When Wilfried Zaha talks about being more determined than ever to succeed, he leaves you in no doubt that he means it. You can see it, hear it, feel it.
Zaha is fascinating as he discusses an array of topics — his current club, his future, his Champions League dreams and the upbringing that now inspires his award- winning charity work. But especially relevant before a crossroads summer for the 26-year-old Crystal Palace winger, and a topic which brings out the most emotion in him, is his time at Manchester United.
Zaha cannot hide his hopes of returning to the highest level and is ambitious to challenge for the big trophies. Driving him on are memories of what happened when he earned the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ — a dream move to Manchester United — which did not unfold as planned.
Wilfried Zaha has opened up on his dream move to Manchester United that didn’t go to plan
When talking about his spell at Old Trafford, it brings out the most emotion in the winger
Zaha recalls a catalogue of incidents, what he calls ‘the ins and outs of what really happened’, which support his belief that then manager David Moyes and his staff tried to ‘break me in every way possible’ and ‘destroy my career for no reason’.
That Sir Alex Ferguson made Zaha his final signing, only to retire before he joined full-time, is common knowledge. That his successor Moyes had already deemed Zaha ‘not my type of player’ while he was Everton boss is lesser-known.
Looking back now as he speaks to Sportsmail, that alone is an indication that he barely stood a chance from the off. ‘It was the opportunity of a lifetime,’ Zaha says. ‘The chance to play for Manchester United. It was beyond anything I could have hoped for and I treated it that way. I tried my hardest in every training session to show what I could do.’
But he recalls feeling marginalised when Moyes took issue with the way he dressed and even the car he drove. Zaha felt further let down by the club’s failure to shut down false rumours he was sleeping with Moyes’ daughter and that his absence was due to an attitude problem. He remembers being ‘belittled’ in training by one United coach after scoring. On another occasion he was shown a video of himself in tricky winger mode for Palace and was asked how he could recapture that form, having already been told by Moyes to cut out the fancy footwork. ‘You see the mind games they were playing?’ a bewildered Zaha asks.
Despite all this, Zaha continued to give Moyes the benefit of the doubt, accepting he would opt for experienced players as he tried to find his feet as Ferguson’s successor.
Sportsmail’s ADRIAN KAJUMBA discussed all things football with the Crystal Palace star
The tricky winger talked about being more determined than ever to succeed in his career
Zaha claimed his transfer to Premier League giants United was an ‘opportunity of a lifetime’
‘But when he took me out of the Champions League squad and put in Adnan Januzaj, who had never played for the first team, I knew then that this is way bigger than I ever thought and had gone way beyond footballing reasons,’ he says. ‘When it was not about football or ability, what could I do?’
This was not what Zaha had envisaged after meeting Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton and discovering that United wanted him.
Zaha was United’s standout player in 2013-14 pre-season under Moyes but was inexplicably frozen out until late October after starting in the Community Shield.
By the time Zaha escaped to join Cardiff on loan in January 2014 he was a shadow of his former self.
‘They got a ghost of Wilfried Zaha at Cardiff,’ he said, despite impressing the Welsh club’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with his application as he tried to get back on track.
Zaha described what should have been a fresh start at United the following season under Louis van Gaal as ‘like being on trial at my own club.’ He remembers the Dutchman and his assistant Ryan Giggs saying they would decide his future based on the outcome of one training session. ‘Wayne Rooney said to me “you’ve trained the best”,’ Zaha recalls.
‘Then 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”.’
Zaha felt marginalised under David Moyes at United after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure
Moyes speaks to the winger during pre-season training back in July 2013 in Bangkok
Zaha returned on loan to Palace and signed permanently in February 2015, having made only four appearances for United and played just 28 minutes in the Premier League as a substitute.
Zaha stresses he is now ‘over’ how things turned out. But with many using it to question whether he is cut out for life at the top, it is clear his side of the story needs considering before conclusions are drawn.
He says: ‘Not being given a fair opportunity to play at all and being called a flop is what hurt me even more. How can I be if I wasn’t given a fair chance?’
