Since leaving Arsenal in 2018 and becoming the first Englishman to play for Juventus since David Platt, Stephy Mavididi has become used to life on the continent. Even though he is now excelling for high-flying Montpellier in Ligue 1, after a successful loan at Dijon last season thanks to a recommendation from Thierry Henry, the 22-year-old from east London with family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo admits his linguistic skills have been severely tested.
“My parents speak French and so do all my aunties and uncles so I thought mine was all right until I got here,” he says. “But when I got here I was like: ‘I need to improve.’ I’m getting better – speaking some every day with my teammates and coaches helps a lot and also when you go to the shop and things like that. You pick it up bit by bit.”
Adjusting to life in a new country seems to be part of the process for young English players these days. Mavididi had spent the second half of the 2017-18 season on loan at Charlton, and the lightning-quick forward who represented England at several youth levels had been earmarked as a potential Arsenal first-team prospect by Arsène Wenger. But the Frenchman’s departure also spelled the end of Mavididi’s time at the club.
“I had a few meetings with Arsenal and they said that if a good enough offer came in then they would let me go,” he says. “Juve were just opening up their second team and were looking for the best players born in 1998 to come over and play. When I heard they were interested I was buzzing. It wasn’t like I was going around singing about it from the top of my lungs but when the news came on Sky I was getting loads of messages saying: ‘Is it true?’ It did surprise a few people, but you just have take your opportunity when it comes.”
Mavididi joined Arsenal at 12 having originally been scouted four years earlier – “my mum didn’t think I was ready”. He rose through the youth ranks under the tutelage of Henry, who coached the Under-18s, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock and several other young players who have become regulars for Mikel Arteta’s side, and has no hard feelings at how things turned out.
“I tend not to look at the regrets because if I had stayed at Arsenal then I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. When you’re at these big clubs, you’ve got to have everything going in your favour – you need a manager who is willing to play you, some luck and maybe if there’s some injuries or suspensions – and that’s not always the case in football. Moving abroad gave me a fresh start. It helped me to discover a different way of living and playing football at a very good level instead of dropping down the leagues.”
Juventus became the first club to enter a ‘B’ team in Italy’s third tier, with Mavididi playing more than 30 matches in Serie C before earning a call-up to the first team squad. He made his only Serie A appearance in April 2019 as a substitute in a 2-1 defeat by SPAL, almost 16 years after Platt’s solitary season in Turin, having impressed the then manager Max Allegri in training, where he would often marvel at the ability of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. “It was a privilege to even train with him. It’s helped me so much. It’s not even about going up to him and asking him questions. You just watch him and you learn.”
Some wise words from the former England Women’s internationals Eni Aluko and Lianne Sanderson, who had joined Juventus at the same time, also proved invaluable. “I was in the canteen one day talking to one of my boys and Eni turned round and said: ‘That’s a London accent.’ After that, we just started chatting. We found that we were bumping into similar hurdles during our transition – it was good to be able to speak to someone from England and we tried to help each other while we were there.”
On the advice of Henry, Dijon signed Mavididi on a season’s loan and he scored five goals in 24 appearances before the Ligue 1 season was curtailed because of Covid-19.
“It’s nice to hear someone like him was still taking an interest in my career and he wants the best for me,” he says. “We had a very young squad and the manager had a lot of faith in us. I was at a stage where I thought: ‘Yes, I’m ready to play in a proper league against big teams like PSG, Monaco and Marseille.’ I really wanted to test myself and I thought this would be a good pathway to help me get back to where I want to be, which is the Premier League.”
Those performances earned him a €6.3m move in June to Montpellier, for whom Mavididi has scored twice in the league and started the past four matches having recovered from an ankle ligament injury sustained in pre-season. Michel Der Zakarian’s exciting young team are fifth – two points behind the leaders, PSG – and entertain Kylian Mbappé and co at the Stade de la Mosson on Saturday.
Mavididi acknowledges he still finds it hard being away from home but believes it is worth the sacrifice. “I’m blessed with a big family and have lots of friends so they come and visit me all the time,” he says.
“It’s important to be mentally strong when you’re on your own – it’s difficult after you play in a match if you haven’t done so well and you go back to your house alone. Sometimes, you can’t even sleep at night because you’re thinking about the game. When you’re with your family, you can just go home and switch off … I’m just lucky that I’m a game head so I can just get on my PlayStation to help me unwind.”
As for his international aspirations, Mavididi is hoping his performances will catch the eye of the England Under-21 manager, Aidy Boothroyd, before the European Championship that starts in March. “My ultimate goal is to get into England’s senior team, but for now the best pathway is the Under-21s so I want to try and get into that squad,” he says. “We have a very exciting generation of players and I feel like I’m part of that.”