This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Brighton and Hove Albion matchday programme – 14th April 2018
In less than two months, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has made his Premier League debut, thrived against some of the world’s best players, won international honours, been named Palace’s Player of the Month and had his name sung from the terraces. The latest product to come off the Eagles’ production line is living everyone football fan’s fantasy, and talks Jonathon Rogers through an unforgettable few weeks that has transformed his young life.
Wilfried Zaha was having a tough day. As usual, each time the ball touched his wand-like feet, his instinct would be to bamboozle his full-back, allowing him to dazzle past them and leave another victim eating his dust. But this particular training session, held during the pre-season of 2016, was different.
Every time he dipped into his unlimited box of tricks, the wing wizard failed to conjour up an effective answer. Each teasing movement was copied as quick as the Ivorian’s shadow could, and even when he did find a yard of space, he found his explosive pace neutralised and another attack extinguished.
However, this wasn’t an established international or grizzled old pro stopping Zaha in his tracks – it was a teenager featuring as a makeshift full-back with minimal exposure to the Palace first-team, let alone the Premier League’s biggest box of tricks. It was the day Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s career reversed from right wing to right-back, but made a gigantic leap towards the Eagles first-team.
Looking back on the session that changed his life, he said: “It was a turning point and gave me a big boost. Everyone was surprised because I was seen as an attacker, and to keep up with Wilf meant something. I stayed with the ball and if he went left, I’d go left too and just stay with him, and it worked. I think my legs helped keep tabs on him and recover when he got past me, which is great when you’re up against a tricky winger.
“At the time I was making a lot of tackles during first-team training, and [then first-team coach] Kevin Keen suggested I move positions. It started with an under-23s game where I played at right-back, and I didn’t really enjoy it as much because I couldn’t go forward, but in the next game I began to get on the ball more and liked it.”
And so began Wan-Bissaka’s evolution into a defender. A part of the Eagles’ academy since the age of 11, the Croydon native’s progress had been relatively straight-forward up until Keen’s eureka moment. A natural winger blessed with skills and pace in abundance, he frequently found himself amongst the goals and assists during his time in the junior ranks and established himself as a regular in the development side during the 2015/16 season.
But the following campaign, the young Eagle found his wings clipped. Tasked with reining in his attacking flair and focus on being a defender rather than beating them, he endured an inauspicious start to life in his new position and found himself targeted by the opposition, keen to find flaws in the rookie right-back’s game. It was to be expected, however, under the tutelage of one of Palace’s best ever defenders in Richard Shaw, he overcame the tough learning curve to prove that the positional switch had been worth the effort.
“I never pictured my debut coming at right-back because I was always a winger or attacker, but I’m happy I’ve made this decision to move,” he said. “It’s not too much of a big difference except that you have to attack less, but that’s alright with me because I have a defensive side.
“Richard Shaw and Dave Reddington have helped me a lot with things such as heading and dealing with crosses, and that has kept me going. A lot of the players also give me good advice, whether that is in training or in games, and that is really nice to get.
“At times it is difficult not to attack; you can only go on the counter or if the winger is down there. Yannick Bolasie was my inspiration when I was younger because he used to power forward and attack players and he gave me advice. I’ve still got plenty of tricks in the locker if I need them, I just need to wait for the right time to let them out!
After a full season of absorbing information, putting it into practice and impressing at under-23 level, Wan-Bissaka was ready for his next big test. Having experienced a fleeting taste of first-team life by being named on the bench three times in 2016/17, Frank de Boer included him in his squad for the Premier League Asia Trophy in Hong Kong last summer, with Wan-Bissaka making appearances in both games and not looking out of place.
On those tantalising tastes of the future, he said: “Being on the bench helped me to deal with the atmosphere around the dressing room, and got me prepared for what I might come up against. In Hong Kong we played Liverpool and West Brom which gave me a feel for what the Premier League was like, and allowed me to get to know everyone in the squad and feel comfortable around them. It is quite daunting going into that environment but you have to get through it, and once you’re past that everything is alright.”
Step by step, you got the sense that Wan-Bissaka’s professional debut was on the horizon, but even he admits that he was caught out by the fashion in which it arrived back in February. Snubbing the conventional method of sending the 20-year-old out on loan to gain experience in the Football League, Roy Hodgson had seen enough and as injuries continued to bite, he threw Wan-Bissaka into the deep end by starting him against Tottenham Hotspur.
“I thought my debut might happen in a game towards the end of the season where I might come on for a few minutes, so it was a big surprise coming against a team like Tottenham,” he smiled. “I found out two days before, so it was a real shock. I only told my parents; they were happy and kept me going, and gave me advice such as not to lose focus and keep my eyes on the ball.
“There were nerves before the game but they settled down once I had my first touch, and then my first pass and tackle – I got some in on [Erik] Lamela and Son [Heung-min] and that was fun! That gave me confidence and the fans applauded me which was good. Playing at Selhurst Park helped a lot too as it made me feel at home, and the fans were right behind me.”
Despite suffering late heartache that day – a feeling Wan- Bissaka has had to endure too often already in his fledgling Eagles career – those same supporters were abuzz post-match at seeing another potential gem roll off the Palace production line. Hodgson was equally enthused, and would continue to test his embryonic talent in the face of one of the toughest initiations any young player has potentially ever faced.
Wan-Bissaka’s list of early opponents is a shortlist of first choice candidates for any Premier League fantasy team. Talents such as Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard, Willian, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have probed down his right flank during his first six senior appearances, but just like Zaha’s experiences in that pivotal training session, all found little change out of a talent gaining confidence by the minute.
Reflecting on his baptism of fire, he said: “It’s been challenging but exciting at the same time. I’ve been looking forward to each game and enjoying them. It’s a good feeling knowing that you’re playing against the top teams in the league, but it’s also a challenge, and I’ve been happy to take that.
“It seemed like things were getting tougher every game but my aim was just to perform well and my confidence grew a lot each game. It made me go into tackles, time them right and make the challenge. Playing against Manchester United was a little daunting though; I couldn’t believe it when I came up against Pogba – I didn’t realise he was that tall! It was good playing against him as it felt like a big achievement, but it was still surreal.”
You can’t blame Wan-Bissaka for being a little starry-eyed going toe-to-toe with some of football’s finest names; after all he is living every Palace’s fan dream. Two months ago he was focussing on improving in his new position at under-23 level, and now he has made a Premier League debut, been selected for England’s under-20 World Cup holders, was named the club’s Player of the Month for March and had The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” adapted in his honour to create one of the most popular Palace chants in recent years – “I first heard it at Chelsea and I was excited as it’s a big thing for the fans to be chanting my name. It’s always stuck in my head!”
Can he quite believe how good the past couple of months have been to him? “Not really, but I have to take it how it’s come. It’s a blessing so I’m happy it’s come this way. My family and friends are as excited as me, but they’re still going to keep pushing me and telling me to keep my head down and keep going.
“This is where I’ve grown up – it’s my local team and the only one I’ve played for, so to go far with them is something I’d love to do. I just need to keep playing, hopefully stay in the team and finish the season well. Hopefully there’s much more to come.”