This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Liverpool matchday programme – 6th March 2016.
For Yannick Bolasie, Wembley has always been so close but so far away. Growing up on the doorstep of the national stadium, he spent the entire 2013 play-off final triumph on the bench but now with 90 minutes separating the fit-again winger from playing on world football’s most hallowed pitch, you sense he’ll do everything possible to achieve that dream.
One of the perks of being in the press box at White Hart Lane is that it is situated one row behind the benches, allowing you a unique insight into the conversations, dilemmas and mindsets of those players, managers and coaches sat a few yards away.
However you didn’t need to be arms-length from Yannick Bolasie to feel his eagerness to get on – Jason Puncheon could have spotted it from the away end. Sensing his comeback was nearly over after two months of frustration on the sidelines, Bolasie whole-heartedly cheered on his teammates, screamed advice and warmed up with a fire in his belly.
His energetic appearance from the bench helped the Eagles into the last eight of the FA Cup, a single step away from a semi-final spot at Wembley and the chance for the winger to exorcise some demons.
Back in May 2013 the sun soaked national stadium would be the setting for one of the club’s greatest days of recent times as a return to the Premier League was confirmed, but Bolasie played no part. Unlike at Tottenham a fortnight ago, his role was limited to that of a non playing substitute and the boy who grew up just a couple of trademark mazy dribbles away from the world’s most famous stadium would be forced to watch like the rest of us.
But should Palace get past Reading next week then things could be about to change, and he doesn’t shy away when asked about the personal significance of a Wembley semi-final.
“It would mean a lot to be honest,” he said. “Not playing in the play-off final is one of the things that has spurred me on to do the best I can because I was hurt not to play in the game despite playing the majority of the season.
“Hopefully I can get to Wembley again and play this time. When I was growing up I lived five minutes away on the train; it’s just two stops from Willesden so I could see the stadium from my mum’s house. I saw the Twin Towers and the arch, everything. To watch the transformation of it was great to see.”
After playing such an instrumental role in getting his side to Wembley in the first place, it’s easy to forget that Bolasie never actually made it onto the pitch that day, with Ian Holloway sticking with Jonny Williams on the wing and bringing on Andre Moritz in his place with six minutes of the original goalless 90 to play.
For the unused DR Congo man the pain of watching his teammates finish the job without him is still very fresh in the memory, and he admits that being left out of that side is his one real regret from his near-four years at the club.
“It was a strange day, I felt part of it but I was really surprised to be left out,” he said. “I’d played my part for the team and had a decent season coming off the back of playing no football before that, so it was a real shock. It was a good occasion, all the family came to watch but that’s part of football and I dealt with it.
“Sometimes that happens and you just have to get on with it and make sure that I have another chance of playing on that field. The upside of the day was that we’d got to the Premier League so I knew I had the chance to take my ability into that division. It’s time to make some new history now and hopefully I’ll be part of that.
“Just playing on that turf would do me good as I didn’t get to, and it would obviously be a great occasion getting to semi-finals as there will be a buzz around the club and hopefully that could lead us to end the season really strongly. Reading have made it to the semi-finals a couple of times recently; they’re a good team with good players so it’s not going to be a pushover, it’s going to be a hard battle.”
Battling back is something the 26-year-old has had to endure over the past few months after picking up an innocuous-looking injury late in the 2-1 win against Stoke City back in December. Little did Bolasie know how long he’d be out for, or that the search for another league victory following that success in Staffordshire would take even longer.
On the moment he knew it had happened, he explained: “I injured a little bit of my hip tendon late in the game when I had a shot and Jack Butland saved it, but then we got a corner and Chungy scored straight after. I went to run off after him and I really felt it then, but I’m not blaming Chungy for it!
“When you get a muscle injury like that it’s the healing process that takes the time. I just had to make sure I was getting enough rest before I did any exercise, which was the main thing. The rehab has gone all right with the help of my personal team outside the club and those here.
“I’m not sure how long it’ll take until I’m 100% again, I have to replicate what I do in training in games so it’ll be however long that takes. I just want to get fully fit as soon as possible and cause loads of major problems for defences again.”
Opposition defences usually suffer sleepless nights when worrying about the winger’s explosive pace and physics-defying flexibility, but all that twisting and turning takes its toll and Bolasie is pragmatic enough to know that occasionally his unorthodox style is going to catch up with him.
Thankfully injuries have been few and far between during his time in SE25, especially when his most recent absence coincided with an alarming slide down the table. After scoring three goals in his previous six appearances before injury struck, he has been a reluctant watcher, helpless to aid his team’s cause once they step over the whitewash.
But then came the game at Tottenham, and after 76 minutes of fidgeting around on the bench hearing his name sung from 5,000 noisy travelling fans, his comeback was complete when Alan Pardew gave him the nod to enter the fray.
“I’ve played a lot of football over the past 18 months so it’s not really a surprise that I got injured to be honest,” Bolasie added. “Sometimes I would come back from Africa after international duty and play straight away so I haven’t taken it too badly. However I’d just started getting my form back and reaching the levels that I should have been at, but I’m confident of getting back there very soon.
“Coming on at Tottenham was a great feeling, I always enjoy playing football so be back on the pitch playing was the main thing for myself. All the hard work I’ve put in over the past nine to 10 weeks to be where I am today meant it was an honour to come on and play. It was a bit strange coming back because the pace of the match was really quick. Tottenham play at a high intensity and so do we so I was looking forward to coming on, and I’m happy we won.”
Bolasie celebrated in front of that strong visiting section, including a certain Mr Puncheon, with a post-match selfie, but why? “I did that to show appreciation to the fans who had shown me a lot of support while I was injured so I thought it was a good time to do it. We’d won a cup tie at Tottenham to get through to the quarters, and a chance to get into the semis and return to Wembley. I’ve only seen a couple of articles about Punch being in the crowd, so it would have been very funny if he was in the selfie I took!”
That afternoon the man who Bolasie shook hands with to replace could well be hoping that the pair link up in a better way in future. Emmanuel Adebayor was known by Bolasie before he arrived at the club, and now the man described as “a crazy guy from Congo” by the Togolese striker is hoping to provide the ammunition for the new arrival.
“Ade is a good player, he’s been to some top clubs so it’ll be good to pick his brain and see what he’s all about and find out how the top players think,” Bolasie admitted. “There’s a natural understanding in football when you play with lots of good players around you and what you have to do on the pitch, so hopefully that’ll take us far.
“I knew of him through mutual friends – he’s a lively character, he gives out good advice and things like that. He’s not the guy the media make him out to be. He’s going to help everyone in the changing room and now everyone is coming back from injury the squad is looking really strong.”