The list of PFA Footballers of the Year to have played second division football in England is short. Highlights include John Terry’s six games on loan at Nottingham Forest in 1998 and recent return to the Championship with Aston Villa, Gareth Bale bursting onto the scene as a 16-year-old at Southampton and 1988 winner John Barnes making his debut for Watford against Preston.
It’s difficult to imagine Eden Hazard, Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Suarez in the Championship but the 2016 PFA Footballer of the Year played 19 times at that level just two years before claiming the award.
Riyad Mahrez was, of course, a revelation.
Leicester City announced the signing of Mahrez on 11th January 2014, the day after moving seven points clear at the top of the Championship with a 4-1 win over neighbours Derby County. There was an authority to that performance which suggested new recruits would find it hard to force their way into the first team.
Only a player with extraordinary talent could expect to displace any of the firmly established starting eleven responsible for taking Leicester to the top.
After a brief debut from the bench in a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, Mahrez showed the first glimpse of his ability three days later in Birmingham. Leicester had taken the lead in the first half at St Andrew’s through Lloyd Dyer, whose electric pace thrilled fans and terrified full-backs. Mahrez replaced Dyer with twenty minutes to go; but it took him just ten minutes to help conjure three more points.
Leicester were defending a free kick and left two men up: Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. The ball was scrambled clear to Mahrez who controlled it on his chest and swiftly moved from left to right just inside his own half. Vardy began to move onto the shoulder of the last defender. Mahrez held the ball up, permitted space by opposition oblivious to the extent of his threat, before delivering the ball to his new team-mate. There was still plenty for Vardy to do but a drop of the shoulder and an angled finish into the far corner of the net in front of a packed away end meant Leicester were two up. So began the Mahrez-Vardy coalition: destined to cause chaos.
This dash of Premier League class in Championship surroundings was the tiniest hint, just a subtle suggestion of what these two players might achieve together in the future.
Mahrez was still consigned to the bench at this point, with Dyer remaining an able first choice until the time was right. The newcomer spoke very little English and was adapting to the rough and tumble of the English second tier.
When Watford came to the King Power Stadium for the first time since they sent Leicester spinning out of the previous season’s play-offs, Mahrez was denied a goal that would have lifted the roof off. The home side had come from two goals down to level through Danny Drinkwater’s 90th-minute volley from 25 yards. Then Drinkwater’s midfield partner Matty James embarked on a lung-bursting run down the left. His attempt to square the ball was intercepted, a touch that prevented the unmarked Mahrez a goal to remember.
There would be plenty of those soon enough.
Mahrez’s first goal was an equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Nottingham Forest, never a bad place for a Leicester player to get off the mark. Kevin Phillips saw his penalty saved but when James turned the ball back into the six-yard box, Mahrez was there to bundle it in. He leapt high into the air in front of the jubilant visiting supporters. Leicester had preserved a twelve-match unbeaten run.
Contrary to many English supporters’ perceptions of lightweight imports, Mahrez loved a midweek away game. From his first assist at St Andrew’s and his first goal at the City Ground, he moved on to his classiest moment yet - this time on a Tuesday night in South Yorkshire.
Oakwell, Barnsley: the latest setting for some Mahrez magic.
Darting in from the left flank just as he had in Birmingham, Mahrez spotted a Vardy run and broke stride to dispatch the ball onwards with perfect timing – an unnatural movement that belied his natural talent. Vardy rounded the goalkeeper with ease and stroked Leicester’s third goal of the evening into an unguarded net.
When the celebrations died down, the Leicester fans began to process what they were seeing from their exciting new winger. Dyer was quick and direct. On the opposite side, Anthony Knockaert was tricky and skilful. Mahrez seemed to take the best qualities of both and combine them to provide a player who, while still learning about the English game, was clearly a cut above.
There was only one question mark remaining. Mahrez’s skinny frame enabled his slippery feints but could he strike a ball with power? Could he end one of his signature dribbles with an emphatic smack into the back of the net? There were plenty of tame shots directed straight at the goalkeeper. Did this magician have anything more up his sleeve?
Matt Gilks, whose defence had kept his gloves busy for Blackpool all season, would soon find out. The Tangerines frustrated the King Power crowd for an hour and led a Leicester side that had coasted each of their previous three games by three goals to nil. Alarm bells were ringing.
Mahrez collected the ball on the right and was faced with Blackpool midfielder Neal Bishop. He shaped to strike the ball and instead rolled his foot over it. Bishop fell for the trick, turning away in anticipation of the shot. More illustrious defenders have since done the same. As Bishop tried to regain his bearings, Mahrez shot fiercely across Gilks into the far corner.
Eighteen months later, Mahrez would almost replicate this goal from a near identical position to equalise against Leicester’s eventual title challengers Tottenham Hotspur – turning not Neal Bishop but Jan Vertonghen and beating not Matt Gilks but Hugo Lloris.
Leicester went on to beat Blackpool 3-1 and extended their unbeaten run until promotion was in sight. On Friday 4th April 2014, a typical Mahrez goal – cutting in from the right to bend the ball into the far corner with his left foot – established the lead against Sheffield Wednesday. Future top flight opponent Michail Antonio levelled but Knockaert’s second half free kick won it for Leicester and their long inevitable promotion was sealed the following day due to results elsewhere.
Riyad Mahrez would play in the Premier League.
With the pressure lifted slightly, he used yet another midweek away game nine days later at Reading to display the full array of his skills. Leicester were still going for the title and it took another Drinkwater stunner to escape the Madejski Stadium with a point but Mahrez seemed to treat the game like a showcase. Turning, twisting, flicking and tricking his way past defenders at will, he looked capable of so much more than anyone else on the pitch.
It was left to Dyer, the man whose place Mahrez pinched, to fire a right-footed rocket at the Reebok and win the Championship for the club he would soon depart.
Two Leicester favourites – one established, one new – headed in very different directions. Dyer decided to turn down the chance of playing in the Premier League in favour of a longer contract with Watford. Mahrez, meanwhile, jetted off to Brazil to make his competitive debut for Algeria in the 2014 World Cup.
Leicester would have won the Championship that year without signing Riyad Mahrez. The team he joined was already streets ahead of the opposition and his arrival was a bonus. It was a different story two years later when he became the chief creative force behind one of the greatest achievements in the history of team sport.
When Mahrez moves, perhaps in the coming weeks, Leicester fans will reflect on his contribution to the club’s Premier League title win. The memories of his magic can never fade: the befuddled faces of Azpilicueta, Wollscheid and Demichelis, each tricked as the world was treated to a series of special goals; the pair of away winners at Vicarage Road and Selhurst Park in March that pulled the trophy nearer; the early opener against Swansea in late April to banish nerves.
But Barnsley and Birmingham and Blackpool are all part of it too: those early days in Riyad Mahrez’s Leicester City career when the world wasn’t yet watching but those following the Foxes knew they were seeing someone special.
By David Bevan. Header image credit goes fully to dom fellowes.