Cardiff City's Kevin Theophile-Catherine tells FourFourTwo's Jonathan Fadugba about moving from Brittany to Britain - and maybe, next summer, Brazil...
For players all around the world, the lure of the Premier League is hard to resist. Say what you like about Richard Scudamore but here's the bottom line: he is to top-flight English football what Santa Claus is to Christmas, merrily spreading the game’s gospel globally from his overflowing sack of TV deals.
All around the world kids dream of hot-footing it to England to play on the hallowed turfs of Old Trafford, the Emirates and, er, Carrow Road, and while the Prem’s perception as the best league in the world is debated by some fans, to many players it’s a simple reality.
Such is the case for Cardiff City’s Kevin Theophile-Catherine. The French defender upped sticks and left his Brittany hometown and boyhood club Rennes this summer, joining Malky Mackay’s newly-promoted charges for £2.1million. And, speaking to FourFourTwo, Theophile-Catherine expressed his delight at securing a move to England - and a league he’s had his eye on for some time.
When I knew Cardiff really wanted me, I didn’t hesitate”
“It’s true that the Premier League is very, very popular in France,” says the 24-year-old. “We love it. We follow all the teams because there are loads of big clubs. Something is always going on. That’s the reason we love the Premier League.”
Theophile-Catherine was born in Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany, and so there was a certain inevitability that, after showing promise as a youngster, he would end up at local club Rennes, renowned for having one of France’s best academies. “I grew up supporting Rennes because they were right next to where I live.”
But the man often efficiently referred to as KTC played as a defensive midfielder in his early days, and it was only upon joining Rennes that he was shifted back to play in defence.
His advanced former position shows in his play and his heroes. A quicksilver attacking full-back, KTC spent his earliest days admiring not Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc but more forward-thinking players. “I loved attackers and midfielders,” Theophile-Catherine concedes, an admission that may help explain his love of flying down the Cardiff City Stadium touchline. “I used to love George Weah and I loved Paul Scholes too."
A new life in Wales
The lure of the Premier League, therefore, and he couldn't resist the chance to play against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool - the latter team being Cardiff’s opponents this weekend.
Theophile-Catherine’s path to South Wales opened up in the final months of last season. As Malky Mackay’s men romped their way to the Championship title, sewing up promotion by mid-April, the manager began to assess targets who could help the Bluebirds squad cope at a higher level. With Kevin McNaughton and Matthew Connolly failing to convince Mackay of their top-flight suitability, Cardiff began to look around Europe. Theophile-Catherine became a prime target.
“I had already been informed that Rennes would let me leave if they received a good offer,” says Theophile-Catherine, who had made it clear he was keen to pursue new opportunities after 10 years at his hometown club.
“I was made aware a few months before the deal that Cardiff were interested in me. After my last game at Rennes I knew they were keeping tabs on me and that they’d been to watch me play and when I knew they really wanted me I didn’t hesitate.”
Adapting to the pace of English football was KTC’s first challenge, but those who might think that life in Wales’ capital city would be a complete culture shock to someone from a sleepy city in northwestern France are in for a surprise.
“Well the football in general is different, even in terms of the supporters. At Cardiff we really have brilliant fans who make a lot of noise and who support us from the first minute to the last, which is great. That pushes us to play better,” enthuses KTC, who was part of a Rennes team that once so angered supporters when they lost a French cup semi-final to third division opposition in 2012 that a group of disgruntled fans turned up at the training ground the following day with a banner that read ‘Shame on you.’
In France the game is played at a calmer tempo. In the Premier League there’s no dead time: the intensity and aggression make a difference"
“In France the game is played at a calmer tempo. When it’s played at a quick tempo in Ligue 1 it’s very fast too, but in the Premier League it’s all the time. There’s no dead time during a match. It’s always quick. The intensity and aggression make a difference. Also what makes a difference is the crowd. The atmosphere. Especially here at Cardiff, it’s exceptional.
“The city itself is quite similar to Rennes. It’s a nice place, not too big but not too small either. The people are really nice, very accommodating and polite. As for the supporters, I like them a lot because they support us a lot. I love that, in fact...”
Don't call him a left-back...
Now Mackay's undisputed first choice, Theophile-Catherine showed his skills as an athletic, marauding full-back most sharply in perhaps Cardiff’s most memorable game of the season so far as they beat bitter rivals Swansea 1-0. Chasing down a hopeful punt upfield from Gary Medel that had all the hallmarks of a lost cause, KTC showed fierce energy and determination in closing down Neil Taylor, eventually winning the corner from which Steven Caulker scored the game’s only goal.
It’s safe to say that right-back is now his most comfortable position, and although his versatility is an asset Mackay has mentioned – the Frenchman can play anywhere in the back four – he is decidedly firm on where he wants to play.
“My favourite position is right-back. I feel best there and it’s there where I express myself best on the pitch and can have influence. In terms of versatility, if one day there are a lot of injuries or someone is absent, the manager at Cardiff knows I can do a job in certain other positions. But my position is right-back, I’m playing right-back, I play best there and want to continue there.”
For now KTC’s focus is on helping his new club push further up the table towards mid-table safety and enjoying life in a new country and league. He names getting Wayne Rooney’s shirt after a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Manchester United as one of his personal highlights to date, a present for his father to go with the many other shirts he collects.
In the long-term, breaking into France’s World Cup squad is another aim on the horizon. Fellow French Prem right-backs Bacary Sagna and Mathieu Debuchy are two direct competitors.
“The French national team is naturally an ambition of mine,” says KTC. “That’s a big reason I came to the Premier League, to progress more quickly and play against great players. If Cardiff goes well and I continue to play well, I think that I could have my chance to go to the World Cup. Of course I have to work hard but we’ll see!”