Words: Stephen Tree
Images: Match Stickers / ToppsOffside Sports Photography

As a good mate of mine once professed: "Stop moaning. Try being Palace."

And it’s true. A lot of fans of other teams take their lot for granted and it pisses me off. I won’t name names but if sacking your manager for only winning the FA Cup sounds acceptable to you, I doubt you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Crystal Palace, my team, are a relatively small club and they have never won anything of particular note despite fielding some of the greatest players to play in England. We have produced, arguably, two of the most exciting footballers ever to grow up playing on South London waste ground in the modern era. Raised on concrete pitches with washing lines for goalposts and playing one-twos off a brick wall with a No Ball Games Allowed sign affixed above it, these two men were and are talisman for our greatest triumphs. Or more on point, our nearest misses.

Ian Wright, the Brockley boy, the Honor Oak hero, the Lewisham legend. He burst into Stevie Coppell’s side fresh off Hackney Marshes, fresh off the building sites he was working on, probably still with plaster in his hair, and set the pitch alight. Like the fire left behind by the Deloreon’s wheels in its wake, Wrighty’s boots scorched the net of many a goal straight out of Sunday football obscurity. Fast forward twenty odd years and a young academy graduate won our hearts in a similar vein.

Wilfried Zaha, whose formative years in Thornton Heath, just a thirty second dash from Selhurst Park at Wilf’s pace, had helped infect the football bug in his blood, and eight years after moving from the Ivory Coast he’d signed on the dotted line with the Palace’s youth set up.

These two South London boys are exactly what football is about for someone like me. There is nothing that fans love more than someone who grew up in the same streets as them, and within spitting distance of their stadium, wearing their team’s shirt on the pitch. Maybe it’s silly nostalgia, but it harks back to that true community spirit in football. Before scouting nine year olds in South America became the norm for the teams that can afford it, this is what teams were made of: the community. Lads you knew from school or blokes you’d see down the pub after the game or whose dad you’d worked with for a bit. And that’s why Wrighty and Wilf mean so much to us down SE25. We took them to our hearts because they are the same men we see walking down Croydon High Street. They remain the same men when we see them now, as humble and as one with us as ever. We don’t begrudge them their expensive trackies or rented Lambos, it’s par for the course, they’ve earned it, let them reap the benefits. They are still us; just us with a bigger bank balance.

Of course heroes can break your heart, too. Seeing Wrighty kissing the Arsenal badge so soon after leaving us was like seeing your ex-fiance to walking down the street with Tom Hardy and knowing that satisfied smile on her face was a pure joy that came from someone other than you. He broke a lot of hearts over those years at Highbury but he’s won them back again, and numerous times since, with how he talks about us, this community. Always in that accent so familiar and with that insane grin, one that he’s never changed or performed or rehearsed, his words are always from the heart, are those of gratitude and love and, for me, after a player leaves your club and still regards you in those terms, both sides are doing something right.

To this day some Palace fans have never forgiven him. That’s their choice. But on numerous occasions since Wrighty has declared his undying love for the boys in red and blue. There may still be whispers of discontent around the Holmesdale and Arthur Wait about whether we should reciprocate our undying love but it’s a no brainer, for me. He scored the goals that made us believe, that made us invade the Selhurst pitch when we got promoted in 1989, that brought us back from defeat at Wembley in 1990 after two (count ‘em, two) broken legs in a season. A goal for each break at that! The look of pure ecstasy that his goals brought to him, as well as us, will never be repeated.

I still to this day have no idea what Ian Wright’s strongest foot was (“You can’t get in that party, bruv.”) and I’ve lost hours of my life watching VHS videos and YouTube clips of his goals and interviews and tears. He is to me, an absolute, unquestionable hero. And has been since I can remember.

That type of player was rare for a few years. When Zaha came through the youth ranks his legs were gangly and awkward but the ball was always stuck to his foot, and with a bit of grass in front of him he moved with speed and beauty. And all of us at Selhurst bounced to the rhythm he set, our main man. I’ve been lucky to see all of Wilf’s career evolve at Selhurst. I missed Wrighty’s, his is one I’ve heard in terrace tales and football fables. But I’ve watched Wilfried blossom. And, Christ on a bike, has it made me happy. He is a hero at Selhurst Park, make no mistake, but in the streets he’s from, these shit encrusted Croydon streets that I’m from myself, he’s an icon and a role model. My nephew wasn’t even alive before Julian Speroni signed for Palace but he’s never been to Selhurst without Wilf being in the squad.

You know, except that weird spell in Manchester and Cardiff that I liken to John Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’, but his subsequent return, scoring a stoppage-time equaliser against Newcastle, only strengthened his status amongst us. Even after he’d left, his loyalty has never been questioned and that same jubilation I saw on Wrighty’s face is replicated on Wilf’s every time he mugs off three defenders or turns and jinks and nutmegs his marker to death or when he makes the ball ripple the net. If you need any more proof, watch his goals against Brighton in the Play-Off semi-final in 2013.

Oh yeah, Wilf loves playing against Brighton. He’s never looked back since coming home and now, as our record Premier League goalscorer, he is being talked off in hushed tones as our greatest ever player. Alongside Ian Wright, of course. I don’t need much convincing otherwise.

As these two men walked out onto the manicured – and not so manicured in Wrighty’s day – grass of Selhurst Park, in the red-and-blue armour of adidas or Macron (and let us never forget Bukta) we never knew what to expect. Whether it be a forty yard lob over an unsuspecting keeper or a sixty yard run that takes out six defenders en route, the excitement when these men touched the ball fizzles around Selhurst like electricity. We took them in and entrusted them our football team. Whether it be Wrighty’s tears about scoring in his and our first FA Cup Final, which still makes me cry nearly thirty years later, or Wilf taking on fans rivalries with other teams, it proves we’re more than just a salary to them, our knights in Nike boots.

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