February 25, 2018. Crystal Palace are preparing for a Premier League game at home to Tottenham. They have an injury list as long as their run of games without a win against Spurs, and a crisis in defence.
Right-backs Joel Ward and Martin Kelly are both out. Their back-up, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, is needed in central defence because so many other players are injured. So Roy Hodgson hands a professional debut to a player few in the ground had even heard of: the 20-year-old Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Fast forward a year, and Wan-Bissaka is now among the most sought-after young players in English football. He has the kind of vital statistics that make football’s data analysts drool, and is in contention to be handed a first England call-up when Gareth Southgate names his squad for the European Championship qualifiers against Czech Republic and Montenegro next Wednesday. ‘Rapid rise’ hardly begins to cover it.
Wan-Bissaka’s background is well-chronicled – the Croydon boy from a tough estate in New Addington who was dazzling his PE teachers as a nine-year-old – but what is most striking about him is the sheer relish he has for defending.
He may have started life as a winger, something he has in common with many of the best full-backs in the game at present (think Dani Alves, Danny Rose, Jordi Alba and former Palace youngster Nathaniel Clyne) but his taste for tackling has been obvious ever since he was first asked to fill in at right-back for a Palace first team training session late in 2016 and left Wilfried Zaha howling in frustration as he continually thwarted his efforts to get past him.