Aaron Wan-Bissaka: The rapid rise of Man Utd's new £50m right-back

By Harry PooleBBC Sport
Split image of Aaron Wan-Bissaka in his first and last games for the Crystal Palace senior team
Aaron Wan-Bissaka made his senior debut for Crystal Palace on 25 February 2018

"There wasn't much choice. If he hadn't played, I don't know who would have played there."

The words of Roy Hodgson as a dire injury crisis paved the way for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, then aged 20, to make his first senior appearance for Crystal Palace against Tottenham in February 2018.

Just 16 months later, the former forward has joined Manchester United for £50m, becoming the sixth most-expensive defender of all time.

It has been a rapid rise for the Croydon-born England Under-21 international.

So, how did he get here?

The training session that changed it all

Signed by the Palace academy aged 11, Wan-Bissaka began his path to Old Trafford as a goalscorer, and originally "didn't like defending".

But he struggled to really catch the eye as he progressed through Palace's youth teams, and Kevin Keen - the club's first-team coach from 2016-17 - said: "I had seen him do OK without pulling up any trees."

A player shortage in 2016 gave Wan-Bissaka his first opportunity - he was called upon to plug a gap in the under-23s, who were short of a right-back during pre-season.

That is when he came up against Wilfried Zaha, who by then had returned to the club after a brief move to Manchester United.

"Wilf didn't get past Aaron once," said Keen. "He's such a cool customer, nothing fazes him."

Wan-Bissaka - of Congolese decent - assumed his new role for the under-23s in 2016-17, but the transition did not come naturally at first.

"I didn't really enjoy it as much because I couldn't go forward," Wan-Bissaka told the Palace matchday programme.external-link

"At times it is difficult not to attack. Yannick Bolasie was my inspiration when I was younger because he used to power forward and attack players. He gave me advice."

And of the "training session that changed his life", Wan-Bissaka said: "It was a turning point. Everyone was surprised. To keep up with Wilf meant something."

Thrown in at the deep end

If 2016-17 changed his life, 2017-18 brought about Wan-Bissaka's real breakthrough - or "baptism of fire" as Hodgson later described it.external-link

Having unsuccessfully approached Hodgson about a potential loan move, and with 12 senior players out injured, Wan-Bissaka's first-team debut came on 25 February.

After that debut against Spurs, he faced Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in three of his next four appearances. Quite a start.

"I wasn't nervous because I have been waiting for this for a long time," said Wan Bissaka.

He did admit playing against United was "a little daunting" - but little more than a year after saying it felt a "big achievement" to be playing against Paul Pogba he is now a team-mate of the Frenchman.

International honours followed - Palace's Young Player of the Season secured an England Under-20 call-up in March, with promotion to the under-21s following in August.

'Palace's diamond'

A rapid rise, then, but the 2018-19 season did not start well for Wan-Bissaka.

He was sent off just 165 minutes in after bringing down Liverpool's Mohamed Salah - yet even then he left the field to rapturous applause.

And the setback was brief - the Eagles' lowest-paid first-team player kicked on, with stellar performances that led to him being described as "a diamond" and "a must for Manchester United".

Palace's Player of the Season award followed and a return to his primary school in New Addington demonstrated his accelerated jump to role model.

Describing his new-found fame as "weird", the 21-year-old said: "I want them to think that there's always a chance. Back then I didn't see one until my dad changed me and made me work hard."

His reward is a five-year contract at Manchester United that will earn him up to £80,000 per week. His hard work paid off.

One of Wan-Bissaka's former youth teammates posted this photo on Twitter
One of Wan-Bissaka's former youth team-mates posted this on Twitter

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