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25th Oct 2019

Aaron Wan-Bissaka Interview: “There were ups and downs… I think that helped me a lot”

Simon Lloyd

Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s rise has been sharp, but his journey to the top has not always been smooth

Not even two years have passed since Aaron Wan-Bissaka made his competitive debut for Crystal Palace.

A London derby at home to high-flying Tottenham was hardly the ideal occasion to thrust a defender barely out of his teens into first team football, but a spate of injuries had left Roy Hodgson with little choice.

The game would end in disappointment for Palace – Harry Kane scoring the only goal two minutes from time – but Wan-Bissaka rose to the challenge impressively, allaying any doubts about his readiness for the rigours of the Premier League.

Wan-Bissaka has never looked back since that afternoon in February 2018. Holding his place for the run of games which followed, he was named Palace’s Young Player of the Year at the end of the season. He went one better 12 months later, capping his first and only full campaign in the first team by claiming the Player of the Year award.

His sharp ascent at Selhurst Park turned heads, convincing Manchester United to spend in excess of £50m to take him north in the summer.

While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have endured a turbulent start to the season, Wan-Bissaka’s performances have been consistently assured in his new surroundings – earning him a call-up to the England squad in September. Were it not for the back injury which forced his withdrawal, he would have made his first appearance as a full international.

“I’ve adapted well and settled in quite quickly with the team. They’ve been great to me,” Wan-Bissaka tells JOE.

“It’s been different up here but I knew I was up for a new challenge, a new area and a different life.”

The move to Manchester saw Wan-Bissaka uproot himself from Croydon, where he was born and raised, for the first time.

The South East corner of London is a hotbed for footballing talent. Wilfried Zaha grew up there after he and his family arrived in the UK from the Ivory Coast when he was four. Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe also originates from the area, while Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, another of English football’s most exciting young players, attended Whitgift school.

As a child, Wan-Bissaka spent countless hours playing football on Croydon’s caged pitches, often against older, more physically mature players. He thrived in this competitive environment, crediting it as being a vital part of his development.

“That kind of football could involve roughness,” he recalls. “It makes you aware of what you’re coming up against. It’s a place where you need to have good technical ability and a place where you can improve it as well. It helped me a lot.”

The seamless transition he has made to life at Old Trafford shouldn’t come as a surprise. Having to adapt has been a key feature of his career to date. Despite his assured performances at right-back and his quickly established reputation as one of the Premier League’s finest tacklers, Wan-Bissaka came to defending relatively late. As a youngster, he had aspirations of playing in a more advanced position.

Aged 17, he made a solitary appearance for the Democratic Republic of Congo at youth level. Facing England at St George’s Park, he played as a striker and can be seen wearing the No.9 shirt on an image embedded in the FA’s official match report.

“Growing up, I looked up to Thierry Henry,” he remembers. “I liked the way he scored goals. That was how I always pictured myself – scoring goals – when I was younger.

“When it came to other things, skills and flair, Ronaldinho was the one that everyone watched. I was just the same.”

Wan-Bissaka joined Palace’s youth set-up as an 11-year-old, signing scholarship forms five years later. His route to the first-team was by no means a straightforward one. He readily admits there were times when he felt his progress had stalled, that a career in professional football might be beyond him.

“I could see myself not going anywhere, not improving. That’s where you start questioning things. In my mind, my only way of going out and improving was going out on loan, showing what I was capable of.”

Before his breakthrough at Palace, he looked set to be loaned to Cambridge United. Then managed by Shaun Derry, it was hoped he would gain important first-team experience at the League Two club, but only four days after arriving at the Abbey Stadium he returned to Selhurst Park.

“There were ups and downs, but I think as a kid you need that,” he confesses. “It helps, and I think that helped me a lot.”

At the dawn of the 2017/18 season there were few signs that Wan-Bissaka, still regarded as a right winger, was on the cusp of a breakthrough. Palace had started terribly with Frank De Boer as manager, losing their opening five league fixtures. After just 77 days in charge the Dutchman was sacked and replaced by Hodgson.

De Boer had favoured a formation of three at the back, with width provided by the wing-backs. This was immediately tweaked by Hodgson, who preferred a back four. Though Palace lost their next two games away to both Manchester clubs, he persevered with this, a change which would prove crucial for Wan-Bisska.

“The change in my position came about when the formation changed to full-backs,” he remembers. “The right wingers changed to full-backs. It was then that they noticed how good I was at tackling and defending.”

His debut against Spurs was still months away, but Wan-Bissaka had time to hone his craft in his new position for Palace Under 23s. His time spent training with the first team, where he regularly faced Zaha in one-on-one situations, also helped bring him up to speed with the demands of becoming a top level full-back.

As a relative novice at defencing, being pitted against one of the Premier League’s trickiest forwards on a daily basis was a baptism of fire that would have intimidated many. But not the sprightly teenager from the same corner of London. The opportunity to take on Zaha in training was something he relished.

“When you know you’re going up against Zaha or coming up against these lot [his new Manchester United teammates] in training, it’s not easy. You know it’s going to be a hard test, but that’s going to make me a better person and player.

“Every session helps a lot, whether they go past me or they don’t. It helps me prepare for what I’m going to be up against in a Premier League game.”

Wan-Bissaka has remained in touch with his former Palace teammates since his transfer to United. Zaha, who struggled to make an impression at Old Trafford after joining in 2013, has also been offering advice.

“They still give me advice on games and wish me good luck.

“I still speak to them, especially him [Zaha] as he was at United and knows how things are here.

“He’s told me to just keep my head down, keep working hard and keep doing what I was doing last season.”

So far Wan-Bissaka has heeded Zaha’s advice. Many things have changed for him in the last two years and his progress has been rapid. As he continues to adjust to life in Manchester, there are no signs it is slowing down.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka was speaking to JOE at the launch of Ellevate in Manchester