From Bolton to Bengal: how Bernard Mendy, once one of Europe’s most promising right-backs, found solace in India

From Bolton to Bengal: how Bernard Mendy, once one of Europe’s most promising right-backs, found solace in India

Scouring through the 21st-century repository of French players abroad, particularly those who donned Les Rouge et Bleu of Paris Saint-Germain, and you’ll venture further than Europe’s top five leagues fairly often – but only on the odd occasion would you emerge from the fringes of Europe. 

In the off chance of an intercontinental career path, the Stateside high life or the champion cheque-books of China are the likely destinations. Though, for a 32-year-old Bernard Mendy, starved of any success and stardom that his early years promised, straying far from the habitual and the foreseeable proved to be a career-salvaging stunt. 

To accurately summarise the Parisian’s spell as a professional requires two frustratingly recurrent themes: starting with his ability to tear the roof from any stadium with a ferocious, unrelenting attacking style and finishing with the capacity to bring the roof and everyone under it crashing down at his feet with a careless nature and alarming defensive frailties.

His on-pitch performance, equally as unpredictable as the clubs he played for and countries he played in, was encapsulated most succinctly during the time of his three-game international career in 2004.

Following a second successive Confederations Cup triumph in 2003, Jacques Santini’s France, specifically in the case of the right full-back position, had entered a transitional period. As a post-prime Lilian Thuram, known for his versatility across all areas of defence but most prominently on the right, solidified himself into a more permanent central role, Les Blues were in need of a replacement, stable and astute at the very least.

Bayern Munich’s ever-present Willy Sagnol was the obvious deputy having already cemented his place in the first-team setup, and it was likely that only something extraordinary would cause Santini to consider using other options. 

After helping PSG to their first top-two finish in Ligue 1 for four years, 22-year-old Mendy announced himself as one of Europe’s most promising right-backs, and with that, earned a spot on the bench for the FIFA Centenary match against Brazil; against a certain Roberto CarlosRonaldinho left-side which, notwithstanding Ronaldo, Kaká, Zé Roberto and the like, was enough to cause any debutant, especially a substitute, to shrink in fear. Mendy, however, proved to be a spectacular exception to many people’s expectations.

Read  |  How a humble Lilian Thuram rose from nothing to become the world’s best right-back

The phrase “attack is the best form of defence” is most accurately applied to a player of Mendy’s nature. He’s a defender who struggles to, in the traditional, no-nonsense, concrete sense, defend. A defender by trade, though analysis of his best and worst attributes suggests far different.

But we’ve all seen Ronaldinho play, and for that we can, in some way, understand an opposing full-back’s negligence of defensive duties. Especially considering that sometimes, perhaps more than you’d expect, players of Mendy’s calibre prove that attack is, in fact, a very fruitful form of defence. 

Mendy began his interim international tenure tentatively, feeling out an opponent of unprecedented quality in Roberto Carlos, who was cutting off the space well, seemingly limiting him to very little opportunities to go on the offensive as his experience shone through. Then, bang!

One lapse of concentration from Carlos and Mendy had beaten him in breath-taking fashion, blitzing down the right flank, leaving the world’s best left-back firmly in his wake. This was a glimpse of Mendy at his terrifying best on the world stage. A moment that could, perhaps, should have been remembered as the start of an illustrious spell at the top tier of the game. It was, however, a moment that, 16 years on, has become standalone in an otherwise unfulfilled career.

This moment of magic, amongst a number of other glorious glimpses of his potential at the time, earned Mendy plaudits across Europe, and Sir Alex Ferguson came knocking soon after – only for Mendy to extend his PSG contract for four more years, but with hopes of an eventual return to England after a taster with Bolton in 2002. It wasn’t until 2008 when he finally crossed the Channel once more, and it was a start to a permanent life in the Premier League that he could only have dreamt. 

By November, Mendy had already featured notably in a side sitting in third place, in hot pursuit of the top spot when he scored his first goal at Old Trafford. A fairytale start so it may seem, though this was, of course, not in the red of United but the black and amber of Hull, who he suffered relegation with 18 months later.

Even when writing that last paragraph, part of me wanted to believe Mendy was the elite force the YouTube compilations would suggest, or what he showed during Hull’s honeymoon period, both of which left little to be desired. He had all the tools to be a tremendous player, but he played as if someone had attached a Formula One engine to a Vauxhall Corsa. The fundamentals were simply not up to scratch, with a few exceptional attributes. The subsequent downward trail of his career was hardly surprising.

Read  |  Reynald Pedros: from French prodigy to pariah in a single penalty

Although Mendy’s highlight reels, like many others, provide a shallow portrayal of his game, it is obvious, whether you’ve watched him for ten years or ten minutes, that he is a representation, albeit a fragile one, of the modern-day full-back, and for that very reason was suited to a more attacking role a decade ago.

Nevertheless, Mendy remained a defender, by definition at least, until the end of his career. Following a stint in Denmark and then back in his home country with Brest after leaving Hull, the Frenchman, emerging ever-close to retirement, found a genuine sense of success, of value – both literally and financially – and a place to plant his flag that he had long been in need of in India, of all places, under the wing of Marco Materazzi, of all French associates.

Upon his arrival in Chennai, Mendy became an instant favourite with the Chennaiyin faithful, powering an over-head kick past David James of Kerala Blasters on his home debut. Despite never filling the shoes of Thuram back in 2004, it was as if he’d produced a threadbare pair of his boots out of lost property to personify his great compatriot ten years behind schedule.

Not only was the Parisian now occupying a centre-back spot, he was being compared to the likes of Mikaël Silvestre and Alessandro Nesta, both of whom were teammates of his. If that wasn’t redolent enough, he acquainted with Roberto Carlos of Delhi Dynamos via teammate Elano, to whom Carlos explained the day Mendy tore him to shreds and announced himself to the world. 

Now this may sound like a parallel universe, or an idyllic scenario repeatedly playing in Mendy’s mind, but Mendy was held a hero amongst a whole host of footballing greats during his time in India, and unlike the rest of them, he stayed in Chennai to cement his Super League legacy.

‘Enough, Roberto; Alessandro, we’ve heard about your World Cups and your Champions Leagues for too long. Did you ever win the Indian Super League?’ This is how I’d like to imagine interactions between Mendy, Carlos and Nesta panned out. This was Mendy’s long-awaited moment in the spotlight.

Consistency, class, celebrated are three words so often used to describe the greats of the game. Unfortunately, these are rarely used to describe a career like Mendy’s. Cagey, curious and capricious are more likely. Nevertheless, for the adventurous, admirable career path, from Bolton to Bengal, Bernard Mendy deserves nothing but praise for finding his fleeting moment in the sun.

By Brad Jones @bradjonessport

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