From rejection for being 'too small' to the Premier League with Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
At the age of 21, Pierre Lees-Melou was working at a school and had little expectation of being a professional footballer, after being released by Bordeaux for being too small.
Today the French midfielder is preparing for Premier League action at Arsenal as a Norwich City player – and stands at around 6ft 1ins tall.
“When I was younger, I played for Girondins de Bordeaux, a professional club, from 10 to 16 – and then Bordeaux told me that they didn’t want me," Lees-Melou tells us ahead of City’s final training session on Friday afternoon.
“The reason they told me was that I was too small. When I was younger my height was 1.50 metres (4ft 9ins) so I returned to my parents' home, I continued my life, went to school and played for the city of my parents (non-league club Langon).
“After, when I was 18 or 19, I went to work at a school for little children, not as a teacher but to look after the children when they have no school. They stayed with me and played football with me while their parents worked.
“That was until I was 22 and then Dijon saw me on the pitch and told me to go and try to play with them.”
Lees-Melou is from the Gironde area of south-west France, where Bordeaux is the capital city. In 2013, aged 20, he started playing semi-professionally for coastal club Lège-Cap-Ferret in the fifth tier.
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It was only a little over six years ago that the opportunity to move across the country to sign for Dijon emerged, soon becoming a regular for a second-tier team.
That emergence followed a growth spurt at 17 years old and had been unexpected, following his release from Bordeaux.
“For me it was negative but I was not crying, that is life,” Lees-Melou explained. “I continued afterwards to play football with my friends but for me, when I was 15, 16 or 17 it was not a goal for me to become a professional footballer at this age.
“For me, in my head, I thought that the level was too high for me. So after I played football only for the fun, to see my friends, to score a lot of goals, but in my head, I did not think I would sign my first professional contract.
“I never thought that, so there was no pressure.”
A rapid rise was just getting started though, helping Dijon to win promotion to the top flight in 2016.
“Big memories,” he adds. “I was very lucky because my first year as a professional we went to the first league, so perfect.”
After helping to secure survival in Ligue Un by just a point, with seven goals and three assists in 32 games, the next step up the ladder followed.
OGC Nice came calling and Lees-Melou was signed by Lucien Favre prior to his return to Germany as manager of Borussia Dortmund a year later.
Just two years since becoming a professional, he found himself in the starting line-up as he made his debut on a high-profile occasion.
“It was a big change because I started directly with qualification for the Champions League,” City’s summer signing continues, speaking from his new home via video call.
“We won against a big team, Ajax Amsterdam, and afterwards it was against Napoli.
“So for me, it was all new but all the time I was adapting and I played all of the games, so it was good news for me.
“I was with Nice for four years and played all of the time, so it was nice.”
Defeat to Napoli meant the Europa League in 2017-18, eventually ending in defeat to Lokomotiv Moscow in the first knockout round after qualifying from the group stage.
Four top-half finishes would follow for Nice, with Lees-Melou scoring 18 goals in 140 matches before leaving France for Norfolk this summer, regularly wearing the captain’s armband last season.
“I wanted a new challenge because four years is a long time, the 28-year-old continues.
“When the opportunity presented to go to Norwich, I said yes, I want to go, I don’t want another proposition or another club, I want to go to Norwich.
“I had Stuart (Webber) and the boss on the phone, and the project for me was so good. The Premier League and the club is like a family – I love that.
“So I had these two people on the phone and I told my agent: let’s go.”
Lees-Melou's time in England is only just getting started but after becoming established as a top-flight player in France, it seems certain that Canaries fans are yet to see what the late developer is truly capable of.