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'Like a dream' - The story of Mendy's first meeting with fellow Chelsea star Kante in France's third division

12:45 GMT+4 20/05/2022
Edouard Mendy N'Golo Kante Chelsea Premier League 2021-22 GFX
The two superstars have come a long way since they both started on the bench as AS Cherbourg played US Boulogne before 880 fans nine years ago

Chelsea duo N'Golo Kante and Edouard Mendy are universally recognised as two of the best players in the world.

However, they weren't very well known when AS Cherbourg and US Boulogne met before 880 spectators at the Maurice-Postaire stadium on January 8, 2013.

Indeed, both players began that French third-tier clash on the bench, with only Kante seeing some game time in the second half.

"It was a weekday match and I had him play higher up the pitch after bringing him on to make him feel involved in a little bit of everything," then-Boulogne boss Georges Tournay tells GOAL. "I wanted him to play the last pass and score some goals.

"We played in a 4-4-2 system and N'Golo found himself in two situations in the last quarter of an hour where he could have scored a header.

“Obviously, he was more surprised than anything else to find himself in such positions because, in general, he plays much deeper."

After a lengthy spell at Lens, where he trained Raphael Varane, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Serge Aurier, Tournay had arrived at Boulogne-sur-Mer at the start of the 2012-13 season.

The cash-strapped club had just been relegated to the third division (National), after narrowly avoiding administration.

Still, despite their financial problems, which resulted in the loss of several important players, they set themselves the ambitious goal of securing an immediate return to Ligue 2.

"I was told that no particular player stood out," Tournay explains. "We had N'Golo on a very small amateur contract.

"It was Bruno Dupuis who had brought him to the club, together with Jean-Pierre Perrinelle.

"During the first two friendly matches, he didn't get his head above water. But, in the third friendly, against a Belgian first division team, I saw a boy who was very comfortable both in pressing and in the short game."

Kante quickly became an automatic starter.

"Not only did he run fast, but he had great stamina: the two supreme athletic qualities. On top of that, technically, he was very good in all aspects of the short game because he was very dynamic."

Kante, though, was incredibly humble, almost to a fault. Indeed, it was Tournay who took the initiative when it came to securing Kante a contract more befitting his talent.

"He never put himself forward, never asked for anything," the coach reveals. "We didn't know the sound of his voice!

"One day, he came to see me in my office and I told him: 'I know what your contract is at the moment, we'll go over it with the president.'

"But he asked for absolutely nothing, even though he was earning a pittance."

Kante wasn't just shy when it came to contract talks. He was just as reticent around his team-mates.

"To go to the training centre, because he didn't drive, he always used to stand at the foot of the long slope that led to the training centre to hope that players would see him and pick him up," midfielder Mohamed Chemlal tells GOAL.

"He even started to come on a scooter. He didn't ask anyone to come to his house to take him to training. And even afterwards, he didn't ask anyone to bring him back."

Kante, as he still does today, preferred to do his talking on the pitch.

When Boulogne met Cherbourg again in a relegation battle at the end of the 2012-13 season, Mendy was still stuck sitting on the bench, but Kante started the game and scored the killer second goal in a 2-0 win for the hosts.

"I was No.10 that day and N'Golo was behind me," Chemlal says. "He won every ball and played the game so simply."

Kante's strike ended up relegating Cherbourg but that actually proved a positive for Mendy, as he was afforded some game time, starting the final three games of the season, with his side's fate already sealed.

Mendy produced standout displays against Vannes and Metz, who had just earned promotion, in back-to-back wins.

One of Metz's goalkeeping coaches told then-Cherbourg boss Jean-Marie Huriez: "Your goalkeeper is a phenomenon!"

Huriez already knew that he had a fine shot-stopper on his hands.

"At the beginning, he had to improve his footwork," he tells GOAL. "But, in the air and on his line, he was very effective.

"In the dressing room, he was introverted but, on the pitch, he was very vocal with his defenders and midfielders. He made it quite clear to everyone that he didn't want to concede any goals!"

That summer, though, Kante and Mendy's careers went in very different directions.

After being named the best footballer in the third division by France Football, he earned a transfer to Caen, thus beginning the World Cup winner's remarkable ascent to the summit of the game, which saw him win Premier League titles with Leicester and Chelsea.

Mendy, though, would face further frustration. He broke his finger in a friendly ahead of the 2013-14 season and ended up being released by Cherbourg.

He then spent a year without a club and even began looking for jobs outside football before joining Marseille's B team.

However, from there, Mendy completed one of the more remarkable turnarounds the game has ever seen.

He moved to Reim in 2016 and began to make a name for himself before emerging as one of the best goalkeepers in French football at Rennes.

A move to Chelsea followed and in less than a year, Mendy has helped Chelsea win the Champions League and inspired his country to Africa Cup of Nations glory.

It's fair to say that, just like Kante, Mendy is now one of the most recognisable faces in world football.

They've come a long way since that first meeting nine years ago.

"We talk about it a lot," Mendy revealed when asked about that Cherbourg-Boulogne clash on Monday afternoon.

"Hhonestly, it is like a dream to find another player who has been at a similar club from the same division as you.

"It is beautiful to have found him again here, and to now win trophies with him."

Additional reporting by Xavier Beal & Marc Mechenoua