Edouard Mendy stares into the screen and thinks back to the way things were when he was at his lowest ebb.
His voice quickens a little when he recalls being released by his French third division club in the summer of 2014 and the increasingly frantic messages he sent to his agent asking if anybody else wanted him. The transfer window was about to close. The agent did not return his calls.
He thinks back to his parents’ cramped flat in the Le Havre suburb of Caucriauville, the end of the line on the city’s tramway.
Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy is preparing for a Champions League final next week
He was released by a French third tier side in 2014 and moved in with his mum (left) and dad
NO1s OUT OF AFRICA
Edouard Mendy hopes to be a pathfinder for African goalkeepers, who are few and far between in the top divisions in Europe.
The last African international keeper to play in the Premier League was Nigeria’s Carl Ikeme. He had one Premier League game for Wolves before he was forced to retire with leukemia — and he was born in Sutton Coldfield.
Other No 1s from Africa in the top tier were both playing before the millennium: Manchester United’s Gary Bailey, born in Ipswich but raised in South Africa, and Liverpool’s Bruce Grobbelaar from Zimbabwe.
Current France goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was born in Kinshasa and is captain of Marseille, while Andre Onana continues a rich pedigree of Cameroon keepers.
He is at Ajax but was handed a 12-month suspension in February because of doping violations.
Joseph-Antoine Bell (Marseille), Thomas N’Kono (Espanyol) and Jacques Songo’o (La Coruna) are other Cameroonians who have kept among Europe’s elite in the past.
He and his partner, who was pregnant with their first child, moved in there that summer because they could no longer afford a place of their own and Edouard was pouring all his efforts into training unpaid at the local club’s academy and trying to rescue his career.
He thinks back to the year when he had no club, the year when he drew unemployment benefit, the year when he worried about how he would provide for his young family. It was the year when he turned 23, an age where most top-class footballers are already chasing glories. If a player isn’t close to making it by then, the odds are he never will.
And he thinks back to the week when a friend of his who could see that Mendy had business acumen and knew he had studied hard in college and knew that his dream of making it as a professional footballer was dying, offered him the chance to be the manager of a menswear shop in the port city. He thinks back to how close he came to accepting that offer.
But then the voice of the Chelsea goalkeeper, the man who will be the last line of defence against Manchester City in the Champions League final in Porto next Saturday, quickens again. And he leans closer to the camera on his screen and he repeats a phrase in French that he says is the life lesson that he hopes more than anything he can pass on to his sons, Elias and Eden. ‘Jamais lacher,’ he says. ‘Never let go. Never give up.’
Never let go. Never give up. Every Chelsea and Manchester City player on the pitch at the Estadio do Dragao next weekend will be there because they have fought hard for their dreams and made sacrifices and overcome hardships but it is hard to believe that any of them could have fought harder or achieved such a scarcely believable reversal of fortune in such a short space of time as Mendy.
As the 2013-14 season came to a close, he was on the books of AS Cherbourg, who were in the second division of the Championnat National, the fourth tier of the French football league system. Mendy had been there three seasons, most of the time as reserve keeper. He was starting to get more playing time, but at the end of the campaign, he was released.
‘The worst moment for me,’ says Mendy, ‘the lowest point I got to, was when it was coming to the end of the transfer window that summer. Cherbourg had released me and I had been trying constantly to contact my agent, leaving him voicemails and sending him texts, and he just wasn’t replying. I was doing this every day and it got to the last day of the transfer window.
‘He did not even have the courage to speak to me directly. When he did get in touch, it was just a text message saying, ‘Sorry, it is the last day of the window and I am not going to be able to find a club for you, so you won’t be able to sign a contract with anyone, so I suggest you look for work and continue to train by yourself’.’
But now he is Chelsea’s number one shot stopper and on the verge of European League glory
Mendy was distraught but he would not let go of his dream. He trained on a field with his brother, he went back to the Le Havre youth academy, where he had trained as a kid, and worked there. He haunted the gym. When he wasn’t at the gym, he went to the local stadium and trained there.
He made up his mind he would work harder than anyone else. For the sake of a comparison in career trajectory, at the end of that 2014-15 season when Mendy was toiling alone in Le Havre, Kevin De Bruyne, who will line up against him on Saturday and is a similar age, would join City from Wolfsburg for £55million. Mendy spent the 2014-15 season on football’s scrapheap, without a club, without a future.
‘One of the things that saved me,’ says Mendy, 29, ‘was that I was lucky at the time with the situation in my home life. I was living in Le Havre and I was able to live with my family so that meant that I wasn’t spending as much of the money I was getting from social security and unemployment benefit. My partner was pregnant with our first child so it was really hard when you knew that you might not be able to provide for your family.
‘I knew I had to find a solution and the solution was either do I find a club who I can play for professionally or do I go out to work like everyone else and provide for my daily needs that way? So that period was tough because I was torn between those two decisions. One was something I might have to do and the other was what I wanted to do.
When Mendy was toiling alone in Le Havre, Saturday’s opponent Kevin De Bruyne (right) was joining Manchester City
‘I got to the point where I was applying for other jobs. I had studied quite hard in the past and I had always been quite good at business and commerce. I had a good friend who had a menswear shop, men’s fashion. He was convinced I would do a good job for him. They offered me the chance to run the shop for them.
