How will 'Palace Pele' Wilfried Zaha cope with the pressure of expectation?
On Saturday afternoon, among the endless FA Cup bulletins, a tweet from Rory McIlroy glowed in the football fug. It was a video of an internet phenomenon in the United States, 18 months old and whacking balls left-handed around the garage with a right-handed club. "Check out this little kid hit a golfball," implored a golfer who has some expertise in the field, having been an infant prodigy of some import himself.
McIlroy was hooked by the irresistible pull of the "next big thing". There is no force quite like it in sport. The unearthing of a jewel, the next Mike Tyson (still waiting), the new Messi (100 years from now, maybe?), a neo Usain Bolt (will there ever be another like him?). In truth, most don't amount to much. McIlroy is a rare example of one who did, converting a talent that was captured chipping golfballs into washing machines at nine years old into major success.
Manchester United have invested £15m in football's next big thing. The Crystal Palace priesthood are persuaded that Wilfried Zaha is made for the game's highest stage. They point out that David Beckham did not make his Premier League debut at Old Trafford until he was 20, the same age as Zaha. Before that he was dispatched to the finishing school of the lower leagues as a Preston loanee. Zaha will play out the season at Selhurst Park, stepping out in red next term.
It is unusual for a diamond to emerge so late in the piece. Ian Wright was a tardy developer, coming through the same Selhurst Park induction en route to the Arsenal Hall of Fame. Cyrille Regis slipped through the net without ever being offered a trial by a professional club despite a hat-trick against QPR Youth for his junior team in Brent. He was 19 before he was picked up by West Bromwich in 1977. The late Ian Hutchinson, one of Chelsea's 1970 FA Cup-winning team, progressed to the professional ranks without getting a game for his school team. Late flowers do bloom, but rarely.
Zaha carries the same baggage that proved too weighty for Vince Hilaire, the Palace Pele in Terry Venables' "Team of the Eighties", a label bestowed by Jimmy Greaves projecting a future that never came to pass. England was emerging from the dark age of 1970s austerity. Hilaire was the false nine before the discovery was made in 21st-century Spain, looping in and out of the space between midfield and a forward line of – apologies to Mike Flanagan and Dave Swindlehurst – lumpy finishers from the lower divisions.
He was plucked from a youth team that also included Kenny Sansom and went on to star in successive promotions from the Third to the First Division. The kit was old Peru, the diagonal red slash across a white shirt adding to the drama. Sansom trained on, earning a move to Arsenal and a long international career at left-back. Hilaire did not. Palace were relegated in 1981. Venables decamped to QPR, Hilaire to Luton and Portsmouth via San Jose Earthquakes.
Zaha's video compilation on YouTube reveals the requisite dexterity of the deity-to-be. Stepovers come as standard, the back-heeled switch in direction is Ronaldo-esque and the change of pace impressive. But will it be enough against better men? Robinho took every trick in the book to Real Madrid, to Manchester City, to Milan, yet still no meat on the bone. At 29 he has come and gone. Prodigies are 10-a-penny in Brazil. We await the arrival in Europe of the next yellow-shirted Merlin, Neymar, reportedly heading to Barcelona after the next World Cup. He might be Ronaldinho-good. Or he could end up at Newcastle, an echo of Mirandinha.
In golf, the blond supernova from Welwyn Garden City, Tom Lewis, was packaged as the new Nick Faldo after leading the Open as an amateur at Royal St George's two years ago. Today it is a matter of celebration if he makes a cut on the European Tour. In rugby Danny Cipriani was the new Jonny Wilkinson. He was another flare that went out prematurely and is best remembered as an ex-boyfriend of Kelly Brook, which makes him a player of sorts. So there is plenty riding on Zaha's young shoulders. The temperature has already gone up a notch now that he turns out for Palace as a Manchester United loan player. He might as well get used to it. The window on his world is only going to get bigger. The choice of T-shirt worn to his medical in Manchester demonstrated as much, causing a mini Twitter storm. It also betrayed the cocky certainty of youth. He will need every ounce of that in six months' time – assuming, of course, that he is the real deal Fergie hopes he is.