‘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.
‘Every day I wanted to go on Twitter or Instagram and say something but I couldn’t. That would be unprofessional.’
But Zaha says he is a more rounded person for the ordeal.
‘I’m better prepared mentally to deal with any situation I’m faced with now. I was a little fish in a big pond. From that grind, going out on loan, nobody believing in me — I’ve built that self belief in myself.
‘The experience has given me even more and proved that I can do anything if I believe in myself. As long as I continue to work hard and remain dedicated nothing will get in the way of me reaching my goals.’
The 26-year-old admits he is a more-rounded person for the ordeal at Old Trafford
When Zaha escaped to join Cardiff on loan in January 2014, he was a shadow of his former self
Speaking a couple of days after winning an award for his charity work, Zaha starts to explain why he is so keen to give back. He is a fascinating, candid interviewee and just like he is on the pitch — passionate and animated, especially when something really matters to him.
And he delivers a short, powerful monologue about why his upbringing is another big reason he will no longer let anything stop him chasing his dreams.
‘Football has changed my life, changed my family’s life,’ says Zaha who, along with his family, has donated generously to worthwhile causes in the UK and Ivory Coast throughout his career and has also set up his own foundation.
‘Even when I signed for Palace when I was eight I still had nothing. At all. My dad took me to training in cars that broke down all the time. We’d have to get out and push them. Then I got to the stage where I had to take the bus by myself. I couldn’t afford to buy boots, so I’d play in trainers on the grass or borrow boots from my friends.
‘So football, in a way, really saved our lives. We came from nothing. I’ve been through so much to get to where I am now for anything to stop me getting to that next level, or returning to that next level.
‘My story doesn’t stop here. I’m too ambitious. And not ambitious just to play for a top club but to win things at club level and with the Ivory Coast. To go to the next level and test myself properly.’
Zaha has been tipped to return to the top level after shining for Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park
Zaha’s story already features the fairy tale of his journey since arriving in England from the Ivory Coast aged four, living a goal kick away from Selhurst Park and being inspired by its bright lights, to becoming the best player shining underneath them for Palace.
And the time has come, it seems, to start writing the next chapter.
Watching the recent Champions League action has only increased Zaha’s desire to return to the top level. ‘It gives me goosebumps seeing the crowds, amazing stadiums,’ he says.
‘When I’m seeing players I think, “what would I do in that predicament?”
‘I feel I can get to that stage, with the confidence I have and belief in my ability. I should be there. I’m missing out. I don’t just want to be at home watching it.
‘Real players, when the time comes, they’re the ones that step up. I want to be that player in the big game. I want to be competing at the highest level where there’s an opportunity to win trophies. That’s where I picture myself.’
Zaha has found the right environment at Palace to develop into the player Ferguson thought he could be, one ready to return to that ‘highest level’.
Zaha has won more Premier League penalties (six) than any other player this season
But neither a third productive season this term for 13th-placed Palace, including winning more Premier League penalties (six) than anyone else, nor being widely hailed as the best player outside the top six is enough. ‘I’d love those sort of compliments when I’m in a top-six club,’ says Zaha.
His personal ambitions dictate there will have to be life after his boyhood club but he will forever be emotionally attached to the south Londoners. ‘The people at Palace showed me crazy love,’ he says. ‘The most real fans in the Premier League. Throughout every game, no matter how I’m playing, if I’m going through bad spells, not scoring for a little while they will back you.’
Zaha would love to repay them by leading Palace into the Champions League but the reality is that is virtually impossible. Club and player have different goals and Zaha has hit a ceiling at Palace.
‘For me to be better, to achieve what I know I am capable of, I have to aim to play at the very highest level, to win trophies,’ he says. ‘I’m blessed to have come this far in my playing career, and I have so many people to thank for that. But I feel like there is so much more I have to offer.
‘I have to experience the Champions League. I just need the opportunity, that’s it. And I’ll do the rest.’
Zaha also gave a fascinating insight into the upbringing that inspires his charity work