Wilfried Zaha leaves legacy as driving force behind Crystal Palace’s success

It was the farewell letter Crystal Palace supporters hoped they would never have to read. Wilfried Zaha’s emotional message posted on Instagram just after 10pm on Sunday finally signalled the end of a journey that began when he joined Palace’s youth team more than 20 years ago.

“I’ve been wearing the Palace shirt since I was eight years old, it’s literally been my second skin and I always gave everything when I wore it,” Zaha wrote. “I grew up two roads away from the bright lights and loud crowds of Selhurst Park, having no idea that I would be at the centre of it all one day, and have the amazing journey I’ve had with this amazing club. So I would say to my eight-year-old self, dream big and only you can kill your dream.”

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After months of speculation about his future, Zaha’s decision to join Galatasaray will have come as a surprise to most. But with the Turkish side poised to kick off their Champions League campaign against the Lithuanian side Zalgiris on Tuesday night in the second qualifying round, the Ivory Coast forward decided that a move to Istanbul represented his best option of playing in Europe’s elite club competition after nine years spent keeping his boyhood club afloat in the Premier League.

Few at Palace would begrudge him that opportunity after serving them with such distinction. Born in Abidjan but raised in south London, Zaha was 17 when he made his debut as a substitute against Cardiff in March 2010. Palace survived relegation to League One on the final day of that season and were minutes away from liquidation when a consortium led by the current chairman, Steve Parish, stepped in the following month, so the supporters were in desperate need of a new local hero.

Zaha proved to be their salvation, scoring the first of his 90 goals for Palace on his full debut against Leicester and eventually helping the club return to the Premier League for the first time in eight years in 2013. By then, he was on loan from Manchester United having become Sir Alex Ferguson’s last major signing for an initial £10m a few months earlier, and had won two senior caps for England under Roy Hodgson, albeit in friendlies.

Zaha failed to make a Premier League start under David Moyes and was welcomed back with open arms by Palace in August 2014 for an initial loan. His return to Selhurst Park became permanent a few months later and, almost another 300 appearances later to take his Palace total to 458, the rest is history. While the managers have come and gone as Palace bucked the trend of previous short-lived spells in the Premier League, Zaha – who switched allegiance to Ivory Coast in 2016 after being given no further chances by Hodgson and ignored by Gareth Southgate – has been the driving force behind the most sustained period of success in the club’s history.

Although Zaha was dogged by muscle injuries last season that restricted him to 28 appearances and forced him miss the end of last season, he will be hard to replace – and not just for his goalscoring. The 30-year-old’s departure will leave an enormous void that Palace must act quickly to fill, especially with clubs circling for some of their other prized assets. Zaha’s natural heir, Michael Olise, has attracted interest from Chelsea and Manchester City despite being sidelined for the start of the season with a hamstring injury, and Eberechi Eze is yet to agree to a contract extension having made his England debut in June.

Serious offers for the coveted defenders Joachim Andersen and Marc Guéhi could also arrive in the coming days, with Parish under pressure to spend as he attempts to finance the construction of a new main stand. Palace’s £200,000-a-week offer for four years to Zaha that would have taken him to within months of his 35th birthday was made in October. More talks are understood to have held in recent days as he completed his recuperation from a hamstring injury at the training facilities despite his contract expiring at the end of June.

Galatasaray’s determination to sign him under the noses of their bitter rivals Fenerbahce proved decisive when Zaha concluded it was time to move on. He had rejected concerted attempts by Al-Nassr to persuade him to sign a contract worth significantly more than Palace had offered and join the exodus to the Saudi Pro League, while interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Europe’s other big hitters never came to anything concrete.

Although he thanked Parish in his goodbye message to the Palace fans, there is understood to be some lingering irritation about what might have been after the club’s handling of previous transfer windows in which significant offers from Arsenal and Everton, among others, were turned down. There are those on the Palace board who believe they should have taken the money, but Parish will feel it has been worth every penny.

A mural of Zaha’s most iconic celebrations – including the thrilling playoff semi-final victory over their bitter rivals Brighton when Zaha memorably scored twice at the Amex Stadium – was unveiled at the end of last season outside Selhurst Park and just around the corner from his childhood home in Rothesay Road. Walking past that will feel especially poignant for every Palace supporter before the first home game of the new campaign against Arsenal next month.

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