Palace youth system graduate Gareth Southgate opened the club’s state-of-the-art, £20m academy just over one year ago, a step toward part-owner and chairman Steve Parish’s ambitions to attract and retain players from the area with ultimate aspirations of seeing another homegrown Eagle play for England.
Parish has even gone so far as to suggest south London is among “the top two or three footballing hotbeds in the world”. It is a notion Greenwich-born Eze did not think was too far-fetched.
“Yeah, I agree with that,” the 24-year-old told the PA news agency. “I think the amount of talent in south London is insane. The amount of people that I know that are amazing footballers but haven’t been able to make it for whatever reason, it’s crazy.
“Definitely Palace, they’re always looking for players in local areas, you can see players from local areas who are playing in the first team and who are not just playing but doing well. I think Palace is the perfect spot for that.
“Big clubs are starting to get creative now with how to find new players, and a lot of clubs will definitely be surprised with the amount of talent that is within cages and Sunday league teams.”
Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha moved to nearby Thornton Heath as a child and joined the club’s academy aged 12. He earned two senior caps for England before switching allegiance to the Ivory Coast.
The BT Sport documentary South of the River, released last year, revealed 14 per cent of the Premier League’s English-born players in 2020 hailed from within 10 square miles of south London.
Eze grew up playing at John Roan School alongside current Middlesbrough defender Marc Bola, still a close friend. When the boys made it into Arsenal’s academy, their parents would split carpooling duties.
The future Eagle grew up dreaming of playing for the Gunners, which made his release from their academy aged 13 that much more devastating. He started to worry the year before, when “everyone else” was offered a two-year contract and his was for just one.
“At the time it was terrible,” he said. “I supported Arsenal growing up, so that was my team and to then be told I’m not going to be part of the team anymore, I remember crying, my parents were upset and sad for me, especially not knowing much about football and what football would be like elsewhere.
“But if it wasn’t for that moment and that situation, I wouldn’t be where I am today because that’s built me and shaped me as a man today.”
Eze signed for QPR in 2016 and made his first-team debut the following year. He remained there, save for a brief loan spell at Wycombe, until inking a five-year deal with Palace in 2020.
He has scored two goals and picked up three assists in 14 appearances for the 11th-placed Eagles so far this season, shining enough to earn inclusion in Southgate’s 55-man provisional World Cup squad submitted to Fifa for Qatar.
Eze, ultimately left out of the final party, has been using the international break to give back in his role as ambassador for McDonald’s Fun Football sessions, which provide free coaching for five- to 11-year-olds across the UK.
It is, he is convinced, something that could be life-changing for its participants and their families, some of whom might not otherwise have a chance to play or otherwise be inspired to follow in his bootsteps, or those of the other south London boys who made it big.
“That’s huge,” he added. “Just being able to go and play football, somewhere to enjoy yourself, (for it) to be free, that’s something that I didn’t have much of when I was younger growing up. If I had something like this I would have been there.
“It’s about having fun and being able to express yourself. To be given the opportunity for free, for parents, that’s a huge, huge deal.”
Ebere Eze was speaking at the first ever winter wave of McDonald’s Fun Football sessions, with over 10,000 hours of free football coaching for 5–11-year-olds across the UK in the next month. Find a Fun Football session local to you by visiting www.mcdonalds.co.uk/football