Jim White

If Zaha is the real deal, one more year won’t hurt

Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace

According to the excited headlines reporting the build-up to England's friendly with Sweden this evening, as a prospect, Wilfried Zaha is somewhere between Maradona and Pele.

Team-mates have waxed lyrical about his skill, England old-timers have drooled about his abilities in training, everyone seems to think he is so good the only way to describe him is as the new George Best. Let's just hope for his sake that is how it turns out. And he's not just the new Vince Hilaire.

Zaha's progress has rapidly turned into a bellwether for the future of English football. He represents a kind of future we have not been able to dream about since the first twinkling of the golden generation (remember them?). And that's even if he decides to go with his heart and not his pocket and represent the country of his birth, Ivory Coast.

Skilful and determined, full of drive and application as well as dazzlingly talented, he appears to have everything going for him. Unfazed by pressure, week after week he delivers for Crystal Palace, driving opponents to the point of distraction.

And this may well be the point. His new manager Ian Holloway, wearing the large grin of a man who has just discovered that the new job he has landed is a lot easier than the last one, made perhaps the most pertinent observation about the young player. He said that Zaha is lucky to be where he is. Because he stayed at Palace rather than succumbing to the lure of baby Bentleys available at a Premier League club, he has been gifted the opportunity properly to develop.

Had he signed for Arsenal, say, or Chelsea at the age of 18, his total number of first-team appearances could thus far be accounted on the fingers of one hand. At Palace he plays every week. At 20 he already has more than 100 first team starts on his record. And there is no better testing ground for a young player than the treadmill of frequent selection.

According to Phil Neville, this is where English football is failing in its aim to develop its next generation of talent. Such are the financial realities of the Premier League, such are the enormities of success or failure, clubs cannot afford to experiment. They cannot give the time required properly to test young players.

Yet Neville reckons that the time to blood youngsters is between the ages of 18 and 20. Throw them in the side, keep them there and see how they perform. By the time they are 23 it is almost too late to find out if they have the right stuff.

In the Premier League, a vast amount of money is spent on youth development. Academies have facilities as good as any in the world. But the one facility players do not have when turning out for club youth teams or national under-21 sides, is pressure. They are not required to deliver. And when they do make the step up, they are rarely given the luxury of an extended run to see if they can deliver. Instead, clubs go for the ready-made product from abroad.

Look at those who are likely to play for England tonight alongside Zaha. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, for instance, were both obliged to learn their craft on loan away from their host club Manchester United. It was not until Welbeck at Sunderland and Cleverley at Wigan had demonstrated that they were sufficiently mentally strong that they were invited into the first team. Anderson, on the other hand, despite being no more than nine months older than Cleverley, has been in the first team pool for five years. Why? Presumably because he is Brazilian and is therefore reckoned to be somehow genetically programmed to be up for it from the word go.

Of course there are exceptions. Jack Wilshire for one. And Rahem Sterling, at 17, is learning his craft in the fiercest of environments at Liverpool's first team. But his elevation is really a matter of circumstance — the manager arrived to find his squad furred up by second-rate players signed up by the previous administration — rather than policy.

Yet he — and Zaha — have proven definitively that the best way to see if youth has the right stuff is to give it a chance.

The sadness for Palace and their supporters is that, having given Zaha his opportunity, it is unlikely they will have him on the books much longer in order to reap the rewards. Suddenly the big clubs have noticed who he is.

The main stand at Selhurst Park is jammed with Premier League scouts at every home game. This January the offers will come in, one of which is likely to be substantial enough to drag him off. By February the chances are the finest natural talent the English game has seen since Joe Cole (remember him?) will be warming the bench at the Emirates, the Bridge or the Etihad. At which point, you can only think, his development will stall.

If I were Zaha's agent, I would advise him to stay at Palace for another season at the least. Break into the England team, prove he can make that step up and then the big hitters will have to play him regularly.

Go now and the likelihood is we will not be watching the new Maradona, but the new Theo Walcott - at 23 still not trusted by his manager to be a regular.