In the first part of a special interview with the best Chelsea player this season as voted for by you, N’Golo Kante casts his eye over 2017/18, reflects on his rise to the top, and delivers a message to the fans…
It is instructive that as soon as you start talking to N’Golo Kante about the season just gone, one in which he was unsurprisingly recognised by Blues supporters as our Player of the Year, he consistently opts for the first person plural: ‘we, us, our’.
Kante is not a man who relishes focusing on himself, on or off the pitch. He can seem like the most understated footballer around; it makes his routine effectiveness even more satisfying to watch.
‘You have to think like a team,’ he responds when we ask him how he thinks his season went.
‘We cannot be happy about it because we didn’t reach all our targets, but we finished in the best way by winning the FA Cup final. That means a lot. It was a beautiful moment, and a team effort. We suffered together.’
Kante suffered plenty for the team’s benefit. He always does. On a hot Wembley afternoon, he stifled numerous Manchester United attacks, winning a game-high six tackles and also chipping in with four interceptions.
Both those numbers were greater than his already exceptionally-high season average. In the Premier League, his 2.5 interceptions a game was the joint-highest figure recorded. He ranked third for successful tackles, averaging 3.3 every 90 minutes in arguably the world’s most competitive division.
A title winner in the two previous years, Kante finally got the chance to sample elite European football this season. Among our opponents in the Champions League were beaten semi-finalists Roma, Europa League winners Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona. The midfielder especially impressed in both legs of our last 16 tie against the Catalans, looking right at home as he showcased his abilities to the hundreds of millions watching around the world.
‘We all know Barcelona are one of the best teams. To play against them was a good experience for me because I could test myself against some of the best players now.
‘I really enjoyed playing against good teams in Europe in my first Champions League competition. It is something I am proud of because I used to watch the Champions League when I was young, and to have this experience with Chelsea makes me very happy.
‘I think after each season we learn,’ continues Kante, assessing his development, as if much more was needed, in the past 12 months.
‘I would say I learned as a player and as a winner, always trying to reach our targets. It is one season more of experience for me, and we have to learn from this season to do better in the next one.’
Kante’s ascent from the depths of French football to an impressive eighth-place finish in the Ballon d’Or vote is well documented.
But how he has coped with the rising challenge mentally? Five years ago, he was playing in France’s third tier, quite often with just a few hundred people in attendance. Now he is delivering in front of 100,000 at Camp Nou, 90,000 at Wembley.
‘I would not say it’s the same, but there’s always pressure for the result,’ he muses.
‘When I started in my career in the third division in France, with Boulogne-sur-Mer, it was the same. You always want your team to be at the top of the table.
‘When I moved to Caen, in the second division, we wanted to get promoted. And then in the first division we wanted to stay in the league. So I have always fought for something in every club.
‘At Chelsea it is something bigger than what I did before; what they want is to win every game, fight for every title, and to win everything. So this is a bit different, but it’s still football and you always have a target to try and reach.’
— N'Golo Kante
Personal accolades do not feature highly on Kante’s list of targets, if at all, but nonetheless the 27-year-old must be proud of what has been bestowed on him since his arrival in England. Alongside the two championships and now glory in the FA Cup, he has been named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the FWA Footballer of the Year, the Leicester and Chelsea Players’ Player of the Year, the best French Player Abroad (twice), the French Player of the Year, and now the Chelsea Player of the Year.
The final award is voted for by you, the fans. So we finish the first part of this interview by asking Kante what message he has for the Blues supporters who watch the team every week and decided he had been the star man this term.
‘I want to thank all of them for choosing me as their Player of the Year,’ he smiles.
‘I’m happy for this prize. This is something individual, and now I am very happy we could all enjoy the FA Cup final together. Thanks to everyone.’
Click here for the second part of our feature interview with N'Golo, where we look in detail at his style of play and find out what makes him tick off the pitch…
By Rupert Cane