An icy wind blows through St Mirren’s training ground in the small town of Stepps, north-east of Glasgow. Scotland in February is not for the faint-hearted. Riyad Mahrez stands on the edge of the snow-covered pitch, his hands tucked tightly inside his sleeves. The rest of the squad are running four-by-fours, a lung-busting high-intensity sprinting drill designed to test maximum heart rate. “We all used to run about daft, blowing out of our arse,” says former St Mirren defender Iain Gray. “And he’d just be kicking the ball into the goal. I don’t know if he understood what we were meant to do, if it was a language barrier, but he just used to muck about and kick balls at the goal.”
Leicester City’s title triumph isn’t so much a single fairytale but rather a compendium of unlikely stories that have intertwined during this remarkable season. While much has been written about Jamie Vardy’s journey from Stocksbridge Park Steels to Premier League record-breaker, Wes Morgan’s and Andy King’s spells in League One, and Claudio Ranieri’s 30-year managerial career that was missing a first top-flight trophy, it was left to Riyad Mahrez to reveal his own backstory in a recent interview. It is certainly the most curious to emerge from this squad of misfits and miracle men.
After being lined up for a trial at Scottish Premier League side St Mirren in 2009, Mahrez travelled to Paisley from his home in the Parisian suburb Sarcelles. But his time in Scotland was to prove short-lived. “It drove me crazy, Scotland. It was snowing and everything. I was so cold that one day I faked an injury to go to the locker room,” he told L’Equipe. “I felt that I progressed (but) I wasn’t allowed to go so I left in secret.
“A few days later, my agent said, ‘Riyad, I’ve sent you a ticket, you take the bus right away, get off at Glasgow station and you get on the train to the airport, then you take the flight to Paris’. I borrowed a bike from a guy from the hotel, I made my bag and I left without telling anyone. Not even the lady at the hotel. I left via a staircase which avoided the reception.”
Now a Premier League champion, the PFA Player of the Year and linked with a £30m move to Barcelona in the gossip columns, it is difficult to picture Mahrez shivering in the Scottish weather, a skinny teenager searching for his professional break. “He was a very thin boy with wiry hair,” Gray recalls. “He had the same kind of haircut as Nani at Man United. Dead wiry. He was thin but he had great technique; good passer, good feet, good skill. But off the ball he just wasn’t bothered, he was the guy with his sleeves over his hands who just didn’t run.”
It doesn’t paint the picture of a player determined to prove his worth in the hope of winning a contract, and Mahrez’s laidback attitude grated with the rest of the squad. “His skill was unbelievable,” says Gray. “I remember we were playing an indoor 5-a-side game because it was snowing, and he was just doing these wee flicks. It was annoying me so I thought I’d smash him in a tackle. He just did a wee feint and I went flying past him. I don’t think I would have remembered him if he hadn’t have taken the piss out of me.”
Name: Philipp Wollscheid
Date of Death: 23/01/16
Cause of Death: Riyad Mahrez pic.twitter.com/wwXvJ99fG6
— The_Lil_Magician (@Lil_Magician10) January 23, 2016
Gray isn’t the only one who recalls Mahrez’s time in Renfrewshire. David Longwell, now Academy Director at Orlando City, was contacted by a Scottish football agent to see if he would be interested in taking a look at a raw, skilful winger from France. There had been so many pass through his Under-19’s squad that there was no harm in one more coming over to train for a couple of weeks.
“There were a lot of trialists who came in through agents and, let me put it this way, they didn’t have Riyad’s technical ability,” says Longwell. “That’s why I remember him, because a lot of players who came in on trial were really bad. Generally players came in and you were like ‘Oh my god, they can’t actually control the ball’. But Riyad had good ability.”
Mahrez’s technical ability was clear to Longwell from the start. As a coach he was experienced in fostering late developers, some of whom progressed to become Scotland internationals. With Mahrez all the signs were there, he was a rare talent but would need to be carefully nurtured.
“He came in and showed up very, very well to be honest. He was a very underdeveloped player from a physical aspect but very good technically,” Longwell remembers. “I hate these stories about not being physically ready, small kids can play. If you look at top, top players like Lionel Messi and so on, they’re not big, strong and physical, but my god they can play. You get players we call ‘performers’ when they’re younger, and they stand out because of their power and their pace. But what eventually happens is players with the ability overtake them, and I think that’s the case with Riyad.”
After training, when the rest of the youth squad would do their chores, scrubbing the boots of the first-team players and cleaning out the dressing rooms, Mahrez would go back to the Abbey Inn where he was staying. “I taught him everything he knows,” jokes the manager. “I showed him how to do his tricks and everything, I tell all my friends.”
Perhaps he’d drink an Irn Bru at the bar with Dany Bekale, another trilaist who had joined him on the trip from France, but other than that there wasn’t much opportunity for socialising. Early in the morning a minibus would arrive to take the players to Stepps, where St Mirren used to train at facilities owned by the University of Strathclyde.
“He used to get picked up and driven in to training,” says Gray. “One of the boys on the minibus was a bit mad, so I don’t know what Mahrez thought of him. He was a very funny boy, always up to stuff, but good banter. Mahrez would probably have been scared of him.
