Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez collected the PFA Player of the Year award as his manager watched on
Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Christiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez – Riyad Mahrez.
Leicester City’s first-ever winner of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award joined some illustrious company when he stepped onto the stage at the Grosvenor Hotel in London last night and received his prize from City boss Claudio Ranieri.
It was another remarkable moment in what has been an astonishing, fairy-tale season for Mahrez and all his City team-mates. It is also another incredible chapter in the amazing story of the rise of the street kid from Sarcelles.
Mahrez has come a long way from his first appearance in a City kit, when he scored for the under-21s in an away victory at West Bromwich Albion. Hardly anyone saw Mahrez on that day and not much was known about the 22-year-old when he joined City from French second tier side Le Havre for £400,000 in January, 2014.
City fans had to take then-manager Nigel Pearson’s word for it when he said: “Riyad is a pleasing addition to a squad that already has a lot of quality and I’m delighted we’ve been able to secure his signature.
“He is a talented player, technically very good, and he gives us another option in attacking positions.”
At the time City fans were already salivating over the performances of City’s other French signing, Anthony Knockaert. If Mahrez could turn out to be as good as Knockaert then City fans would have another terrace hero, but he has totally eclipsed his former team-mate.
The early indications were promising as Mahrez made a succession of late substitute appearances, scoring his first goal in a 2-2 draw at Nottingham Forest, a crucial late equaliser. Crucial late goals would prove to be his calling card.
He spoke publically for the first time on the side of the City Ground pitch, with Knockaert acting as his interpreter.
“I am very happy because it is my first goal for the club, it’s an important goal and it is a great feeling,” he said, or rather Knockaert said for him.
He had been advised not to play in England by friends, that the physicality of the English game would not suit his style of play as much as in other countries, but Pearson said Mahrez was a confident lad who could adapt.
“There is no doubt when you come from a different style of league there will be a period of adaptation,” Pearson said. “You don’t get the time on the ball you may get in other leagues, but he is a quick learner and a quality player.”
However, there was no real indication of the player he would become, although inside the City camp Pearson and his coaches felt Mahrez had even more potential than Knockaert, that long term he would become an even better player. They were to be proven right.
It was six games into his City career that Mahrez made his first start, in the 3-0 home win over Charlton Athletic, and he would go on to score twice more as he forged an effective twin-wing attack with Knockaert as City clinched promotion to the Premier League and the Championship title.
His performances earned him a call-up by Algeria, the country of his late father’s origin, and he would cement himself in the Algeria squad for the World Cup in Brazil, although his first season in the Premier League mirrored City’s for a long spell of the campaign, a struggle.
Mahrez scored four times, including both goals in a 2-0 win over Southampton as City won seven of their last nine games to clinch survival. He also provided three assists and signed a new four-year contract in August, 2015.
This season has seen Mahrez fulfil that potential that Pearson spoke about when he arrived as unknown two-and-a-half seasons ago – and then some. No matter how much self-confidence Mahrez may have possessed from the outset, he could have only dared to dream that he would score 17 goals and provide 11 assists in a City side that is closing in on a first-ever English title.
He could scarcely have contemplated that he would also be named Algerian player of the year and PFA player of the year as well. It has been an astonishing transformation, equal to Jamie Vardy and to City’s.
At 25, Mahrez has come of age and the question is no longer who is he? The question now is how good could he be?