The rise and rise of Riyad Mahrez
He was a footnote barely worthy of mention at the end of a slow news day, yet Premier League folklore may soon acknowledge the significance of a signing made on January 11, 2014.
That was the day Leicester City signed Riyad Mahrez, the player who has emerged as the talisman of a team on the brink of completing the most remarkable accomplishment in English football history.
Title favourites Leicester are just a handful of wins away from securing Premier League title glory and if this sporting miracle comes to pass, then Mahrez should be hailed as the star that turned their water into champagne.
If Jamie Vardy has scored their goals and Claudio Ranieri is credited for steering their ship, then Mahrez is their game-changer, their A-list superstar. He is the quite simply the best player in English football right now.
Okay, that is a bold statement, but few could dispute it.
It is quite a rise for the player initially dismissed as being too frail to make it at the highest level; a flashy showman whose brand of unpredictability would never befit the game’s biggest stages.
They were condemnations offered up by early observers of Mahrez’s talents, but their negativity merely inspired him to reach for the stars.
Now, as we head into the final furlong of this remarkable season, the French-born Algerian international suddenly has the sporting world at his feet.
The outsider has been promoted to the ranks of the £40m-rated superheroes, a player who is tipped to be named as PFA Player of the Year next month and who has been linked with a summer move to mighty Barcelona.
He is the late bloomer who really has hit the big time – and he has done it all on his own terms. Enchanting Overlooked by the French national team bosses in his youth and undetected by Premier League scouts, Mahrez has not followed convention to realise his goals and that makes his story all the more enchanting.
Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille were among the clubs expressing an interest in signing Mahrez in his formative days, but he believed the offer to play for Le Havre in the French second division offered him a better chance to develop his career.
Premier League academies are now viewed as the only starting point on the road to the top of the game, yet Mahrez suggests that such a course may not have suited him.
“The idea of people in an academy and being told what to do every day was not something that appealed to me,” says Mahrez, as he explains why he feels a spontaneous freedom to display his skills week after week. “I wanted to play in a team and not be a kid waiting for a chance that may never come.
“We have players at Leicester who work on instinct, like we are still playing on the street. This is helping us.”
Irish and British kids should take inspiration from Mahrez, as he is a product of old-school football. Scouted by his club in the traditional way, this is not a player who has been parachuted in because his agent is well connected.
Of course, Mahrez had much to prove when he arrived at Leicester, but raw talent fused with dedication has got him to where he is now.
Nigel Pearson’s Leicester were eyeing up a place in the top flight when their head of recruitment Steve Walsh signed off on a deal that has proved to be significant in a season when the Foxes have already created history.
Leicester chiefs privately admitted their €450,000 investment was a gamble, with Mahrez’s signing an afterthought.
Their scouts had initially travelled to France to look at Le Havre winger Ryan Mendes, who is currently playing for Nottingham Forest.
Mahrez’s sublime first touch caught their eye, but he was signed as a rough diamond in need of sustained polishing before he was ready to shine. The player we have seen lighting up the Premier League since last August has been transformed from a raw product in to a rare gem and his former manager takes pride in that rise.
“Riyad had a very big learning curve in the past 18 months when you consider he joined from a small French club,” reflects Pearson, who must wonder what might have been if he had not been sacked by the club last June.
“He needed time to understand how our team worked and probably got fed up with his team-mates reminding him what he has to do when we haven’t got the ball, but that is part of his development. He has done so well.”
Mahrez recently credited Pearson for playing the role of ‘father figure’ in his rise, with his successor Ranieri reaping the benefits of the foundations put in place before his arrival to find himself on the brink of what was, until the last month, an unimaginable achievement.
“We are dreaming,” confirms Mahrez. “We say we take things game by game, but this is the only way we can be. We believe we can win the title, but let’s wait until there are five games to go; we’ll know more then.”
It is only natural that a player of Mahrez’s sumptuous talents has ambitions of his own beyond Leicester City, with his ultimate fantasy likely to spark continued interest.
“I used to dream of playing for Barcelona in the Nou Camp when I was younger, so it’d be amazing to play there in the Champions League next season,” adds 25-year-old Mahrez. “This really would be the dream.”
If reports in Spain are to be believed, Leicester’s kingpin may do a whole lot better than just stepping foot on the Nou Camp stage as one of the visiting players.
He could yet be lining up alongside Messi, Neymar and Suarez in the Barca cast and if such a coronation is to be his, the only regret will be that his biggest fan is not here to see it.
His father Ahmed died of a heart condition when his son was just 15, with the broken boy he left behind given the extra ounce of fuel he needed to defy his doubters and emerge as a star.
Amid all of Mahrez’s remarkable achievements, the knowledge that his dad is looking down on his with relentless pride may be his most cherished. What a story.