On Saturday 16 August 2003, with Manchester United leading 1-0 at home to Bolton, Sir Alex Ferguson gave an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo a 29-minute debut. When the final whistle blew, the score-line was 4-0 and Old Trafford had a new hero.
This wasn’t the polished Portuguese maestro they would grow to love; but a rough diamond whose fearless and uncontainable skill left the opposition in knots.
And while Ferguson and Ronaldo have both since departed, incoming manager David Moyes may have just inherited a rough diamond of his own in the shape of Wilfried Zaha.
In winning the penalty that ultimately won Crystal Palace a seat at the top table of English football, the 20-year-old showed exactly why Ferguson made him his last signing back in January. He also gave the Eagles the perfect parting gift before taking on his new role as Old Trafford’s latest boy-wonder.
In the game’s immediate aftermath, Palace manager and sound-bite extraordinaire Ian Holloway said he would love to take Zaha back on loan next season.
When asked if he would be speaking to Moyes about the possibility, Holloway answered, “I think he’d be silly to give him back to me. But you never know, now that we’re up it might be realistic. We’ll see.”
But the fact is it wouldn’t be “silly” for United to loan him back to Palace; it would be downright idiotic.
Despite winning the Premier League title with almost a month to spare, United have fallen short in both the Champions League and the FA Cup, lacking exactly what Zaha can give them – dynamism, directness and unpredictability.
The club used to have it in spades. Now they have it only in moments.
It is no secret that their three main wingers have had seasons to forget. While even their default wide-man Danny Welbeck, for all his effort, has managed only two goals and four assists in 27 league appearances and seven games in Europe.
When you consider Ashley Young has no goals and three assists from 21 appearances, Nani one goal and two assists from 15 games, and Antonio Valencia one goal and five assists from 34 outings, it is a clear area of improvement for Moyes this summer. Especially when width is something he relied so heavily on at Goodison Park.
With United crying out for goals against both Chelsea in the FA Cup and Real Madrid in the Champions League, no spark came from the wings, no drive, nothing to instil fear in the opposition. Suddenly it seemed that with a lack of midfield creativity, if you nullified United’s strikers you had the beating of the whole team.
With Zaha, Moyes would be re-introducing that magic – a raw and at times frustrating magic but a magic regardless.
United could send him back to Selhurst Park next season. In doing so they would still see what he can do in the top flight. Or they could admit he would improve them…because he would; if only in his youthful exuberance and wonder at playing for a club that the likes of Nani apparently no longer see as a motivating factor.
After the play-off final, Holloway said, “Games like that are won on moments of genius.”
United will have plenty of games like that next season. And it would make little sense to pass on the services of such a player any longer than they have to.
Do you agree that United should include Zaha in their first-team next season?
written by Tom Brogan