Wilfried Zaha and Eddie Howe: The importance of identity beyond the Premier League’s elite

Words By John Brewin Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 27, 2018

Anyone who follows a club in the lower divisions of English football will know the early-season memory test of watching their team. The pace of change can be bewildering. A majority of players being on one-year contracts often means that squads change almost completely from late April to early August. And the managers change even more often than that.

Only towards the top of the pile does the one-club stalwart remain a familiar scenario. Constant success kept Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United, while players like Jamie Carragher at Liverpool, Tony Hibbert at Everton and the still-active Mark Noble at West Ham stayed loyal through local ties and playing for a club on some level of equilibrium.

Smaller clubs than those tend to surrender their gems. The seduction of higher levels and wages will always tempt away a market square hero. England’s World Cup semi-final squad was full of such players: Harry Maguire, Jordans Pickford and Henderson, Fabian Delph, John Stones and Phil Jones are all left their home town clubs.

And much the same goes for managers of promise; such a precarious occupation is upwardly mobile almost by definition. Golden opportunities are grasped for fear of them never arising again.

Of course, there are few guarantees. A retrospective glance at the business done in a transfer window or at the managerial sack race renders a list of players and bosses chewed up and spat out. More often than not, there are no second chances, though one top player and another leading manager have shown that going back on themselves can be the way forward.

Down in the Premier League’s lower middle-classes, Wilfried Zaha and Eddie Howe define their clubs. It helps that both are exceptionally talented, but it is now near-impossible to imagine Crystal Palace or Bournemouth without two men who once flew their respective nests.

At £15m in January 2013, Zaha carried the distinction at being Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing, but never got to play for Manchester United under the great man. The logic had been sound enough, the south Londoner was easily the best player in that season’s Championship, but its timing proved awful.

That Zaha is not high on the list of mistakes made by David Moyes says much about that disastrous succession, but it is still tempting to consider how United now need someone like him in a squad severely lacking invention and improvisation.

English football is now fully acquainted with his talents, and the national setup ought to lament that he was allowed to plump for the Ivory Coast. Once back at Palace, he has matured into a player who both accepts and carries great responsibility. Palace’s woeful record without him is testament to that. His is an importance to a club not seen since Matt Le Tissier at Southampton.

There have been whispers of another move, with Tottenham frequently linked but the £100m-plus value of top-division football that Zaha safeguards and his ties to the area he has called home since arriving from Abidjan aged four close off him departing again.

Howe leaving Bournemouth appears equally distant. There was a vague notion that Arsene Wenger favoured him as a potential Arsenal replacement and the floating of the idea that Howe, a schoolboy Everton fan, might succeed Roberto Martinez in 2016.

But beyond that, very little. That owes something to English football’s top clubs preferring imported talent with trophy success but Howe’s old-fashioned desire to be in full control is another significant factor in times of back offices and sporting directors. Now Wenger has followed Ferguson into retirement, no top-division club is as defined by its manager as Howe.

And besides, he already sampled life on the other side. Back in January 2011, Championship Burnley was a sincere step up from League One strugglers Bournemouth, but by the following October he was back in his South Coast neighbourhood; family ties called him home.

Bournemouth’s eventual climb up through the divisions owed plenty to Russian benefactor Maxim Demin, who started injecting cash a month after Howe’s arrival, but many a lower division club has burned through funds in vain in chasing for the Premier League.

The boyish looks and the calm demeanour do little to hide a steeliness never far from the surface. Those who regularly attend his 8am press conferences – – he would prefer them at 6am, so as not to disrupt his working routine – – know he is not one to suffer fools.

Like Zaha, Howe still has a shyness perhaps unsuitable to the demands of the metropolitan super-club, where talking a good game is almost as important as relentlessly driving for results. Neither lack ambition but perhaps both recognise that happiness and comfort represent significant footballing successes in themselves.

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