By Ben Summer
“Debut,” tweets @EbereEze10 after hobbling off the pitch 18 minutes into his first senior QPR appearance, “every disappointment is a blessing in disguise.”
In Eze’s career so far, he’d been released by Arsenal, Fulham, Reading and Millwall. After being injured on his debut, sent on loan to Wycombe in League Two, and criticised by fans as “lazy,” all the signs would point to Eze being the classic example of a flashy youngster falling through the cracks of the academy system and amounting to nothing in particular.
Ebere Eze was about to prove everybody wrong.
Those familiar with Championship football will have heard him discussed alongside Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma as one of the prophetic young talents of the season.
Arriving at QPR to little fanfare in 2016, he was guided by Technical Director Chris Ramsey and a small handful of managers into being the club’s best player by a wide margin – in no small part due to Mark Warburton’s eagerness for his squad to play expressive, attacking football.
Now on the brink of a move to Crystal Palace for £16m plus addons, Eze’s story is both a testament to his own unique ability, and to the Championship’s status as the source of a wealth of future Premier League and England stars.
It would be an injustice to try and describe Eze’s playing style in words alone, but attempts to do so tend to result in the use of words like “mesmerising,” “beautiful,” and “have my children, Ebere.” On his day, he has a swagger that far exceeds the requirements for the level he’s playing at, an absolutely unshakeable balance created by perfectly timed shoulder swaying and footwork, and the ability to make defensive midfielders question why they even bother turning up.
He has the flashiness of an academy product, but the intuition and physicality of somebody with serious Championship experience. The stands at Loftus Road this season were frequently the source of literal squeals of delight, not least when Eze made a legitimate mockery of Wayne Rooney’s Derby County’s Wayne Rooney.
A move to Palace, then, seems the right one for his career. Capable of playing as a number 10 or (at a push) on the wing, it remains to be seen whether he is seen as a replacement for Wilfried Zaha or competition for the Ivorian international and other wide-men such as Andros Townsend.
There is also the potential that his arrival at Selhurst Park is a sign of Palace slowly evolving under Roy Hodgson. The former England manager has come under criticism at times for his conservative style, at times deploying three defensive midfielders at once, despite Palace comfortably staying up last season.
The signing of Eze is perhaps recognition of the need to move beyond the defensive approach that yielded just 31 goals in 38 games. Eze in his preferred number 10 role in-front of two holding midfielders would certainly give Palace more attacking thrust without sacrificing defensive stability.
Ultimately, if this is the plan, Eze will no doubt benefit from being a key figure, rather than being side-lined at a club with a more expensive roster of players. Time will tell whether he’ll eventually end up at a ‘top six’ club, but most who’ve seen him play would bet their life savings on it.
Meanwhile back at Loftus Road, once the rivers of tears over the player’s departure are drained away, there’s room to realise that the club has done a great bit of business. After players like Alex Smithies and Luke Freeman were allowed to depart for relatively low sums, there was a sense that Eze doing the same was a foregone conclusion.
When Reading’s John Swift and Eze’s QPR teammate Bright Osayi-Samuel both looked set to depart their clubs for under £5m, the consensus seemed that COVID-19 may have set the price for a promising midfielder in his early 20s firmly at that mark.
To then see the QPR board turn down several approaches for Eze, including cursory approaches from Palace and West Ham, holding out to get nearer the £20m mark, offers some indication that Premier League clubs are more confident in their current spending ability than those further down the pyramid.
For as long as fans are locked out of stadiums, the Premier League’s comparatively hefty TV revenue will grant it an ability to spend more freely than EFL clubs. Especially in the October domestic-only phase of the current transfer window, EFL clubs may recognise their ability to hold out for a decent price for their home-grown talents.
Additionally, the 20% sell-on clause in the deal ensures that QPR get a sizeable chunk of the inflated Premier League transfer fee that United or Arsenal may end up paying to nab Eze from Palace in a couple of years – adding another opportunity for Rangers to rise above the dire financial state of the EFL.
With Eze gaining another England U21 call-up on the eve of his Premier League move, and a collection of homegrown talents gaining promotion this season, the Championship looks comfortable in its status as a factory of reliable future England stars.
With Kalvin Phillips playing a starring role for Leeds after joining them at age 14, and Josh Onomah a key player for Fulham after being swiped from Spurs’ academy, it’s clear that the second tier is where talent goes to prove itself. Time will tell whether Eze is the latest shining example of it, but his career so far would indicate that we haven’t heard the last of him.
Image: Matt Brown via Flickr