Yakou Méïté admits himself that his time at Reading has been something of a rollercoaster since he signed from French giants and hometown club, Paris Saint-Germain back in July 2016. After making a series of appearances off the bench in his first season with the club, his progress stalled and was sent out on a season-long loan to Sochaux last term.
He excelled in his time at Les Lionceaux, however, getting regular game-time and coming back to Reading in the summer with more experience to his name, a different manager to work under and a clean slate from which to rebuild, and he has certainly done that.
La Brute is Reading’s top scorer this season by a considerable margin, with his raw power and high work-rate endearing himself to Royals supporters, with some elevating Yakou to cult hero status in a season where his goals have proven vital so far.
From a late assist at Ipswich to a last-ditch header to overturn a deficit against Wigan a week later, Méïté embodies the never-say-die attitude put in place by José Gomes and his side, with the Ivorian becoming one of Reading’s most important players over the 2018-19 campaign.
And his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, either. Méïté was recently awarded his first senior cap for the Ivory Coast, and he hopes to make the grade to be a part of the squad as Les Éléphants prepare for the summer’s Africa Cup of Nations. Following an early exit from Monday's match through injury, he will hope to regain his fitness in time for the summer tournament.
Following a run of five goals in as many games, Yakou took time out to chat with The Royal and discuss his rollercoaster Reading career, the influence of Ramadan in his preparations for the season and plenty more…
Before heading into talking about football, our chat with Yakou came the morning after Notre-Dame, one of the most famous monuments in Paris, was struck by a fire that destroyed the roof of the 850-year-old cathedral.
Thankfully, no-one was seriously injured, and the majority of the structure is able to be salvaged, but this was a sad incident to hit a pillar of Méïté’s home town.
“I’ve been there before when I was in school in Paris – it’s a big monument, a lot of tourists and people going there. I saw the news, it’s sad,” he reflected.
“Paris is one of the best cities in the world, you just pray for it to be the Paris we know and not the way it has been.
“I did everything in Paris, I started playing football there, my first friends were there, I’m very happy to have lived in Paris and grown up there.”
But the opportunity came to fly the nest when the Royals came calling in the summer of 2016 – something which he was happy to do as he looked to make his way in senior football. Despite the change in location and culture, it was an adjustment he says he was able to make.
“It wasn’t too difficult as a decision, as London is a big city too,” he said. “The language is not the same, but the city is bigger than Paris, it was much easier for me to take this decision than it would be if it was a country that wasn’t so big. London is quite similar to Paris in terms of people, so the decision wasn’t too difficult.
“I learned English in school – but it wasn’t so good, it isn’t very good now, but you understand me. My teacher said ‘maybe if you play in England, you have to learn’ – I didn’t listen!
“My English is better because we don’t have any French people here now, so I need to speak with people and I understand, and I’m able to answer as well.
“When you change club, it’s always difficult because you have to find an apartment, get to know your teammates, you have to learn to speak the language. You don’t think directly about football because you have a lot of things to do outside.
“If the football is going well, then the integration is much easier. Two years ago, it was going well, I wasn’t starting the games, but I came on a lot of times in the first six months. I wasn’t with my missus at this time, now I’m with someone so it’s much better for me now, it’s much easier – I can relax."
But it hasn’t always been a relaxing time in his spell as a Royal. Méïté spent last season back in France with Sochaux, seemingly out of favour in a Reading shirt and unsure whether or not he would play in the blue and white hoops again.
In his time away, however, he used the season to develop himself further and get himself in better shape to be able to contribute upon his return to Berkshire. Méïté, a Muslim by faith, revealed the positive influence the month of Ramadan had upon him – spending time with his family and focussing on his game, while observing a month of fasting during the daytime.
“When I left last year, I took all my stuff because my apartment was a rent – I took all my stuff and went back to Paris. It was difficult but when I was at Sochaux, it was a very good time. I enjoyed my time there.
“It’s always difficult when you move because, when you move on loan, you know that you’re going to have to come back after. It was difficult to come back with all my stuff, I’ve still got a lot of it in Paris as well.
“I didn’t know if I would stay here, in the last six months before my loan it was difficult for me. I didn’t play, I wasn’t even in the squad for the final in the play-offs, so it was difficult. After my loan, the manager didn’t know me – he’d only heard about me – so he told me to go and impress him.
“I prepared myself well to come back strong, when people were on holiday, I was in Paris doing Ramadan.
“I couldn’t go on holiday, I just walked, went to the gym, played football so when I came back, I was fresh, and it was a good start for me to show myself.
“When it’s the month of Ramadan, I don’t like to go on holiday because that’s all about fun, eating – for Ramadan, you can’t do it. I’d rather just enjoy it with my family, stay at home, eat together at night.
