By Liam Twomey
It seems too neat to be a coincidence that, after 10 years of struggling, Jason Puncheon has finally found a happy home with the same club at which his boyhood hero made his name.
As a football-mad youngster growing up in Croydon, Puncheon wore his Ian Wright No.8 shirt like a second skin. By then his idol was leading the line for Arsenal and well on his way to becoming the club’s all-time record goalscorer - until Thierry Henry came along - but it was Palace who, in 1985, had first given him the stage he needed to shine at the relatively late age of 22.
Top level recognition for Puncheon, too, has been slow in coming. He has turned out for 11 different clubs in as many years since making his professional debut for the now-defunct Wimbledon in 2003, plying his trade in every division of the Football League.
|PUNCHEON AT PALACE
|2013-14 PREMIER LEAGUE STATS
“I know Ian really well,” Puncheon tells Goal. “I used to play with Bradley [Wright-Phillips] when I was a kid, and I know his other sons Shaun and Brett.
“When I signed for QPR he was in the same room as me. I won’t say what he said to me but it was one of the best bits of advice I’ve had in my career.
“He was an inspiration as a kid but it’s only as you start to get older that you start to realise someone’s story. When I speak to him it makes me realise that there’s someone else who’s been on a similar path and had to do what I’ve had to do.”
Puncheon’s path has had more twists, turns and bumps than most. Spells at MK Dons, Barnet and Blackpool were good for him; those at Plymouth Argyle, Millwall and QPR not so much. He seized his chance with Southampton in the Premier League last season, making 32 appearances and scoring memorable goals against Manchester City and Chelsea.
But when Palace came calling, first with a season-long loan offer last summer and then with a £1.75 million bid on the final day of the January transfer window, it was too good to turn down.
“I’ve got a lot of connections with Palace,” Puncheon adds. “It’s my local team. I was born and bred in the area. To make history at Palace by doing something they’ve never done before [staying in the Premier League] would be great for me personally, but also for the community and the club.
“I’m very settled and it’s great. I’ve got a good football club and a good manager who’s helped me from day one.”
Does he ever wish it hadn’t taken so long? “It’s just happened that way, but I don’t look at anything and think badly of it,” he insists. “It’s helped me and it’s all experience at the end of the day.
“It’s difficult, but I’m just a person who’s happy playing football. That’s just me. I’m like a big kid.”
Puncheon comes across as relaxed and friendly, but his easy-going nature is allied to the steely determination that has got him this far.
“I never doubted myself,” he admits. “Because of my past I’ve had to work my socks off to get where I am – maybe a bit more than others, but that’s football.
“Nothing comes easily and no matter what walk of life you’re in, you have to work to get where you need to get. That’s what I’ve done and I’ll keep on doing that.”
This tireless work ethic has made Puncheon a trusted option for new manager Tony Pulis, the man who has overseen a remarkable revival in the Palace’s fortunes.
The Eagles had taken just seven points from their first seven matches when the former Stoke City boss arrived in November, but have claimed 20 points from the following 16.
|"I never doubted myself. Because of my past I've had to work my socks off to get where I am."
“Sometimes in football you just get a different voice and they bring different methods, and everybody wants to listen and respond,” Puncheon says of Pulis.
“That’s shown in our game and the way we’ve been playing.
“The gaffer’s quite relaxed in the sense that when you get the ball, it’s about what you produce, and you’ve just got to go out there and play your game.
“On a personal level that’s great, and I go out there and try to produce what I can.”
Despite his affection for Palace, Puncheon admits he still keeps in touch with many of his former team-mates at Southampton. One of his closest friends at St Mary’s is prodigious 18-year-old Luke Shaw, who received a congratulatory call from Puncheon after making his England debut against Denmark earlier this month and swapped shirts with him after Palace’s 1-0 loss to the Saints.
“Luke did nothing [against Denmark] that I didn’t expect him to do,” Puncheon enthuses. “His ability speaks for itself and what he did that day is a tiny bit of the quality he can produce.
“He’s a bit similar to the way I was. He’s from London and he’s living away. You try to help someone like that and I helped him a little bit, but he’s got to take the credit for the fact that he’s put himself in this position. He’s done fantastically well and you forget he’s only 18 – he’s still a kid.
“It’s going to be difficult [to make the World Cup squad] but I think he’s good enough. The decision is down to Roy but I know what my opinion would be on that one.”
While Shaw dreams of Brazil, Puncheon’s immediate target is less exotic but no less worthy. It has been a long climb to the Premier League and he has no intention of making the return trip just yet.
“You’ve got to be stand up and be counted if you want to stay in this league,” he insists.
“It’s the best league in the world, and it’s going to take all 25 of us in the squad – not just the starting XI – to keep that status for next season.”
Jason Puncheon was speaking at the launch of Titanfall, out now on Xbox One and PC. Prepare for Titanfall at Titanfall.com
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