Édouard Mendy was on the verge of giving up his dream six years ago. After 12 months without a club, he was close to falling through the cracks. His career was at a dead end, he had moved back into his parents' flat in the Le Havre suburb of Caucriauville and he had no idea how he was going to support his partner, who was pregnant with their first child.
Nothing had gone right for Mendy after Cherbourg, a third-tier team in France, released him in the summer of 2014. The agent who was supposed to find him a new opportunity stopped taking his messages until it was too late to arrange a transfer and it was not long before the goalkeeper found himself training alone and fretting about how a 23-year-old free agent could possibly provide for a young family.
It was a horrible period for Mendy, who was forced to take unemployment benefit, and in 2015 he was close to accepting a job in a menswear shop offered by a friend. Nothing matters more than family to Mendy, who has five siblings. He could not have imagined that one day he would be about to start for Chelsea in a Champions League final against Manchester City.
Fate intervened. Ted Lavie, a former Cherbourg teammate, was desperate to help and he got in touch with an old friend, Dominique Bernatowicz, who was Marseille's goalkeeping coach. "It was good timing," Bernatowicz says. "We were looking for someone to serve as third- or fourth-choice keeper. Ted Lavie vouched for Édouard. He said: 'You've got to give him a trial.' I asked the club and I called Édouard. He was over the moon."
Desire to improve
Bernatowicz soon saw that Mendy, who began at Le Havre’s academy, was blessed with talent, resilience and an insatiable desire to improve. “From the first training session I could see he was a cut above,” he says. “The next step was to throw him in with the professionals. They couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a club.
"He was very eager to listen. The biggest decision I had was whether to sign him up for a year because Marseille is a very complicated club. If I had been wrong about Édouard, I would have been fired. But he was a sure thing."
Marseille listened. A modest contract offered Mendy a semblance of security and he knuckled down. “If training was at 8am, he’d be there,” Bernatowicz says.
Mendy developed a strong relationship with Bernatowicz, who introduced him to an agent who could find him a Ligue 2 club. He joined Reims in 2016 and his chance arrived when the No 1 goalkeeper, Johann Carrasso, was sent off against Amiens on the opening day. Mendy impressed and became a regular the following campaign, helping Reims win promotion in 2018 by keeping 19 clean sheets.
People started to pay attention to Mendy, who was born to a Senegalese mother and a Bissau-Guinean father. In 2018 Senegal jumped at the chance to select him after realising he had not played in an official Fifa game when he made his debut for Guinea-Bissau in 2016. Mendy established himself as Senegal's No 1 and he attracted interest from Porto and Christophe Lollichon, Chelsea's goalkeeping coach.
Yet it was too soon to move abroad. Mendy joined Rennes in the summer of 2019 and played an important role in their qualifying for the Champions League last season. "His dedication made him unbelievable," Olivier Sorin, Rennes' goalkeeping coach, says. "Édou has a strong personality, but in a good way. He is very strict with himself and other players. He stayed only one year in Rennes but we felt like he had been here for 10 years."
By the summer of 2020, Chelsea were ready to firm up their interest. They needed someone to challenge the struggling Kepa Arrizabalaga and decided to move for Mendy on the recommendation of Petr Cech, their technical and performance adviser.
It was worth listening to Cech, who became one of the world’s best goalkeepers after joining Chelsea from Rennes in 2004. Mendy quickly dislodged Arrizabalaga after joining for £22m and has impressed.
“He’s very big but is very comfortable with his feet,” Bernatowicz says. “He has very long arms and is very good in the air. One thing about him was that he tended to catch crosses when on the way down. All goalkeepers do that. They want to wait for the ball to come to them. They think that gives them an advantage.
“I made a special effort to work on his right foot so that he would be as good jumping off that as he was off the left and then encourage him to go claim crosses while on the up rather than on the way down. Another thing was to help him get down to shots even faster. He made progress very quickly.”
Bernatowicz was delighted when Mendy saved Sergio Agüero’s penalty during Chelsea’s victory over City this month. “One thing I used to tell him off for was that he tended to dive too early for penalties,” he says. “The longer he stays upright, the better his chances. That’s what he did with Agüero.”
No one has a bad word to say about Mendy. Bernatowicz calls him a joker, gentleman and leader. Frank Lampard, who was replaced by Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea in January, liked Mendy's attitude. The 29-year-old is settled in England and is a popular member of Chelsea's squad, bonding with Ben Chilwell, Mason Mount and N'Golo Kanté.
Mendy, who is expected to recover from a rib injury to face City in Porto on Saturday, has come so far. After Chelsea's win over Leicester at Stamford Bridge last week he looked content as he walked around the pitch with his two young sons. He is not an outcast any more. Six years on from his lowest point, Mendy has a chance to become a goalkeeping great. – Guardian