London (AFP) – While the FA Cup final will always inspire a degree of reverence, Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie will have more reason than most to feel emotional at Wembley on Saturday.
Bolasie grew up just a few miles from Wembley and could see the famous stadium glimmering in the distance from his parents’ house in Hillingdon Borough.
So, at the end of a season in which Bolasie’s father passed away, playing the biggest match of his career so close to home has given the Congo international a burning desire to deliver the performance of a lifetime.
Bolasie’s father followed the Eagles all over the country to watch his son in action and his death in August inevitably proved hard for the Palace star to take.
After flying to Congo for several days, Bolasie returned to action in a Premier League match at Chelsea and he was moved almost to tears when he saw that Palace had arranged for the players to wear black armbands in recognition of his father’s passing.
Bolasie has been determined to repay that support by shining for Palace and his impressive campaign reached a new high when he headed in the opening goal in their FA Cup semi-final against Watford last month.
That 2-1 victory was a milestone moment for Bolasie as he finally fulfilled his ambition of playing at Wembley.
For many years, while he languished in football’s lower divisions with Bristol City and Palace, it seemed those glances out of the windows of his old home were as close as he would get to his field of dreams.
When Palace made it to the Championship play-off final in 2013, played at Wembley against Watford, Bolasie thought his moment had come at last.
But while there was jubilation as Palace were promoted to the Premier League, then-manager Ian Holloway left Bolasie on the bench.
“I didn’t get a chance to play at Wembley in the play-offs. That’s one of the things that hurt me the most, but it also pushed me on,” Bolasie said.
– ‘Street football’ –
He has taken to wearing a pair of boots he designed himself that are emblazoned with a photo of Wembley’s famous arch and other pictures charting his winding career path from Hillingdon to the national stadium.
“I had a print off for my boots. That replicates the journey I’ve had with Palace, my football journey and the street football with how I’ve grown up,” Bolasie explained.
“I think I might keep the same design for the final now. It’s a good one.”
Despite the trappings of his status as a Premier League footballer, Bolasie remains down-to-earth.
He often pops home for a meal prepared by his mother, Yolande, and he recently tweeted a picture of himself in a local playground with the caption “Where it all began”.
“I’ve not changed,” he said. “I’m the same person. The way I have grown up reflects on my mother. I have seen lots of others grow up too and have no respect for human beings.
“Though I play football, I am able to talk to everyone on the estate.”
As if he needed any additional motivation in Saturday’s clash with Manchester United, the 26-year-old would dearly love to bring home an FA Cup winners’ medal on the day his mother turns 54.
“The stadium is so close to home, close to where I grew up. It’s always been a reminder to me to find that path to glory,” he said.
“Unfortunately Dad won’t be here to enjoy it, so it would be great to do something for Mum. Hopefully I can make her day special.”
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