‘He knew my intention was to try to get a contract with a football club but it was a really close-run thing about whether I committed to that job. Eight days after my friend first floated that idea about managing the shop, I got a call from Marseille offering me the chance of going there to be one of the back-up keepers at the club. That was when things started to change.’
Mendy was fourth-choice goalkeeper at Marseille. He was nowhere near the first team. He was given a one-year amateur contract on a minimum salary. ‘Mendy was like a spare wheel, a filler,’ said Dominique Bernatowicz, the goalkeeper coach at the Marseille academy. He played a few times that season for Marseille’s reserves.
It was enough to get him noticed and he joined Ligue 2 Reims at the start of the 2016-17 season as reserve goalkeeper. Fortune began to smile on him. Five minutes into the first game of the season against Amiens, Reims’s starting goalkeeper, Johann Carrasso, was sent off. Mendy replaced him, played well and got more playing time.
Mendy was picked up as Marseille’s fourth-choice goalkeeper before moving to Reims (above)
The next season, he was made Reims’s starting goalkeeper. He kept 19 clean sheets in 38 league games and Reims were promoted to Ligue 1. He played every game for the club in his first top-flight season and at the end of it, he was poached by Rennes, where Petr Cech had played before he joined Chelsea. He made his international debut for Senegal.
And then at the start of this season, with their first-choice goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga still struggling to establish himself two years after he had arrived from Athletic Bilbao, Chelsea announced that they had paid Rennes £22m for Mendy. Cech had been instrumental in the decision. And Mendy has seized the opportunity that he worked so hard to be given. Six years ago, he was on the dole. Next week, he plays in the Champions League final.
‘When I look back on my career path,’ he says, ‘from the first moment I signed my first professional contract or when I was unemployed for a while, if anyone would have said to me that a few years down the line, I was going to be playing in a Champions League final, I wouldn’t have believed them. I wouldn’t have listened to them.
‘I feel lucky now to be at a really positive point in my career and playing for a club where I have the opportunity to win trophies but what has happened is about more than luck. I have worked really, really hard throughout that period to have achieved what I have achieved so far to make that career jump. This final is the reward for that hard work.
He played every game for them in his first Ligue 1 season before moving to Rennes (above)
Chelsea legend Petr Cech (right) then played an instrumental role in Mendy joining the club
‘I agree that a lot of people would have given up at 23 if they were in the situation I was in. It was a test to overcome. Une epreuve a surmonter. It was a test I learned to overcome and it has opened up some really beautiful avenues for me. I think my mental strength is something that helped me. I stayed strong throughout the whole period and the difficult times. To my own credit, I never gave up.
‘I had that conviction and belief and I knew I had to work hard. I was prepared to work two or three times harder than other goalkeepers to improve. So when I was going back to the academy to train, I would go to the gym and if I didn’t go to the gym, I would go to the stadium and run. I wanted people to be able to say, ‘We want to sign that player’.’
Mendy has brought order and certainty and confidence to Chelsea’s back line. The team’s success under Thomas Tuchel has been built on defensive solidity and Mendy kept 11 clean sheets in the new manager’s first 15 games. Earlier this month, he anticipated a Panenka penalty from Sergio Aguero in Chelsea’s Premier League clash with City at the Etihad and patted the spot-kick down as nonchalantly as if it were a practice match.
He is aware that he has become something of a pathfinder as an African goalkeeper in the top flight. ‘I am one of the first at a big club here as far as I am aware,’ he says. ‘If I can do my bit to open the path or make that passage from Africa easier for players in the future, then that would be great.’
He is popular with his team-mates, too, and with staff at the club. He carries himself with the kind of humility that suggests he has not forgotten what it is like when life is hard.
He was confident in his ability to make it to the top despite a turbulent start to his career
His attitude and determination is one of the factors that made Chelsea want to sign him
‘I am constantly driving myself on to prove that Chelsea didn’t make a mistake and that they made the right choice,’ he says. No wonder former manager Frank Lampard praised his attitude earlier this season.
‘So much has changed for me,’ says Mendy. ‘There are lots of reasons why I went from that player who couldn’t get a club to where I am now. I was always convinced of my own ability. I was really sure I could finally go all the way and make it as professional player. It helped convince me of that when I saw other goalkeepers playing.
‘I was confident. I saw other goalkeepers when I trained alongside them. When I was without a club and I was on unemployment benefit, I went back to the club where I had been in the academy and I was training alongside goalkeepers there who had pro contracts and I thought, ‘I’m as good as them, in fact I’m better than them, I can go all the way’.
‘My family provided really strong support. They were always behind me, even in the tough times when I was struggling financially. And the big thing was that I was going to be a father for the first time and it was an inspiration for me to know that I was going to have my own family responsibilities and I needed to be a success for my son.
‘One of the things I can now do for my son is to say to him if life gets tough like it did for me, you can lean on those tough times to be able to become stronger and get better and improve and never give up. Never give up. That is the key. Jamais lacher. Hopefully he will be able to take those lessons from my own personal experience and if ever he needs to draw on those, he has got that ready for him.’
Mendy has brought order and certainty and confidence to Thomas Tuchel’s backline