“I remember Mahrez couldn’t speak a word of English but we had the radio on and he started singing the words to the The Black Eyed Peas. He probably understood some of the stuff we were saying but pretended he couldn’t. He just used to smile at us.”
Four-by-fours might not have interested him, but Mahrez was switched on when it was time to show what he could do in a game. His first practice match was on the Sunday after he arrived. “He came on as a sub and did fine,” Longwell recalls.
But it was the second match which really caught the coach’s attention.
“For the second game he played the agent wasn’t there. But I phoned him to let him know that he’d done really well – he scored three goals in that game. He had such good technique in both feet and that kind of chopping in, chopping out is so hard to read. When I spoke to the agent I was very enthusiastic, I actually called him from the game and said ‘You’ll never believe this, Riyad’s scored three goals.’ I said I’d speak to the manager and see what he says.”
It was shortly after this point in Mahrez’s version of events that he made a hasty exit back to France. Demoralised by the cold weather, which he likened to ‘abuse’, and offered little encouragement over his hopes of securing a contract, Mahrez sensed he would find better options elsewhere. He called Jean Evina, his agent in Paris, to arrange his clandestine escape.
“I think a lot of that story’s a load of rubbish to be honest,” scoffs Longwell. “He never stole a bike, I don’t know where that came from. He was definitely not at St Mirren for two-and-a-half months either. It was February and he would have trained in cold weather, because Scotland is cold funnily enough. That’s why I’m going to Orlando to be fair! But that story I just laughed at because I found it quite humorous. Somebody said to me, ‘Whose bike did he take then?” I think that story’s a little bit fabricated.”
Paisley Panda pitches in, but snow claims several Scottish fixtures https://t.co/JH7pp7CuN1 (pic: @snsgroup) pic.twitter.com/GTjRjmGtLP
— Scotsman (@TheScotsman) January 16, 2016
There may be doubts regarding the veracity of Mahrez’s tale, but what is certain is that he slipped through St Mirren’s fingers. Longwell passed his recommendation on to the manager, Gus MacPherson, but the club’s first-team plans were dictated by circumstances and regulations.
At that time in Scottish football, any players aged 19 or over – as Mahrez would have been the following season – were automatically promoted to the senior set-up, a step that would possibly have come too soon for the winger. “I know you don’t need to be physical – he still isn’t now – but you can imagine what he was like back then when he was 18. He was small and very skinny,” Gray explains. “You’d wonder if he was the kind of player you could take out of a game.” It’s a thought Scottish Premiership defenders would no doubt revel in.
It was a case of right player, wrong time for St Mirren, with Mahrez’s development demanding the sort of patience rarely afforded in football. His youth club in France, AAS Sarcelles, would also have been due compensation, complicating matters even further. It was decided that he would be allowed to leave, by stolen bike or other means, and a fortnight after arriving in Scotland he returned to France.
“At the time, obviously you ask the manager his opinion, but they just didn’t feel it was what they were looking for from a first-team point of view,” says Longwell. “It can be very frustrating, because it’s so short-term regarding (the pressure on) managers. It’s just the way it is – you’ve got to win games.
“It’s easy to criticise but you’re never going to know. Yes, someone can show potential, but in fairness to the manager at the time he’d only seen him fleetingly. It’s one of those things, players will come and go through your club, some go on to do things, some don’t. I don’t think the management at the time could have foreseen what he was going to do.
“I think for Riyad Mahrez it was the right thing. What happens if St Mirren had tried to sign him? He might not have gone on the same path.”
The same question can be asked for many of Leicester’s heroes. What if Jamie Vardy, released because of his size by Sheffield Wednesday, had been given longer to develop? Marc Albrighton could now be facing an uncertain future in the Championship had Aston Villa extended his contract in 2014. Danny Drinkwater, shown the door by Manchester United before he was awarded a first-team appearance, now owns as many Premier League medals as David de Gea.
Leicester have been galvanised by rejection and driven by inexorable self-belief. As individuals they have turned setbacks into positives, as a collective they have conquered the impossible. “When you’re talking about guys like Vardy and Riyad, it’s probably been a blessing in disguise they didn’t get discovered until they were older,” says Longwell. “It’s made them more determined to try and make it.
“Riyad’s probably been in a lot of clubs and he’s had to fight that wee bit harder because he was maybe not physically ready. But it’s put him to such a high standard, that desire to want to improve. He’s always had great technical ability, and now you’ve got the finished article. It’s great to see the journey he’s made. It’s fantastic to see somebody with that potential back then who’s ended up winning the Premier League and Player of the Year. He’s an example to any young player.”
Once a diamond in the rough, spotted by Leicester assistant manager Steve Walsh on a scouting trip to Le Havre, Mahrez is now the jewel in the Foxes’ crown. He will be in fierce demand this summer as a host of European clubs prepare to pounce. But perhaps Mahrez will look back to the freezing days he spent at St Mirren and decide he’s on the right path. Perhaps now is not the time to deviate as he prepares for a first Champions League campaign.
“Football’s a funny game the way things work out,” says Gray. “You need to be in the right place at the right time. But you need a bit of ability as well, that always helps. It’s about one person’s opinion at a time. Deemed not good enough for St Mirren, Mahrez goes back to France, does well, signs for Leicester and wins Player of the Year. It’s a fairytale really.”