and there needs to be patience because it will take time for him to get back to the effervescent match winner he had become.

So much for his fall from grace but it is worth reminding ourselves of the rise of Wilf, which the majority of us have enjoyed. He arrived at Palace as a 12 year-old and became the star graduate of our impressive Academy. Following in the footsteps of Moses, Clyne et al Zaha flourished after making his first team debut (ironically against Cardiff) in March 2010. His raw talent was immediately apparent and with some polishing and fine-tuning we knew he could make an impact. One of the earliest memories was his goal against Leicester on the first day of the 2010/11 season which saw us come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 and deep down I thought here was another gem from the Gary Issott production line of talent. Over the next two seasons he racked up over ninety matches and showed increasing maturity and added strength to his electric pace. His stunning performance at Old Trafford in the League Cup, which undoubtedly drew their attention initially, was all dash and panache as he ripped their defence apart, leaving Fabio Da Silva shaking his perm in bewilderment.

Then his big breakthrough came as he started the 2012/13 season with a swagger that earned him the right to be acclaimed as being far too good for most Championship opponents. Another turnaround victory sticks in the mind when Burnley visited Selhurst and the Clarets took control of the game and were 2-0 up before a Zaha brace sparked revival and we ended up winning 4-3. He single-handedly changed the course of the game and within a month he was playing for England and was soon sold to United but loaned back to help us win promotion to the Premier League.

Lest we forget, Wilf was instrumental in getting us through the Play-Offs in 2013 with his performance at the AmEx being in the Top 10 matches I have watched, out of 500+. Then of course it was Wilf who won the penalty against Watford on that heady day in May. He had signed off in style and departed a hero, with most fans wishing him the best as he prepared to take another step on the ladder to the top. But as we now know, it was a snake that awaited him at Old Trafford and he slipped down alarmingly, his confidence shattered.

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Crystal Palace: That Was The Week That Was

So his homecoming marks another stage in a remarkable journey, with enough highs and lows to justify a series of autobiographies and a biopic to boot. The big question is can he recapture that scintillating form of a few seasons ago and will he able to do at the very highest level after his Mancunian nightmare? He should be accepted back with open arms and be buoyed by the now familiar raucous support, the issue remains is whether he has been irreparably damaged, which would be such a waste of talent, but is very much a possibility. Whatever happens, welcome back Wilf and let’s enjoy his return but do not expect immediate returns. I cannot wait but I might just have to.

In other related news it was announced on 28th August that John Bostock has left Antwerp and joined OH Leuven of the Belgian 2ndDivision. Apart from being home to Stella Artois not sure how big a draw Leuven is but Wilf should bear in mind how the once mighty have fallen.

And so there is the small matter of a match against Newcastle on Saturday, and yet again the preparations have not been ideal with the upheavals and uncertainty of the last few weeks enveloping the club. Another returnee Warnock may be highly experienced (his first managerial post was in 1980 before any of the current squad were born, apart from Julian Speroni) but he has his work cut out to clear away the rubble of the Pulis/ Mackay / Moody mess and get the players focused on the trip to St. James Park. Newcastle looked obdurate against Man City on the opening weekend before succumbing to the champions and followed that up with a sterile goalless draw against Villa, which suggests that the current crop of French Geordies, such as Riviere and Cabella have yet to add too much flair.

But if they are taking time to gel at least they have not had to deal with the maelstrom unleashed over SE25. There are a fair few players who will not know if they are coming or going. Poor Martin Kelly is in his second week at Palace and is already on his third manager so his head must be spinning. Jason Puncheon made some acerbic remarks about his new manager last season for which he was fined and although Warnock claims they have sorted out their differences and Puncheon is ‘a really good chap’ there will be a fair amount of tension bubbling under the surface. After his midweek hatrick Dwight Gayle must be in contention for a starting place; he is a proven goal scorer even though he has been given so few opportunities to show it. And as for Zaha, as discussed above, it will take time for him to recover his equilibrium and he is desperately lacking proper match fitness and that does not return overnight.

Last season’s eleventh place was forged on a gritty togetherness and structural unity, but having had that torn asunder by circumstances, Warnock’s first task is to rebuild that indomitable spirit. It has been said that Steve Parish has been talking to Warnock for a while and he should be able to hit the ground running, as he knows the club. But the Palace of today is a very different beast to that of four years ago when he jumped ship to QPR. He does not have the luxury of time with which to acclimatise to the rigours of the Premier League and assess the situation. He needs to turn things round quickly and for a man in his mid-sixties this will be an almighty challenge.

Richard Foster's first book The A-Z of Football Hates is now out.

@rcfoster