Riyad Mahrez will contest the Champions League final this weekend with Manchester City – but back when he was 17, the Algerian was trying his best to impress St Mirren.
Now 30, Mahrez has risen from obscurity in French football, signing for Leicester City in 2014 and forming part of English football’s greatest tale of the modern era, the King Power Stadium club winning the Premier League against the odds in 2016. His move to Manchester City followed two years later and Mahrez has won two more league titles.
A first European crown could beckon for Mahrez on Saturday as Manchester City look to defeat Chelsea. But in a previous interview, the winger stated how St Mirren offered him the chance to develop ‘physically’ before starting his journey to silverware with Quimper Kerfeunteun F.C in France, who currently play in the sixth tier of French football.
Mahrez said in 2017 (Unscriptd): “In these two months in Scotland I really improved physically. I played with the English spirit as well – it’s the same as British spirit. It was very intense physically and I think these two months helped me. When I came back to France I had better movement, better things in my qualities.
“That helped me to become the player I am now. So now it has become my strength. I played like four games and scored seven goals. They were saying, every game, game after game, ‘We don’t know, we have to see, we have to wait’.
“The agent who sent me to Scotland said to me, ‘Riyad, just come back because we don’t know what they are doing there, they keep stopping you from signing there’. So I was quite happy to come back because Scotland was very difficult and very cold. I was young. I’d never been away from my family for that long.”
That agent Mahrez refers to is Jake Duncan, a huge player in the music industry. He worked as tour manager for the band JLS around the time of Mahrez having his St Mirren trial but more famously worked with artists and bands like Black Sabbath, Wham!, Olly Murs, Oasis, Bruce Springsteen and The Who, amongst many others.
Duncan was well-known in the Scottish sports industry too on top of his music connections. St Mirren looked at the current Manchester City player for a couple of months but decided against offering him a deal, manager at the time Gus MacPherson opting for more experienced players like Billy Mehmet.
David Longwell was St Mirren’s head of youth when Mahrez was about, keeping him at the club for as long as he could, the Algerian a bright spark in training. Currently in a similar role at Shrewsbury Town, Longwell has described how Mahrez never got a deal in Paisley.
Longwell told NTOF: “There was an agent called Jake Duncan, great guy. He was the tour manager for JLS and a really good guy. He’s well-known in Scotland and would bring boys over from France to Airdrie, Morton, here, there and everywhere. He got in touch with me regarding some younger players.
“Sometimes he would bring over five or six boys at a time. We would ship them in, they would stay at the Abbey Inn, Paisley, and they would come in for trial. Riyad came in with another four or five boys and right away showed his ability.
“He was very under developed but it was quite similar with what we did as an academy. We brought through Kenny McLean, Lewis Morgan, and they had a lot of developing to go. The hard thing for us at that time was Riyad only had three months left of being an age suitable for the academy.”
Mahrez had to make the jump to first-team football quickly, and Longwell wanted him to stick around, but the former St Mirren youth leader explained: “After that he had to go and play in the first-team. Even though he did well at the time, I had spoken to Jake on the phone and we asked to keep him longer. But it wasn’t my decision in the end.
“The management did watch him in a game but at that time they didn’t feel he was ready for first-team football. Maybe he wasn’t, but you are trying to look at it longer-term. Managers need to try and win games of football and look at things in the here and now. The striker we had at the time was Billy Mehmet and he was a big guy!
“For the management, it wasn’t the right time to give Riyad a contract. But he was a great talent and my boys loved him because he used to run rings around us! I tried to keep him as long as I could but it’s not my decision to hand out first-team contracts. He did take a while to develop, he was still playing Ligue 2 at 23.
“He’s a great example for anyone to look at as you need to be aware of the long-term development of players. We’ve done well when we look at some of our guys, but you have to have that patience. The structure in Scotland for young players at that time wasn’t great, but if the structure had been like the U20s structure, I could have given him a year.”
NTOF now offers a YouTube channel featuring exclusive interviews, post-match discussion, in-depth debate, and much more – LIKE and SUBSCRIBE and don’t miss any of our videos.