Wesley Fofana explains why he sees a bright future for struggling Chelsea and reveals how being kicked out of Saint-Etienne’s academy as a boy helped shape him.
Wesley Fofana tells the story with a smile but at the time his emotions were different. In a quiet corner of Chelsea’s Cobham headquarters, the £75m centre-back is recalling a period in his early years when it seemed a fledgling career might be cut short.
Aged 14, he had left his family home in Felix Pyat, a municipality of Marseille’s impoverished third arrondissement, to enrol in Saint-Etienne’s academy some four hours’ drive away. He was a talented and tenacious defender, but also raw and underprepared.
“It was very difficult because I went to Saint-Etienne, to the academy, and, you know, when you come from Marseille, you don’t know the real life,” Fofana tells Sky Sports.
The move, following a successful trial, felt at the time like a huge step towards fulfilling his dream of turning professional.
But, coming from amateur side Air Bel in Marseille, where he was one of six siblings raised predominantly by his grandparents, it was also his first experience of a structured academy environment. He struggled with the transition.
“For me, it was, ‘My opinion wins every time. If it’s right for me, it’s right for everybody.’ After, I learned. I learned to live with other people, because that’s difficult when you are young and you have one target, and you are in an academy with other players as well.”
Those lessons had to be learned the hard way, the situation coming to a head when behavioural issues at school emerged alongside his problems in the academy itself, forcing the club to act.
“Saint-Etienne sacked me,” he says. It was a hammer blow, one which could easily have floored him, but his response to it was decisive.
“I stayed focused,” he continues. “And when you come back to Marseille, back to zero, you realise everything. I realised everything and I trained more, and more, and more.”
After several months in limbo, Fofana was asked back by Saint-Etienne. This time, he went in with a different mindset, seizing his second chance and eventually forcing his way into the first team.
From there, his career has followed a steep upward curve, taking him to Leicester and then Chelsea for fees totalling more than £100m, but he looks back on those early struggles as the making of him.
“For sure, it was a difficult period, but it built the guy I am,” he says.
“It has impacted my life and my football. Nobody gave me a chance on a plate, so, when I play football, I am aggressive. I want to win every contact, every header, every tackle, every duel.
“When I look back, I think, yeah, it’s crazy, because I know some friends, some people, who had the same trajectory as me and stayed down. So, I’m very happy.”
Now, on a sunny afternoon in the Surrey countryside, the challenges he overcame in Marseille and Saint-Etienne as a boy allow Fofana to put a chaotic first season at Chelsea in perspective.
“It’s difficult for everybody because you see Chelsea in this position, and for sure everybody is not happy,” he says.
“But it’s football. Some seasons, you are good. Some seasons, you are bad. Everybody is staying focused for next season now, to train more and push more to return to a high level.”
Before that, though, there is the small matter of finishing the current campaign as strongly as possible, starting on Sunday against a Manchester City side whose treble-chasing feats bear stark contrast to the struggles of their 11th-placed opponents.
“For sure, it’s painful,” says Fofana when asked about the 42-point gap between the two sides. “Chelsea is a big club in England and Europe. You see the points behind Man City, or Arsenal, and it’s difficult, because this club is the rival.”
What does he put it down to? “It’s difficult [to explain],” he says. “New [owners] coming, new players coming, new coaches. In the Premier League, every team is strong and you don’t have time. You play in the Champions League as well, so it’s difficult.
“I don’t know exactly why it’s a bad season but, for sure, it’s the players, it’s the club, it’s everybody. It’s not just the coaches coming and going, it’s not just the [owner], it’s not just the new players. It’s everybody. We are the same team. When it’s bad, everybody is bad.”
It has, though, been especially challenging for Fofana.
The 22-year-old’s final season at Leicester was marred by a leg break suffered in pre-season and, while he has shown glimpses of his immense potential at Chelsea, injury has again held him back.
Having scored Chelsea’s opening goal in a Champions League meeting with AC Milan at Stamford Bridge in October, Fofana suffered a knee problem which he then aggravated in December, the setback keeping him out for a further two months.
“When you have a big injury, then you come back and you have a little injury again, it’s difficult for the mentality and the body. But I try to give everything for the team and the club.
“Then, after this, you have more experience. You know your body more and that’s good. You know that sometimes, when you want to push, push, push, just listen to your body and stay calm.”
That outlook is typical of Fofana, a popular and gregarious figure at the club whose ability to radiate positivity can be seen in the way he jokes around with team-mates Noni Madueke and Armando Broja while they conduct separate interviews nearby.
“When I have a bad injury, I think of the moments when I was young and all of that,” he adds. “For sure, it’s bad, because I can’t play football for a long time, but I have seen worse situations, so I try to enjoy and stay cool because life is good for me now.”
He is optimistic, too, having signed a seven-year contract when he joined the club from Leicester in August, that better days lie ahead, and that the ambitions he arrived with will be fulfilled.
“I signed a long contract because I’m in the project,” he says. “I want to perform with Chelsea, I want to win everything with Chelsea. When I signed, this was my intention.
“I signed for that because Chelsea, I know, is a big club. This side wins titles and trophies and I signed for that. For sure, I am here for a long time and I am very focused to win everything.”
In the meantime, though, he is enjoying playing under caretaker boss and club “legend” Frank Lampard.
“It’s crazy because I remember I played on the PlayStation with Lampard and now he is my manager. I listen to everything. I learn so much because this guy won everything in his career.”
Fofana and his Chelsea team-mates are still waiting for confirmation of who will take over next season, with all signs pointing to Mauricio Pochettino, but Lampard isn’t the only one he is learning from.
“When you see Thiago Silva, you see the career, it’s incredible,” he says of his 38-year-old fellow centre-back. “You learn on the pitch and after the training, you see the movement, the life and you say, ‘OK, I know why he is here.’
“You learn so much from him and the same for [Kalidou] Koulibaly. When you see the career, you learn, because this guy is very professional and very focused on football.”
It is Fofana himself, though, who best represents the future of Chelsea’s defence having only turned 22 in December. And that, in large part, is thanks to the many challenges overcome in his past.