Wilfried Zaha was an enigma England could not solve.
After two friendly appearances in 2012 and 2013 his England career is over. It never really began.
The Crystal Palace winger, one of the most uniquely talented England players in recent memory, has pledged his international future to the Ivory Coast.
England have let a diamond fall through their fingers.
The manner of his defection says much about the incoherent progression between the England youth sides and the debilitating conservatism of English football.
Zaha has been in the best form of his career for the last twelve months.
During that time the former England manager Roy Hodgson and his replacement Gareth Southgate, his former coach in the Under 21s, watched him on numerous occasions.
Southgate tried and failed to convince Zaha to reverse his decision. But it was already too late. Southgate had opportunities to pick him but instead turned to players such as Jesse Lingaard, Theo Walcot and Andros Townsend, Zaha’s Crystal Palace teammate.
None of these players have played anywhere near as well as Zaha recently. None of them has his ability or skillset. Safe options, more tea vicar?
Zaha has been Palace’s best player in 2016. His stats have been consistently excellent even as his side have struggled.
Southgate’s failure to prevent this defection is a massive mistake.
England have few players with Zaha’s one-on-one skill or ball carrying ability. His qualities are rare and Ivory Coast have gained a hugely exciting attacking player.
Hodgson fast-tracked Zaha into the England squad in November 2012. The Ivory Coast were in full-on seduction mode at the time. The great Didier Drogba was on the phone trying to woo the young Zaha. England knew they had to act decisively if they were not to lose him.
Now, fours year later, he has made his mind up and England have indeed lost him.
Back in 2012 Zaha was one of the most exciting young players in England.
He was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever Manchester United signing, a £15 million leaving present in January 2013. But he struggled at Old Trafford. David Moyes, Ferguson’s troubled replacement, did not rate him and Zaha returned to Palace in January 2015 after just two Premier League appearances for United.
Like many young black players who struggle after a big money Premier League move Zaha faced questions about his attitude and motivation. Broadsheet newspapers mentioned the number of cars he had purchased following his transfer and former United players queried whether he had the “big club mentality.”
Further questions were raised about his character toward the end of his England Under 21 career.
Zaha was part of a highly rated squad at the 2013 European Under 21 Championships in Israel.
Big things were predicted but England lost every match and much of the blame for a hugely disappointing tournament was pointed in Zaha’s direction. Thinly veiled newspaper critiques from well-positioned journalists raised questions about his commitment, mentally, decision making and all-round attitude.
It was alleged that Zaha had to endure the ignominy of a half-time dressing down from England’s arboraceous captain Jordan Henderson. His style of play did not fit with the rest of the squad. England did not know how to use him. On the pitch he showed moments of real quality. Of it he failed to bond with the rest of the squad or the coaching staff.
A reserved, religious kid, who gives 10% of his wages to charity, was accused of being too “south London.”
The low point of his Under 21 career came when he had to be separated from teammate Ravel Morrison, another supremely talented player to have fallen through the cracks for England, as the two players argued during a match with Lithuania.
Southgate was the Under 21 manager at the time. He has seen Zaha’s ability first hand, coached and spoken with him. He knows him as a player and as an individual, although how well given recent events is open to question.
Morrison is another supremely talented young player to have fallen through the cracks for England. Mentality and attitude are important criteria in successful football teams but it is worrying if obvious talent is allowed to go to waste. Talent management is just as important as talent identification for a team that wants to improve.
England need to take better care of the talent at their disposal.
The Premier League is saturated with foreign talent. Young England players find first team opportunities limited. The England youth sides are often populated by players from ‘top-4’ teams – the sides with the most limited first team opportunities for young English talent.
If a player is struggling domestically it is understandable not to pick them. But if you think a player is talented don’t ignore them completely. Form is temporary but class is permanent after all.
Zaha was ignored by Southgate and Hodgson. He watched as less talented players were selected ahead of him.
There is a legitimate concern that conservative selection in the past has cost England the opportunity to select Zaha in the future.
He is not the first to have made a similar decision.
Arsenal’s forward Alex Iwobi, born in London, chose to represent Nigeria after playing for England at Under 19 level. Chelsea’s Victor Moses, another graduate of the Crystal Palace academy, opted to play for Nigeria after starring for England at Under 16 and 17 level.
There are concerns that other talented young players such Tammy Abraham (Chelsea), Ola Ainu (Chelsea), Ovie Ejaria (Liverpool), Toisin Adarabioyo (Manchester City), Dominic Iorfa (Wolverhampton Wanderers) and Mandela Egbo (Borussia Monchengladbach).
England should beware.
Other nations are far more active in their recruitment of qualified players.
Southgate needs to be inclusive in his thinking if he is to maximise the pool of talent he selects his players from.
Good lads like Jordan Henderson will take you so far. But there must be a place for the occasional maverick selection. The margins are so small at international level that England cannot afford to let talent slip away.
Gareth Southgate and the English Football Association are quite literally a bunch of wastemen.
Wilfried Zaha was the future once.
He might be again. Just in a way that takes him back to the past.
He is now just a memory for England.