The path to first team football for youth players is a treacherous one, with plenty of pitfalls along the way. The difference between success and failure can be entirely reliant on opinion. And as Matt Woosnam of Palace Youth explains, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has seen through those challenges and succeeded. It could have been very different.
There are moments in our lives that we look back on as defining us, both in the present and highlighting the path forward for our future. Landmarks and milestones allow us to compare and contrast, to look back and reflect or ponder where we will be in the years to come.For Aaron Wan-Bissaka, at the age of 20, he has already had his fair share. But three moments in his life will stand out significantly from the others so far.The young Crystal Palace defender was thrust into the first-team last season partly through necessity, but since then he has made seven further Premier League appearances, earning him plaudits from fans, pundits, and most importantly, his manager.But it could have all been so different.
Rewind seven years and a 14-year-old Wan-Bissaka was still finding his feet in the Palace academy. Soon it was decision time. Some in the academy were unsure of his potential. A gangly, lanky wide player who could fit in centrally, it was hardly a position the club was struggling for talent in.
That summer, his fortunes changed immeasurably, thanks to one man who believed he might have what it takes. On the cusp of being released, then-Under 15 lead coach Ken Gillard stepped in and turned things around. Without the coaching and the confidence of Gillard, the story would be much different. Gillard would go on to coach him at Under-18 level, before at 17 Wan-Bissaka moved up into Gary Issott’s Under-21 side.
Former Palace Head of Academy Recruitment Joe Shields, now Manchester City’s Head of UK Academy Recruitment, recalls Wan-Bissaka’s early days in South London.
"I first saw Aaron training for Junior Elite FC in Bromley at the Royal Bethlem Hospital sports grounds standing next to Junior Elite Chairman and Head Coach Colin Omogbehin who nudged me when he got on the ball and said: ‘Joe have a look at this kid I found in New Addington’.
"I remember him having great feet, agility and balance - a typical south London boy who loved to dribble."
A few years later his first session at Crystal Palace with Jamie Waller’s U12s saw him producing the same technical quality at academy level - something most Junior Elite graduates have, giving them great foundation when stepping into the academy game. “The following years were inconsistent in terms of success, Aaron was very shy in the new competitive environment, he didn’t quite realise his potential and his development stalled a little.“ At U15s he went from a substitute to the best player in his squad in one season where his coach at the time Ken Gillard really connected with him, developed his confidence and brought back the brave dribbler.
“Ever-present through the years was his father Ambrose, who supported his son without complaint through the tough periods and this no excuse, getting on with it attitude came through in Aaron. There’s so much talent in South London like Aaron and it’s great to see him being given the platform to develop -- he deserves it!”
As a right-winger, he showed many of the traits that are so apparent in his play today. The ability to dangle his leg round his man and steal possession, extending his long ranging legs into a stride, gliding up the pitch and having the confidence to take on a defender. Goals were not a regular occurrence for this youngster, but he had…something. Undoubtedly a bag of raw talent, there were similarities to Wilfried Zaha, if not quite the same level of ability. Defensively, he was on a different level to most of the wide players who had come before him. His tackling, as it is now, was always impeccable. He would track back, burst forward, keep tight to his man and be aware of his duties in his own half.
As time went on, he continued to impress in the Under 21s and then Under 23 side following the competition's revamp. Soon came the second defining juncture of this young man’s life.
One of several to regularly train with the senior squad, the novelty had in all probability worn off for Wan-Bissaka. This session, however, was different. Short of a right-back, first-team coach Kevin Keen proffered a suggestion that the winger could fall back to be a square peg in a round hole for this one occasion. Up against Zaha, the youngster was unfazed, keeping him relatively quiet. Needless to say, eyes were firmly gazed upon him and soon he became a permanent in the U23s in this role.
Having spent several seasons at a comfortable level, playing well week-in, week-out, new manager Frank de Boer invited him on tour as Palace played in the Asian Trophy last summer. A 45 minute appearance against Liverpool caught the eye of scouts who had kept tabs on him for some time. One scribbled down a note; this lad was a potential loan option for a Championship side.
More impressive U23 appearances followed, but even then, those watching on failed to agree on his prospects. None had him down as Premier League ready. So beckoned a loan to the lower echelons of the Football League. That was until he stepped up to first-team training once more, and impressed Roy Hodgson and his coaching staff.
This would lead to the third defining point of his fledgling career. An injury crisis engulfed Palace. Joel Ward and Martin Kelly joined 10 others on the sidelines. Timothy Fosu-Mensah moved to centre-back.
A total of 2148 days had passed since Kyle de Silva made a full league debut, and here was Wan-Bissaka making a Premier League bow at right-back having only two years experience in that role, becoming the first academy graduate to start in the league since De Silva. It was testament to his hard work, talent and self-belief that he went on to make several more appearances, including a man of the match performance against Manchester United.
But it could have all been so different if not for those opportunities which presented themselves. Young players need someone who believes in them, to believe in themselves, and to grasp chances firmly with both hands, if they have any chance of breaking through.
For Aaron Wan-Bissaka, everything has slotted perfectly into place.