by Andrew McSteen
When Eagles goalkeeping legend Julian Speroni walked on stage at Boxpark, Croydon, last week to pick up the ‘Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Contribution’ at the free-to-attend Crystal Palace FC End of Season Awards, he had to wait for the fans chanting to finish before receiving it.
And while on stage, a montage of all his great moments during a Palace career, which started in 2004, played. But interspersed amongst the footage were quotes from an unlikely player, crediting the Argentinian with helping his career on and off the pitch progress.
“Before I was even in the first team he was unbelievable,” said the Ivory Coast international Wilfried Zaha. “And then managing to meet him you see how much of a gentleman and a nice guy he is. I’m happy to have been at Palace at the same time as he is.
“He’s been a mentor for me,” he added. “Obviously, we play in different positions but whatever I was going through he would be someone I could speak to about anything.”
A visibly-emotional Speroni then took the award and applause before telling the South London Press about his relationship with the Palace attacker.
“We have a special bond,” said Speroni, who has won the Palace Player of the Season Award four times previously. “I have known him since he was a young boy and I saw him grow to become the unbelievable player that he is now.
“It makes me really proud and he deserves it. He deserves it because I have seen him work really hard when he was younger – and he still works really hard. The fact that he is such a massive player for us, I couldn’t feel prouder of him.”
With Speroni’s contract up at the end of June and the Argentinian one of four goalkeepers at the club, it could be time to move into coaching, but the 39-year-old has no plans to hang up the gloves just yet, although he does always provide advice where needed.
“I don’t know who told you about coaching?,” said Speroni with a smile. “I want to carry on playing, I feel fit, strong and I feel very much as a player [and not a coach], but when we need to coach or give some advice to those young players I love doing so as well – especially with goalkeepers of course because I feel closer to them.
“However, with mentoring I like doing that because I can use my experience not just as a footballer. For the players [at the club] they need to know what it means to play for this football club, so when I can help in that way I love doing it.”
With Aaron Wan-Bissaka easily winning the Player of the Season Award this season, Zaha stayed on three – one behind Speroni, who was not at all bothered about his record being equalled.
“If someone is going to break the record it will be Wilfried and I will be so pleased for him,” added Speroni. “If someone is going to break it I hope it’s him because he deserves it; he’s done fantastic for us. Records are there to be broken so it will be broken sometime, and I hope it’s him, but who knows? We’ll see.”
For Zaha, Speroni means more than the awards he has won. “In the semi-final play-off against Brighton and then final against Watford (both in 2013) those two saves he made were not only defining for the club but especially for me as well,” he said in the film. “He’s a Palace hero for sure.”