South London & Proud: Why Local Boys Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha Are Key to the Eagles' Heart
In a modern footballing environment, in which money plays a prominent role and loyalty amongst players is a rare equity, it is refreshing to witness a player who gives his blood, sweat and tears for the badge on his chest and evoke the fans' emotions as his own.
What is more refreshing, however, is witnessing two of these players ply their trade for the club you support, almost acting as fans out on the pitch - albeit with a substantially greater amount of talent with the ball.
Step forward Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha...
Having both grown up only a stone's throw away from Selhurst Park, the two Croydon-bred footballers epitomise what it means to don the red and blue off the pitch, embracing themselves in the local foundations and setting an example to the impressionable children of south London who idolise the pair.
Furthermore, Puncheon and Zaha are no strangers to integrating with the fans, going further than the standard photo or autograph but instead going down the local pub for a pint, an act that most acclaimed Premier League footballers would view as an alien one.
Players of Zaha and Puncheon's ilk are hard to come by, mind, as their humble nature is a rarity in the football world - as Palace fans in particular discovered with academy prospect John Bostock back in 2008. The then 16-year-old turned down the chance to hone his immense talents at Selhurst Park where regular game time awaited him, and instead took the plunge at a bigger club in the form of Tottenham Hotspur.
His reasons remain unknown, although financial motives spring to mind, and the precocious talent that once was now earns a living playing football in France in an attempt to restructure his career. A pure example to footballers everywhere that the grass isn't always greener at the so called bigger club.
Eagles chairman Steve Parish has publicly emphasised Puncheon's commitment to the cause in particular, saying: "The first thing he did when we signed him from Southampton was buy a box for his family. I thought that was good, and the Norwich game last year when we really needed a win to stay up and how much that win meant to him emotionally. He was crying."
Parish also went on to add: "People like Wilfried and Punch that are brought up round here, they're from the same streets and the same backgrounds of all the kids that they're inspiring." The ethos of the club is admirable, as Palace attempt to stay true to their roots amidst the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and nurture their south London core. Besides, how many players do you see nowadays that cry passionately after scoring?
In addition to their commendable off-field antics, the duo are equally as laudable on it, if not more. Backed by the vociferous and raucous Selhurst Park atmosphere, in which an us against the world vibe is generated, Zaha and Puncheon lead by example and show their teammates what it means to play for Palace by displaying notable bouncebackability at every hurdle they come across.
Specifically, both players have had defining moments in which their character has been tested, but the pair - who were both in the Palace academy at a young age - came through them unscathed and better for it.
Zaha in particular had a confidence-draining two years in the Manchester United gutters under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, as his supposed 'dream' move became a nightmarish experience for the then 20-year-old. A move back home followed, and the winger has gone from strength to strength in familiar surroundings backed by his adoring supporters.
In Puncheon's case, we all remember his atrocious penalty up at White Hart Lane right? Most players would cower and shrink away from the limelight after such an event, but the former Southampton man used it to his advantage, motivating himself to be better. He followed his penalty howler by scoring the winner against Stoke the following week, and went on to score vital goals as Palace made history and survived a Premier League season for the first time in their history.
Both players are emblematic examples of what a Crystal Palace player should be, and have developed into respected professionals whilst wearing the famous red and blue. Zaha has become the fearsome winger we all knew he would, destroying every full-back he faces, whilst Puncheon has matured from an inconsistent winger into a midfield general, earning the captaincy of his boyhood club in the process.
It is a significantly vital factor for any football fan to be able to see elements of their own character instilled in the players before their eyes and be able to relate to them, and as long as the club and it's fans maintain the 'South London & Proud' attitude, the mentality of us against the world may continue for years to come down at Crystal Palace FC.