December 7, 2019. A bitterly cold and dreary afternoon in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. About 12,000 spectators have braved the elements at Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers’ home. Big coats, chunky scarves and woolly hats — but through the freeze emerges a blaze of talent.
His name is Eberechi Eze — the street footballer who refused to call it quits. Eze, as he often is, was majestic that day — scoring twice in a 2-0 win over Preston. He didn’t know it then, but it was the performance that changed his career.
Dougie Freedman, Crystal Palace’s sporting director, was there. The Scot knows a player when he sees one, plucking Marc Guehi, Cheick Doucoure and Michael Olise from relative obscurity, but Eze is arguably his best find yet. He has poise, balance, athleticism and a dogged resilience honed in the unforgiving football cages of south London. His journey has navigated through the pain of rejection but one now hurtling towards redemption.
Seven months after that game against Preston, Eze signed for Palace for £19million. He has packed plenty in since then. On the pitch he is a beacon of excellence for Palace and last week he won his second England cap.
His profile is soaring, too. On Monday, Eze took centre stage at London Fashion Week as a guest of Burberry. Life’s different for Eze now. This is the story of ‘Ebs’: the boy who never lost faith.
Eberechi Eze’s profile is soaring at Crystal Palace, but he is still known as a humble and polite soul who attends church when he can on a Sunday
He was a guest of Burberry at London Fashion Week but isn’t losing sight of who he is
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Those who have met him describe a humble, gentle and polite soul. A man as approachable now aged 25 as he was before his career took off — a trait not universal in footballers.
It is important to Eze, he is determined not to forget who he is. Schedule permitting, tee-total Eze heads to church on a Sunday, often accompanied by Palace team-mate Nathan Ferguson. His faith has provided strength in challenging times. Released by Arsenal, Fulham and Millwall and with unsuccessful trials at Swansea, Bristol City and Sunderland, he doubted if he’d ever fulfil his dream.
Born to a close-knit Nigerian family, education and hard work was at the forefront of Eze’s upbringing. He continued at college and worked at a local supermarket as he pursued his football dream.
But the rejection was gut-wrenching. His talent and physicality were unquestioned, but doubts were raised over his ability to transmit those qualities into impactful contributions, his tactical awareness, decision-making and final ball.
‘Everyone recognised the physical attributes, but the technical and footballing intelligence probably wasn’t quite there at the time,’ a former Arsenal youth scout tells Mail Sport.
Many close to Eze claim rejection has shaped his life. In 2016 he got the break he needed.
Paul Hall, the coach at QPR described by Eze as one of the biggest influences on his career, tells Mail Sport: ‘Andy Impey and I were taking a session and we just looked and thought “Wow, who is this?” We couldn’t understand how somebody so good had walked in on trial. You think it’s too good to be true.’
After years of rejection, he proved his quality at QPR and Wycombe and caught the eye of suitors higher up the football pyramid
Roy Hodgson was a key factor in persuading Eze to join Palace, as they explained that the manager would help him impact games for longer periods
But coaches Hall, Impey and QPR technical director Chris Ramsey recognised the talent: a supreme street footballer who required professional coaching.
‘It was the easy stuff he didn’t have, the positional play he needed coaching on,’ says Hall.
Eze learned quickly; training alongside Ravel Morrison accelerated his creative flow. ‘Ebs would more than hold his own but I couldn’t put them on the same team because it would be so one-sided,’ recalls Hall.
Eze signed professional terms in the summer of 2016 before making his senior debut under Ian Holloway in an FA Cup loss to Blackburn the following January. He joined Wycombe on a six-month loan ahead of the 2017-18 season. There was no doubt at QPR that Eze was good enough but he needed matches. He took to his first six months of sustained senior football at Wycombe seamlessly. Word was spreading.
‘Within a few weeks, we were getting texts saying, “You’ve got to see this kid at Wycombe”,’ says one Premier League sporting director.
Eze made 22 appearances, scoring five goals at Adams Park before returning to QPR in January to become a first-team regular for the final half of the campaign. By the end of the 2018-19 season, the Premier League beckoned.
For six months, Palace didn’t let Eze out of their sight. Freedman loved his balance and ability to glide past players. He admired the way Eze took an identical approach to matches whether home or away.
There was hope that Freedman’s relationship with then QPR sporting director Les Ferdinand would put Palace in a strong position. But there was competition. Fulham and West Ham were keen — at one point Palace believed they were out of the running.
Enter Roy Hodgson. Freedman, in his conversations with Eze, played on the Hodgson factor. Palace recruitment staff felt Eze was impacting matches for 10 to 25 minutes at QPR. He was told that by working under Hodgson he would improve that to 45-60 minutes. That appealed to Eze and that side of his game has improved significantly.
Eze is now on the scene for England and Gareth Southgate is a fan of his strength and power
His international career has already seen heartbreak, though. He ruptured his achilles tendon in training just before finding out that he had made the Euro 2020 squad
Hodgson has taught Eze the art of blocking passes, cutting off angles, applying pressure. The pair have formed an unlikely bond. Within 48 hours of arriving back at Palace last season after Patrick Vieira was sacked, Hodgson, 76, pulled Eze aside for a chat. He told Eze that he was a guaranteed starter for him and has been true to his word, with Eze playing every Premier League minute since Hodgson’s return. He knows the winger is a match-winner.
Yet, it hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Eze at Palace. Vieira’s sparing use of him during a run of 13 games without victory after the World Cup baffled many at the club. Sources close to Vieira say he felt Eze wasn’t replicating his brilliance in training in matches. But don’t discount the influence Vieira has had on Eze’s career. It was under the Frenchman that Eze earned his first England call-up in 2021.
As Gareth Southgate contemplated his squad for Euro 2020, Eze caught his eye. He liked his ability to play in different attacking positions. But what really captured Southgate’s imagination was the strength and power with which Eze carried the ball.
And while Southgate had concerns over Eze’s tactical acumen he believed the time was right to invest in the then 23-year-old and called him up to his provisional Euros squad. But what followed was catastrophic: Eze ruptured his achilles tendon during training three weeks before the season’s end. It was serious and he knew it. As he was carried inside, he reached for his phone. On it was a text from the FA confirming his first England selection.
‘I saw it as another hurdle, the focus was to keep pushing,’ said Eze in May when he finally reported to St George’s Park as a bona fide England international two years after he was supposed to. It has been worth the wait for Southgate, who was particularly impressed by Eze’s attitude during the camp for the matches against Ukraine and Scotland earlier this month. Since first reporting for England duty Eze has made a point of remembering everyone’s first names. That humility has left its mark.
There was a period between 2019-2021 when England feared they would lose Eze to Nigeria but after taking advice he chose the Three Lions.
Moving forward, Eze will leave Palace — probably next summer. Manchester City enquired over his availability in August. Tottenham, too. They won’t be the only ones interested in Eberechi Eze — the street footballer who turned pro.