Mendy's journey to Chelsea: from dreaming of being a professional footballer to the Premier League

Five years ago, Edouard Mendy was 23 and came to England a few times. He didn't arrive on holiday with plans to visit Big Ben or Stonehenge; he came to train with some League One clubs, setting up a few trials in the hope of picking up a contract.

Every time, the answer was the same: "No." No club wanted him, not in England, not in France.

A year earlier Mendy had been released by Cherbourg, a small club in the French third division where he hardly played. They didn't believe in him. Neither did hometown club Le Havre, where he was released by the academy after only playing in their third team, all the way down in the sixth tier of French football.

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Five years ago, he would visit one of Le Havre's job centres, not far from where he grew up, looking for work. Back then, becoming a professional football player, having a good career and earning money in the game was little more than a dream. He had thought about never playing football again.

Today, the 28-year-old is a Senegal international and a Chelsea player. As it is for N'Golo Kante and Olivier Giroud and many other French players, Mendy's is a story of determination, hard work and self belief -- never giving up, even when everyone is writing you off.

During the five years since he considered leaving football behind, Mendy spent time in France's lower leagues. First he connected with the Marseille reserve team in the fifth division, where he didn't feature much, but learned plenty during occasional training sessions with the first team. Then he went to Stade de Reims in Ligue 2, first as a No. 2 but quickly becoming a starter; he played a key role in both promotion to Ligue 1 in 2018, and then keeping the club in the top flight. Then came a move to Stade Rennes in the summer of 2019 for €4 million, where he finished third in Ligue 1 while getting his first taste of European football in the Europa League.

A year later, Rennes sold him for six times what they paid for him.

"He had such an unusual path and he deserves a lot of credit for making it," Chelsea's head of goalkeeping, Christophe Lollichon, tells ESPN. "He is mature and for me, he was the best goalkeeper in France. He is a very proactive keeper, very influential during the games; he doesn't suffer. He worked really well at Reims. Maybe in Marseille, they could not see his talent, or maybe it was not the right time and he wasn't ready.

"With his height (6-foot-6) but also his excellent passing game, positioning and initiative, he is a great talent with great potential. He is a really good guy, too."

Lollichon was instrumental in signing Mendy, having tracked the player's progress for 18 months before finally making a move. In private, Lollichon compares Mendy to Petr Cech, whom Chelsea also signed from Rennes, in 2004 -- Cech of course went on to be the best keeper in the Blues' history, helping them win four Premier League titles, a Champions League crown and the Europa League over 11 incredible seasons. Lollichon transformed Cech, and he's looking forward to doing the same with Mendy.

Rennes didn't want to part with their No. 1, but they couldn't deny him the opportunity to sign for a top club like Chelsea. Mendy's former club will always remember him fondly.

"He is a fantastic talent," Rennes manager Julien Stephan said after Rennes' win over AS Monaco on Saturday. "We had a really strong relationship together. [Mendy] is someone you can trust, who will always give his best. And as well as his talent on the pitch, he is a great leader and a great example as well."

Now, another chapter in Mendy's incredible story will be written in London. Once again, he's making a step up in his career, and once again, those closest to him expect him to continue his progression.

"I am not surprised at all that he is where he is," Ted Lavie, who played with Mendy at Cherbourg and is one of his best friends, tells ESPN. "He has always had great qualities physically, but also mentally. And everywhere he played, he proved his worth and he stepped up. In the third division, he delivered. In the second division, he raised his game and delivered. In the top flight, he did the same again."

Mendy is also a cousin of Ferland Mendy, the Real Madrid and France left-back, who also had to fight to make it to the top. Unlike his relative, though, the goalkeeper decided early on to play for Senegal. Depending on the draw, they could meet this season in the Champions League.

Hard work, dedication, determination: Edouard Mendy's story so closely resembles Kante's, it's incredible they are now teammates at Chelsea. Five years ago, no one in England -- or France -- could have imagined it.