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Guehi talks Rihanna initiations, Monday Night Football and Premier League pressure

Features

Marc Guéhi is already a calm and collected head at Crystal Palace. A man who’s proudly not been sent off at any level, he exudes confidence and assurance both on and off the pitch. Here, he offers Will Robinson an insight into his character.

This interview originally featured in the Palace v Leicester matchday programme. To read more like it, you can order issues online HERE.

On and off the pitch, for Marc Guéhi one word keeps coming back again and again: balance. Whether pirouetting into midfield preparing, for a south London derby or settling into a new dressing room, it’s always the same.

Football is a small world, and as we talk Guéhi gestures across the room to his new teammates. There are plenty he knew from his days at Chelsea and elsewhere.

“It’s really good,” he says. “It helps with settling in quickly and allowing you to get used to things quickly, so it’s fantastic to have so many people that I know. But the boys I don’t know, I’m really trying to make an effort. It’s helping me fit in so that’s good.”

But again, for Guéhi, there are two ways of looking at it. “That’s definitely a positive to it. Another positive is not knowing people. It allows you to get to know people and where they’ve come from – to build new relationships. It’s good.

“I approached it similarly to when I was at Swansea. I was there knowing it was a loan but still did my best to get to know as many people as possible and immerse myself in the club. I signed a long-term deal contract here and I’ll be doing just the same: getting to immerse myself and the culture and the environment that is Crystal Palace.”

He’s certainly not afraid to make his mark – the subject of initiation songs arises and Guéhi smiles. “I’ve been told there’s no initiation so I’m happy about that. I mean, I’d be prepared if there was,” he adds hastily.

Which song might he be thinking of? “Rihanna – Take a Bow,” he answers confidently. We ponder whether that might be an ambitious effort. “Well, I’m an ambitious person! I think everyone would enjoy that one…”

The determination to be open with new teammates benefits the football side of things too. As a central defender, a relationship with his centre-back partner is crucial to a solid defensive unit.

“It some cases, it can happen instantly,” he says of playing with a new partner. “It just depends on the new people. There’s definitely a feeling, but you’ve still got to work together, have that understanding about each other’s games. What your strengths are and what their strengths are, and how you can complement each other’s games.”

Does this mean a close relationship off the pitch is necessary? “It’s good to be close off the field, to have that good relationship. Some partnerships don’t necessarily need that, they aren’t close off the field. But I’d want to have a good relationship with all my teammates.”

Off the pitch, Guéhi is not one to get home and ignore the game entirely. But that doesn’t mean he can’t switch off. “There’s got to be a bit of balance,” he says – and there’s that word again. “Sometimes I’ll play FIFA when I can. I’ll watch Monday Night Football if it’s on.

“But also there are times when you have to switch off. I’m fortunate enough to have my family with me, so spending time with my sisters, my Mum and my Dad where possible I switch off.” During the coronavirus pandemic, that hasn’t been easy. “It’s been tough. While I was in Swansea I was just training all the time, but once restrictions eased I could [see my family again].”

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I'll watch Monday Night Football when it's on - but sometimes you have to switch off.

Marc Guéhi

On matchday too, balance is required. Not for Guéhi is getting in the zone for kick-off the moment he wakes up; he feels no need to mainline in the adrenalin that comes naturally closer to kick-off. But simultaneously, he’s ready to focus when required.

“I’m quite relaxed, quite chilled,” he says of his matchday routine. “There is a moment when that switch happens, but in the morning that’s far too early. Once the time comes, I’m ready to step on and really focus on the day, and then I’m in the zone.

“But in the mornings I’m quite relaxed. You don’t want to put too much stress on yourself: there’s enough stress and pressure in the game so you don’t want that on you the minute you wake up.”

In the modern game, stress comes from every angle: there’s no switching off with 24-hour coverage and social media attention. “The best thing you can do is take it as a positive,” Guéhi says of media criticism.

“It’s only going to make you improve, help you, benefit you if you see it that way. If you’re someone like me, you balance.” That word again. “Sometimes I watch it, sometimes I won’t. We’ve got great people here that do the analysis for us, including your own performance and your own strengths and weaknesses – but I think finding balance is key.

“The most important thing is knowing for yourself. Someone else will have their opinions, but whether their opinions are right or wrong it’s about knowing for yourself what you did on the pitch.”

For a man keen not to let himself get too fired up, Guéhi relishes a big occasion. The south Wales derby was one such fixture. “To play in it was amazing,” he remembers, puffing out his cheeks. “Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to play in front of fans, but playing in that and experiencing it was one of the best experiences ever.

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For the viewers, it was fantastic to see people fighting in tunnels and all of that. But as long as you're giving your all on the pitch, that's all that matters.

Marc Guéhi

“Even though they’re not there it’s a huge game. You know who you’re playing for. You’re playing for the fans, and for bragging rights.”

Guéhi grew up watching his manager, Patrick Vieira, thrive on the biggest stages of all. Those clashes between Arsenal and Manchester United now seem ferocious – both sets of players have admitted that a genuine dislike existed between them.

In the modern era players from opposing sides are often close, but Guéhi says the quality hasn’t decreased as a result.

“For the viewers, I think it was fantastic like it was before: fantastic to see people fighting in tunnels and all of that,” he says. “But as long as you’re giving our all on the pitch, that’s all that matters. As long as you’re putting your foot into tackles and running until you can’t anymore.

“Speaking for me personally, that’s been the case when I’ve gone to national camps: all the players come together and want to enjoy their time there. You don’t get that opportunity to play with players from different clubs often, and experience the same things they do.

“It’s an opportunity that I’ve definitely felt. Spending time with different players and spending time in their company is good.”

Deep into our interview, Guéhi’s calm-headedness has come across clearly. We wonder whether he used to see red at youth level; whether a fiery incident was a lesson in keeping calm. We should have known better.

“I’ve never been sent off – never at any level,” he says, with an element of pride. “There’s times in games where you’re definitely angry. It’s important that you stay focused, because you’re not only jeopardising yourself but your teammates as well. They need you at your peak, at your maximum. So that’s something I try and do.”

Only 21-years-old, Guéhi has plenty of experience but remains a youngster with the capacity to improve. He certainly hopes to be an example for Palace’s exciting young talent training with the first-team. But what is the best advice he has ever received?

“It’s a tough one to pick one thing out,” he says thoughtfully. “There are so many things you take with you on this journey. Getting back up after a defeat or something hasn’t gone quite your way, and learning from that experience. That’s the best thing you can do.”

As our conversation draws to a close, a group of Academy youngsters walk past and Guehi gestures towards them. He has plenty advice of his own to give.

“They need to have personality – as much as possible,” he says. “They are training with the first-team for a reason. You’ve got there because you are good enough. The next thing is to be yourself.

“That’s important. Be the best version of yourself. Don’t shy away from things. If you’re someone that talks, talk. If you’re someone that dribbles, dribble. Just be yourself and showcase that. That’s the most important thing.”

One of an exciting set of youngsters making their mark at Vieira’s Palace, Guéhi is a great example of an old head on young shoulders. He’s both an exciting prospect and an example for those below him. He’s a fiery defender and a calm presence at the back. He’s a football obsessive and a has a life outside the game.

In the end, it all comes down to balance.