Riyad Mahrez is the PFA Player of the Year: His amazing story
By Pat Davison
Last Updated: 25/04/16 8:05pm
Riyad Mahrez has been confirmed as the PFA Player of the Year for his brilliant performances with Leicester City in their unlikely title tilt. Earlier this month, Pat Davison caught up with him to discuss the stunning story of the street footballer turned award winner…
We were in a corporate box overlooking the King Power pitch and the interview had run a little long, but Riyad Mahrez was in no rush to get off.
In fact, the first thing he did once we'd finished was stand up, walk to the window and stare out at the pitch beneath him.
After a few seconds just staring, and without taking his eyes off the grass, he said: "It looks awesome, don't you think?"
It's a little off-camera story which backs up something which had become abundantly clear during the half hour we spent with him: he loves playing football. Absolutely loves it.
Whether he's playing on the street with friends or on a freshly-cut Premier League pitch. No matter if it's at an empty gym he's crept into at 1am or a stadium full of fired-up Leicester fans.
He just wants to play. Has done since he was five.
At that age, he can remember going to sign for a club in Sarcelles, the Paris suburb where he grew up. He describes the area as "a dangerous ghetto", but it was here where the magical player who has lit up the Premier League this season began to emerge.
"I was a street footballer," says the 25-year-old, whose unpredictable brilliance doesn't look like it comes from any coaching manual.
"Every day I was on the street dribbling, doing skills. I wasn't in an academy till I was 19.
"The picture of me as a child is that I was always with a ball - that's why I was so skinny, I would miss dinner. Mum would have to leave me some food in the microwave."
He had no time to eat because football was too important. Once he was a teenager, it became more important than sleep too.
"I remember playing sometimes at midnight or one in the morning. We knew a technique to open the gym. We'd call everyone and have a big tournament," says Mahrez, who was around 15 at the time.
"People would say to me, 'You shouldn't be playing at 4am when your body is used to sleeping, you could get injuries'. But I did anything to just play."
A teenage Mahrez, though, was to be struck by tragedy and the loss of the man who did more than anyone to pave the way for the career that's now unfolding.
Riyad's father Ahmed, an amateur player, offered advice, took him to and from games and dreamt of his boy becoming a footballer, before a heart condition claimed his life at the age of 54.
"It's hard losing a parent, especially dad because he was always behind me. It was his dream and my dream for me to become a footballer.
"Where I am now is all for him."
Mahrez's determination to succeed only increased after the loss. The dream, though, still looked a long way off. Up until the age of 18, he was still playing for his home town team in France's eighth tier.
His break came when he signed for Le Havre, a club in Ligue 2 with a reputation for bringing through young players. There, eventually, his talent shone brightly enough to catch Leicester's attention.
Many advised the Algeria international that he was 'too skinny' for English football. He thought they were probably right. But after taking the plunge, Mahrez made key contributions to Leicester's promotion from the Championship and last season's great escape from relegation.
Premier League 2015/16
|Sergio Aguero||Man City||23||2||25|
This season, like the team, he's been magnificent. He looks a player transformed, although really he's still the same street footballer from Sarcelles.
"I'm not exactly the same, otherwise I'd never pass, but that's my thing - to play like I'm on the street.
"When you have the ball, you are free." His 17 goals and 11 assists have made him the PFA Player of the Year. But there's a bigger prize still to claim. Incredibly, Leicester are just five points away from the Premier League title.
Focusing on one game at a time, not imagining how the fairytale might end, is tough.
"It's getting harder and harder every game not to dream. Sometimes, I think about [winning the title] for one or two minutes, but then I stop. I can think about it after. It's not done yet."
It's not, but if it does happen, the rise of Riyad Mahrez will go down as one of the most remarkable chapters in the greatest story the Premier League has ever told.