Sunday 25 September 2016

Riyad Mahrez - the man who defied expectations to make it to the top

Published 24/04/2016 | 23:21

Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez poses with his PFA Player of the year award during the 2016 PFA Awards
Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez poses with his PFA Player of the year award during the 2016 PFA Awards
Leicester's Riyad Mahrez, the PFA Player of the Year

Riyad Mahrez embodies the spirit of the Leicester story - the underdog who fought his way to the top despite facing obstacles at almost every stage of his career.

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The newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year was born and grew up in Sarcelles, a northern suburb of Paris where most inhabitants had immigrated to France from north-west Africa in the 1960s.

It was a natural place for the Mahrez family to settle - his father Algerian, his mother Moroccan.

Mahrez would later go on and play for Algeria - "I lived in France and grew up there, but my heart is more Algerian", he once said - but it was a journey that never looked like happening.

While some of his contemporaries were scouted and headed off to the academies of top French Ligue 1 clubs, the young Mahrez struggled to make his mark.

Physically, he was a long way behind other boys. His individuality was also frowned upon in an increasingly structured regime as strict coaches urged him to pass rather than dribble.

At the age of 15 he also had to cope with the loss of his father and mentor Ahmed, who died from a heart condition.

As he grew stronger and developed physically, Mahrez became a man on a mission - to make it as a footballer in honour of his father.

Leicester's Riyad Mahrez, the PFA Player of the Year
Leicester's Riyad Mahrez, the PFA Player of the Year

When the opportunity came it was not amid the glamour of Lyon, Paris St Germain or Toulouse, it was in a Brittany backyard called Quimper.

The club were in the fourth tier of French football and Quimper's directors had to be persuaded to offer the skinny 18-year-old a short-term contract.

Mahrez scored only twice in his one season at Quimper, yet he was on his way.

He joined Le Havre in 2010 as a reserve-team player, but he was promoted into the senior side and w ent on to score six goals in 60 appearances for the Ligue 2 club.

Leicester came calling in January 2014 and agreed a fee of around £400,000, even though many felt Mahrez's elegant style was more suited to France or Spain than the combative nature of the English game.

But Mahrez helped Leicester out of the Championship and stay in the Premier League the following season, as Foxes boss Nigel Pearson oversaw an incredible late revival at the King Power Stadium.

Pearson soon departed, but Leicester flourished further under his successor Claudio Ranieri, Mahrez sprinkling the stardust on a team driven forward by organisation, an insatiable work ethic and Jamie Vardy's finishing.

Goals and assists have flowed - now 17 and 11 in those respective categories after Sunday's 4-0 victory over Swansea took Leicester to within five points of the title - while his dazzling footwork has bemused defenders and lit up the Premier League in equal measure.

So much so that Mahrez has attracted the interest of the world's biggest clubs and been recognised by his peers as the best player in the Premier League.

Not bad for a lad once considered too small and fragile to make the grade.

Press Association

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