“The only thing I could do was play football. Even when I trained, I couldn’t drink straight away so I had to wait until it was the night. When you know you could eat at night, I would go to play football from maybe 5 o’clock, then when I go home, I’d take my shower and eat. I did this for the whole break, I was just in Paris and preparing myself. It helped me a lot for the start of this season.”
Méïté excelled upon his return to the side, with a run of six goals in five games in the autumn propelling him to new heights on a professional level, earning himself a new four-year contract with the club in the process.
He admits that he saw messages with positive and not-so-positive reactions to the news, but he believes that signing a new deal with the club proved to be the catalyst for his current run of form in the side.
“The most important thing is to play. If I stayed here, it was for playing,” he elaborated. “I didn’t want to come on for 20-25 minutes – when you’re young, it’s good, but I’m 23 and I don’t want to be anywhere to just sit on the bench.
The big start for me was when I signed my contract. Before I signed my contract, I didn’t play so well – I played some good games, but it wasn’t the Yakou you know and see now on the pitch.
“When I signed for four years, my head was clear, I was happy and I wanted to prove to people that, because they’ve given me four years, I wanted to prove why I earned it on the pitch.
“Some people were happy; some people weren’t but football is like this. I just tried to do it for myself, the people who believed in me and even for the people who didn’t. I’m sometimes on social media and I see the messages, I want to show people that I can do the job.”
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And that’s what he has contributed on the pitch for the Royals this season. The 23-year-old has consistently put his body on the line up front and has given everything to score. He admits that his technical ability isn’t the same as some of his fellow squad numbers, but he says he gives maximum effort to make it up in other areas.
“Everyone has quality, but not everyone has the same kind of quality – it depends on how you use it on the pitch. When I say I’m not the most technical on the pitch, maybe I’m one of the strongest in the team with my head.
“If you’ve got the choice between me or someone else, if you say I’m not better than someone else, you can say I’m going to give everything for the 90 minutes to score – that can sometimes be the difference for a coach. I’ll always give my best on the pitch” he said, magnanimously.
“I want to prove myself every game, because football can change quickly. Today, people can like me but tomorrow, life can change quickly. Every game, you have to show people what you can do.
“The goals have been important, but all the team do the job. Someone has to finish the chances, but if you play well and don’t score, there’s no point. It’s better to score and win the game or maybe draw, when we finished 2-1 against Brentford and I scored twice, of course I’m going home happy because we did the job and we got the three points.”
One of the catalysts behind Yakou’s recent form has been his on-pitch partnership with Mo Barrow. They have combined to score five times between them this season, four of which coming in the last six weeks.
They’re also good friends off the pitch, regularly being spotted going out for dinner and being seen around the training ground together.
“Mo has been my friend from the start of the season, along with Bacuna but he’s left now. We didn’t have the chance to play together a lot to start with – when he started, I was maybe on the bench or the other way around.
“We understand each other well on the pitch and he’s my friend off the pitch, so it’s perfect. Don’t forget, I gave him a good assist against Stoke as well… It was a long time ago but remember, before he started giving me assists, I was giving them to him!”
Méïté’s Reading career is on the upward trajectory at the moment, with his influence significantly helping the Royals as they look to survive in the Championship for another season.
Not only is the motivation there to help keep Reading up, the striker is hoping to keep improving and showing what he can do in the blue and white hoops - far from resting on his laurels with a fine season’s work so far.
“I’m trying to do my best every game, I play for Reading and I enjoy it here, but you can’t relax just because I’ve scored 12 goals now.
“Every time I try to compare, I’ve scored 12 goals, but some people score 20 or 25, so the most important thing is to keep going. One season you can score 12 and the next season, not score any. It’s all about stability and trying to keep going.
“I’m in a good way, I know where I’ve come from, my life wasn’t too easy so every morning when you wake up, you have to do the job. It’s not only me, I’ve got family everywhere – in Africa, in Paris, so it’s not only for me but for them as well.
“Playing for the Ivory Coast was a very good experience with some good players, I’m hoping to maybe do the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer. Before they pick the 23 players who will go, I just want to do my best and even if I’m not going, I want to know I did my all to get the attention of the coach.
“I was here when I had my call-up, everyone in my family was happy. They called my mum and said they saw me on TV, I was excited. We won but it wasn’t my best game of the season because of a lot of things – the weather, the pitch, it wasn’t the same atmosphere. It was only my first game and hopefully there’s more to come.”
The Long Read is a series of feature-length interviews conducted with the Royals, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal.
The final edition of the season will be available when Reading take on Birmingham City on Sunday 5th May, make sure you pick up your copy for just £3.