Class of 2019: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
This article is an excerpt from the Class of 2019 feature from Issue 01 of GAFFER: ‘England’s Finest’. Available from our online shop now.
Within the space of two weeks last year, everything changed for Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
On February 25 he made his Crystal Palace first-team debut in front of 25,000-plus fans at Selhurst Park against Tottenham. On March 5, he faced Manchester United. On March 10, Chelsea.
Suddenly, he was sharing a pitch with superstars. He was holding his own, too.
Now, the 21-year-old, who was brought up in South London, is living every kid’s dream by playing for his boyhood club in the world’s most elite league.
You’re a South London boy and now you play for your boyhood club in the Premier League. Can you tell us a little about what your upbringing was like?
I had the love for the game at first sight. Growing up, I’d play anywhere, in any weather. In my front garden, the hard pitch in a football cage, the uncut grass next to my house. Really, any chance to play, I would go out, whether it was by myself or with my friends. I realised I stood out, and I gained confidence from that.
You’ll struggle to find more passionate fans than the ones who support Crystal Palace. How has the South London culture shaped you?
It influenced me by making me able to express my raw talent. You just express yourself with the ball. When I became a Crystal Palace player, the fans have helped me with that as well.
We’ve heard you were a bit mischievous as a youngster. You would eat chicken and chips after school, have fizzy drinks, turn up late occasionally. How did you refocus yourself on football?
After school, everyone would go to the local shops. I got caught into that. I realised it wasn’t helping me during games. I was feeling tired. So I thought of a way to change that, to make me an even better player. I spoke to my dad about it, and he helped me. It’s not easy because they’re your friends. It’s a thing where you follow the crowd, in a way. It’s hard to get out of, especially at a young age.
What would you do if you weren’t a professional football player?
To be honest, I’ve never thought of anything other than becoming a professional footballer. So, that was always on my mind, which helped me push and chase that dream.
So are you living the dream now?
I’m going in the right direction. The opportunities are being given to me. It’s just all on me at the moment to take it, to pursue it. When I go to my parents’ house, I know what to expect. Local kids chase me for autographs. I don’t mind it. It makes my day. It makes me realise where I’ve come from, to go there and see kids coming up to me asking for autographs. It’s something I don’t mind doing. It was always a dream to meet a footballer as a kid and to learn from them. That’s how I think of it. I think of how they look up to me and how I can help.
It is almost a year since your Premier League debut against Tottenham. Have the last 12 months been a bit of a whirlwind?
I just don’t picture it. Twelve months ago, I never expected it to come out this way. I’m proud of myself for where I’ve come from, to be given this chance and to take it. My aim now is to continue doing what I’m doing and hopefully do better than I’ve done over the last year.
What was the first thing you did after that game?
My family always come to my games, and they were at that game. They were proud. I saw them after the game. They couldn’t stop talking about it. I didn’t do much that night. I was just too excited, you know? I was just so proud and excited. I watched Match of the Day. To see myself on TV for the first time, it was shocking. It shows how hard you’re worked, where you’ve come from and what you can end up with. It was good seeing myself there. I just thought to myself, “This is the start. Keep going, don’t stop.”
After making your debut against Tottenham, you then faced Manchester United and Chelsea, so you’re suddenly on the pitch with the likes of Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and so on…
It was a dream come true. I’m used to watching them on the TV or playing them on FIFA, so to be on the same pitch as them was a miracle. I’m into my games. I’ve always played FIFA. For me, I used to be at a stage where I’d have to create a player and rename him as myself to play with him. Now I’m an actual player in the game. That’s a kid’s dream.
There is a 50 year age gap between you and your 71-year-old manager Roy Hodgson, the former boss of England. What it is like to work with Roy on a daily basis?
He wants you to show him what you’re capable of. He’ll tell you what’s good, what’s bad, what you can improve on. With me, that’s helps. Training with him full-time helps me. He’s prepared me.
Picture this: it’s the final 15 minutes before the match and you’re preparing to step out at Selhurst Park. What are you doing to get into the zone?
I’ll be listening to music, probably Meek Mill, an American rapper. His music is just raw, the way he raps about it. How he came from nothing to something, that motivates me. It gets me in that mood before a game. It gets me ready, it gets me prepared for what I’m about to face up to. You need to be prepared and have confidence in yourself, especially in the Premier League. That’s how I take it.
Is music a big part of your life?
I listen to music every day, when I’m getting ready, the journey to training, before bed. It helps me chill out, it helps me relax.
Finally, do you have goals to become a full England international?
I’ve always wanted to play for my country. These steps are helping, me playing for the Under-20s and Under-21s. The only step left is the first team, and that’s where I want to get.