Wesley Fofana told 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 recalls a time in his early years when it looked like a new career might be cut short.
At the age of 14, he left his family home in Felix Pyat, a town in the poor third arrondissement of Marseille, to enroll at the Saint-Etienne academy about four hours away. He is a talented and strong defender, but also raw and unprepared.
“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 real life,” said Fofana. Sky Sports.
The move, after a successful trial, felt at the time like a big step towards fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional.
However, coming from the amateur side of Air Bel in Marseille, where he was one of six siblings raised by most of his grandparents, this was also his first experience in a structured academy environment. He struggled with the transition.
“For me, it’s, ‘My opinion wins every time. If it’s right for me, it’s right for everybody.’ Afterwards, I learned. I learned to live with other people, because that is difficult when you are young and have a target, and you are in an academy with other players.
Those lessons had to be learned the hard way, the situation came to a head when behavioral issues at school arose alongside his academic problems themselves, forcing the club to act.
“Saint-Etienne grabbed me,” he said. It was a hammer blow, one that could have easily hurt him, but his response to it was decisive.
“I stayed focused,” he continued. “And when you go back to Marseille, go back to zero, you know everything. I realized everything and I trained more, and more, and more.”
After a few months in limbo, Fofana was asked back by Saint-Etienne. This time, he came in with a different mindset, seized his second chance and finally forced his way into the first team.
From there, his career followed a long upward curve, taking him to Leicester and then Chelsea for fees worth more than £100m, but he sees those early struggles as making him .
“Sure, it was a difficult time, but it built me as a person,” he said.
“It affects my life and my football. Nobody gives me a chance on a plate, so, when I play football, I’m aggressive. I want to win every contact, every header, every tackle, every duel.
“When I look back, I think, yes, it’s crazy, because I know some friends, some people, who have the same trajectory as me and stay. So, I’m very happy.”
Now, on a bright afternoon in the Surrey countryside, the challenges he overcame at Marseille and Saint-Etienne as a boy allowed Fofana to put a turbulent first season at Chelsea into perspective.
“It’s difficult for everyone because you see Chelsea in this position, and for sure everyone is not happy,” he said.
“But it’s football. Some times, you’re good. Other times, you’re bad.
Before that, though, there’s little matter of ending the current campaign as strongly as possible, starting on Sunday against a Manchester City side whose treble-chasing achievements have contrasted with the struggles to their 11th ranked opponents.
“For sure, it hurts,” said Fofana when asked about the 42-point gap between the two sides. “Chelsea is a big club in England and Europe. You see points behind Man City, or Arsenal, and it’s difficult, because this club is the opposite.”
What did he put in it? “It’s difficult [to explain],” he said. “New [owners] coming, new players coming, new coaches. In the Premier League, every team is strong and you don’t have time. You’re also playing in the Champions League, so it’s tough.
“I don’t know why it’s a bad season but, for sure, it’s the players, it’s the club, it’s everything. [owner], not just the new players. This is all. We are on the same team. If it’s bad, everything’s bad.”
This, however, was more challenging for Fofana.
The 22-year-old’s last season at Leicester was marred by a leg break suffered in pre-season and, while he showed glimpses of his great potential at Chelsea, injury also held him back.
Scoring Chelsea’s opening goal in a Champions League meeting with AC Milan at Stamford Bridge in October, Fofana suffered a knee problem that he aggravated in December, a setback that kept him out further which is two months.
“When you have a big injury, then you come back and you have a small injury again, it is 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 better and that’s good. You know that sometimes, if you want to push, push, push, just listen to your body and stay calm.”
That view 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 with teammates Noni Madueke and Armando Broja as they perform various interviews nearby.
“When I have a bad injury, I think about when I was younger and all that,” he added. “Sure, it’s not good, because I can’t play football for a long time, but I’ve seen worse situations, so I’m trying to have fun and stay cool because life is good for me now.”
He is also optimistic, 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 has reached will be realised.
“I signed a long contract because I was in the project,” he said. “I want to perform with Chelsea, I want to win everything at Chelsea. When I signed, this was my intention.
“I signed that because Chelsea, I know, is a big club. This side has won titles and trophies and I signed for that. For sure, I am here for a long time and I am very focused on win it all.”
In the meantime, however, he is enjoying playing under caretaker boss and club “legend” Frank Lampard.
“It’s crazy because I remember playing on PlayStation with Lampard and now he’s my manager. I listen to everything. I’ve learned so much because this man has won everything in his career.”
Fofana and his Chelsea team-mates are still waiting for confirmation on who will take over next season, with all signs pointing to Mauricio Pochettino, but Lampard is not the only one he has learned from.
“When you see Thiago Silva, you see the career, it’s unbelievable,” he said of his 38-year-old fellow centre-back. “You learn on the pitch and after training, you see the movement, the life and you say, ‘OK, I know why he’s here.’
“You learned a lot from him and the same [Kalidou] Koulibaly. If you see the career, you will learn, because this person is very professional and very focused on football.
It is Fofana himself, however, who best represents the future of Chelsea’s defense having just turned 22 in December. And that, in large part, is due to the many challenges he has overcome in his past.
Watch Man City v Chelsea live on Sky Sports Premier League and Sunday’s Main Event from 3.30pm; kick-off 4pm