In January 2019, a man who will imminently become Chelsea’s new goalkeeper, Édouard Mendy, spoke with France Football about his incredible ascension into the world of French football. At the time, he had just played the first half of his first season in Ligue 1, then with Reims. 18 months later, after a year at Rennes, he is on his way to the Premier League.
For a first season in Ligue 1, things have been going pretty well up to this point…
Yes, it is not bad. Like the team, I am in a period of continuity in terms of what we did in Ligue 2 (SDR had a record-breaking 2017/18 campaign, winning the division at a canter). Even if Ligue 1 is two or three levels above. It is nice, it shows that we are working and, above all, that we are improving with each week.
Has your success surprised yourself?
No. In my position, you need confidence, even if you need to know to how to measure it. To have self-confidence is important. It is clear that there have been moments where I have achieved good things, and other less good things. What I do doesn’t surprise me, because I work for it. I know that I must not take my foot off the gas.
Sometimes, do you feel unbeatable, to the point that you say to yourself: “Tonight, nobody will score against me.”
(He smiles) I have never known a moment like that, telling myself that I am unbeatable. It is true that there are moments during matches where I am needed a lot, where you feel better than the others. But not to the point of saying: “Today, nothing goes in.” Because if I end up saying that to myself, that is when I will surprise myself.
Is there a match or a save which stands out as a reference point for you?
I really liked my match against Marseille. Outside of the fact that I was playing at the Vélodrome, it was nice to play against ex-teammates. And to have got a point there (0-0). In this first half of the season, that is the match that I come back to. In general, it was really just discovering Ligue 1, and discovering the national team. Before, when there were international breaks, I was used to taking a break from training to recover. Now, I have gone off with my national team, where you cannot lower your concentration or intensity. I have not had real time off. Six months straight. The holidays came at the right time.
So, how has your experience of these first 6 months as a footballer at the highest level been?
Enriching, and completely where I wanted to be. It shows that my work was not in vain and I have been rewarded, even if this is not an end in itself. It shows what is required of you at the high, very high level even. You cannot have hiccups, you have to focus on and off the pitch. You have to be vigilant at every moment.
It must make you want to see even more…
Of course. It can only be encouraging and comforting in my ambition to go even higher.
Before, you were talking about Ligue 1 being 2 or 3 levels above Ligue 2. What are the real differences for a goalkeeper between the two divisions?
Already in terms of the quality of shots. In Ligue 2, I am not going to say that players shoot for the sake of it, but there is less quality in terms of focusing on precision, where to put a shot. Now, it is often on target, it is of a higher technical quality. Next, on dead balls, it is more difficult to make an intervention because the takers are very good. But it is with such exposure that you quickly get up to the required standard, you improve.
You arrive in Ligue 1 at the age of 26. Have you thought, in the past, that you would be denied a path into elite football?
Even if you have self-confidence, sometimes there are periods of doubt, that is normal. Personally, in terms of my path, it is clear that there have been moments where I have doubted. Thanks to those close to me, I was able to keep the faith and continue to work to access it. When you are unemployed, you tell yourself that you are not going to find your way out.
You did come through Le Havre, a place well known for forming and producing good goalkeepers…
Even though I played, on the weekends, in a club nearby, I was at training all week with Le Havre. I had a tip-top education there. When people hear Le Havre they say to themselves immediately “good goalkeeper, it is going to be easy.” But I know good goalkeepers who aren’t even in the 4th division today.
When did things click in your career?
At Marseille (2015). The coach of the reserves was looking for a young goalkeeper to integrate him into the 1st team. He knew a player who had been playing alongside me at Cherbourg. It was he who spoke about me. I was just coming out of unemployment. I was hesitating between two 4th division clubs. But Marseille called me and I quickly jumped at that.
It must have felt totally liberating…
Yes it is exactly that. A liberation. Over there, I saw what the big time was. I saw players with truly great careers, who I was able to play and improve alongside. It was really there where I completely understood that I could make it. I was with them, I did not feel inferior and I had room to improve. I was training with (Steve) Mandanda, (Yohann) Pelé and (Florian) Escales.
What did you learn alongside Mandanda?
For every goalkeeper, he is an example. In Ligue 1, his reputation is well-established. I learned a lot by studying his relationship with his defence, with his leadership.
Let’s come back for a minute to your time in unemployment. Was there a specific moment that was more difficult that others?
Each week, the hardest moment was the Friday when the Le Havre reserve coach, before the match, read out his squad for the Saturday. Automatically, I knew that my name was not going to be called out as I was only there for training, I was not signed up. You could see that the squad was entirely focused, on the match. I missed that. That is what became hard.
In the end, did you need a club at a higher level to instil faith in you?
Everyone has their own journey. After my years at Le Havre, I signed for Cherbourg, where things went very well. I then wanted to go to England, but it did not happen. It was back to unemployment. I held on and I believed in myself. My route took a little longer but it allowed me to put a lot of things into perspective, notably in general life, and to come back down to earth. All whilst becoming more mature more rapidly and developing my leadership side. In the end, all that serves me today and that is maybe why it has taken me less time than others to adapt to Ligue 1.
Your team is known for having a great dressing room. What is your role in it?
With my other colleagues who are integral parts of the team, I try to make the dressing room as lively the best way I know how. I don’t put myself front and centre for the sake of it. I blend in with the crowd, I like interacting with my teammates. Since last season, something strong has been created in this squad. We are a real family. When I go to training, I am very happy.
Last summer, your name was often mentioned as a candidate for a possible move to England. That must have been flattering with everything that you have experienced…
Yes, to see your name on the shortlists of certain clubs is a real pleasure. It shows that we are performing well. It encourages you to continue. All this whilst knowing that I want to stay with Reims to play in Ligue 1, it is clear for me. I am where I am because I know very well that it is thanks to my performances but also because Reims believed in me. Like Marseille before. Family is very important to me, I value human relationships. At Reims, I have found that. It was important to do this season with Reims.