Build them up to knock them down. That’s often been the cliche attached to the British press when it comes to their treatment of celebrities. But there seems to be an even crueler approach to young footballers at the moment, specifically Wilfried Zaha.
Harry Redknapp’s column in the Standard last week was ill-informed and lazy but was just the latest in a long line of pundits queuing up to take pot shots at Zaha.
The Crystal Palace winger seems to be an easy target for ex-pros. In September Alan Shearer claimed Zaha was not doing enough while his MOTD colleague Mark Lawrenson has repeatedly stuck the boot in to the young talent. It prompted Palace chairman Steve Parish to tweet Shearer to inform him Zaha had scored almost as many goals as he had at the same age.
Even Watford mascot Harry the Hornet got involved, performing a mock dive in front of the Palace winger after the Boxing Day draw at Vicarage Road after Zaha had been booked for an apparent tumble by referee Mark Clattenburg. Replays showed Miguel Britos actually made contact with the winger but the damage had been done. A yellow card confirmed the narrative that has been building steam for ages; that Zaha is a diver. And while Harry Hornet’s actions were childish, but it confirmed what most neutrals think; Zaha is a cheat and overrated.
zaha Goal pic.twitter.com/AbMQDETaPd— Soutienauxelephants (@SoutienauxE) January 11, 2017
Redknapp’s article went one step further and claimed Zaha “has got to do a lot more” to be considered a top player. A quick google, Harry, suggests he’s actually doing better than ok. He has six assists this season in the Premier League and four goals and if the absence of Premier League football for the past two weeks is just too long ago to remember, he’s been doing the business for his new international team too.
He got an assist on his Ivory Coast debut against Sweden on Sunday and scored on his second appearance for Les Elephants, against Uganda on Wednesday. A day before Harry “wrote" his column. It’s either laziness or Trump level trolling of a player who objectively is one of the Premier League’s most effective attackers this season.
And he’s been the Eagles' best player by some way for the last year or so. He single-handedly dragged them to the FA Cup final and in 2016/17 has notched six assists and four goals, shutting down talk of a lack of end product. He has completed the second most take-ons and is the second most fouled player (both behind Hazard) which goes some way to explain how much attention other teams give him.
It would be churlish to say the negative coverage of Zaha doesn’t have further reaching implications. Referees are already going into games assuming he will dive, when Palace fans know the reality is he gets targeted by defenders and kicked a hell of a lot.
And why was he not picked for England more recently? His only appearance came in 2013 when he was the best player in the Championship and he is playing even better now…a division above. Countless other players have been called up in the last 12 months who haven’t been playing anywhere near the level Wilf has, so it’s hard to blame him for giving up on waiting for Gareth Southgate’s call and choosing to play for his birth country Ivory Coast.
These are the same pundits who chastise Zaha at any given opportunity but then moan about why there is a lack of quality English talent coming through. There is, you just don't let them develop without hammering them each week. The same could be applied to Raheem Sterling.
Wilf still has plenty of time to develop and become a world class winger but think how good he could have become already with a bit of a fairer approach from referees, the press and the FA?
How about this for a debut, Wilfred Zaha gets an assist 5 minutes into his debut for Ivory Coast pic.twitter.com/upkI36hsfi— The New Ultras (@TheNewUltras) January 8, 2017
Zaha is aware of his critics and, to be fair to a young man who has shown before he is emotional, is responding it in a considered and measured way. “Anytime anyone, on Match of the Day or wherever, mentions me they say, ‘He is a one-trick pony, he will go past players but will he score?’,” he said last month.
“Everyone talks about my stats, so I am just trying to give them a reason not to talk. I just do what I need to do on the pitch and see who laughs last.”
Pundits are there to both criticise and praise and that’s understood. But it would be more refreshing if they were as quick with their compliments as they are with their condemnation, especially for a young English academy player who is very clearly playing the best football of his life so far.
So maybe it's time for a bit of fairness when it comes to Zaha? Criticise him when he doesn't deliver, sure, or when he reacts petulantly or dives. But when he is doing everything right he deserves praies, not just from Palace fans but from the wider footballing community.