Manchester City’s history books are filled with the names of players who caught the eye and captured the imagination, from past heroes such as Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Dennis Tueart to modern superstars such as Yay Touré, David Silva and Sergio Agüero, but it’s arguable none have left the club’s followers in more of a dreamy state than Georgi Kinkladze. He was a source of joy in an era of severe decline, one which saw the club relegated twice in two years and left amid the muck and nettles of England’s third tier. They were the worst of times but from 1995-1998 the fans at least had ‘the Georgian Maradona’, a midfielder whose impact was such that when he departed to Ajax, some of those who had watched him light up Maine Road simply could not let go. They had to see him, to speak to him, to sing about him, at least one more time.
“The Prestwich and Whitefield City supporters club branch had organised a trip over to Amsterdam to take in an Ajax game and invited Kinkladze to meet them in a bar on the Damstraat, which to everyone’s surprise he did,” remembers the football writer and City fan Simon Curtis. “He turned up as casual as you like and spent the night playing pool and signing everything from clogs to beer bellies.
“I was living in Alkmaar at the time and remember sitting with Georgi on one of the pool tables chatting away about how much he missed City. He’d had various problems settling in at Ajax and things weren’t working out for him very well. Meanwhile, the whole place was swamped by deafening songs of praise. It was a great night and showed the humility of the guy.”
Life at Ajax indeed proved difficult for Kinkladze. He joined for £4.9m in the summer of 1998 and appeared a perfect fit for a club whose reputation was built around highly technical, creative footballers. But Kinkladze was unable to settle and flourish in his new surroundings. As David Winner outlines in Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football: “Kinkladze didn’t understand the Ajax system. He was baffled and alienated by the Dutch and their ugly, incomprehensible guttural language. Within a year he was utterly depressed, his only comfort watching videos with his countryman Shota Arveladze.”
It was all a far cry from the sense of belonging Kinkladze felt at City having arrived in July 1995 during the first modern wave of deliciously talented foreign players into English football. Six months earlier Tony Yeboah had joined Leeds, while three months later Middlesbrough welcomed Juninho. Meanwhile at Tottenham, it had not been long since Ilie Dumitrescu and Jürgen Klinsmann had arrived and helped form Ossie Ardiles’s wild and ultimately doomed ‘famous five’. Then, of course, there was Dennis Bergkamp, who joined Arsenal in June 1995, and Eric Cantona, who by then was the king of Old Trafford. They were exciting, they were new, they had unusual sounding names and in the case of Kinkladze, appeared to have come out of nowhere.
He actually arrived from Dinamo Tbilisi for £2m – via loan spells at FC Saarbrücken in Germany and Boca Juniors in Argentina – after being spotted by City’s then-chairman Francis Lee. Given Kinkladze only left Tbilisi in the first place due to the civil war that ravaged Georgia after independence from the Soviet Union, it was perhaps no surprise he suffered homesickness after moving to Manchester. But the arrival of his mother, Khatuna, just before Christmas 1995 helped him settle in the city and thrive for his new team.
He was unspectacular in appearance – small and squat, baggy in shirt and scruffy in hair – but the signs that Kinkladze was a player blessed with incredible balance, skill, pace and purpose, had been evident before his mum landed, most consistently during a run of four wins and a draw in November. But it was what Kinkladze did against Southampton at Maine Road four months later that secured his status as a creative talent of the highest order and the new darling of the Kippax.
It is 16 March 1996, and in the 37th minute of a crucial encounter between two teams fighting for survival, City’s No7 collects a pass from Steve Lomas just inside the opposition’s half. He is close to the right-hand touchline and up against Simon Charlton. The Southampton full-back’s body shape makes it clear that he wants to push Kinkladze wide, but the man in possession has other ideas and with a drop of the shoulder and a rapid shift in weight, he drives infield.
The home crowd roar in anticipation; they can feel something special is on. It doesn’t appear that way, however, when Kinkladze reaches the edge of the area and as well as having to deal with Charlton grappling with his right shoulder in a desperate attempt to rescue the situation, is faced by two more players, not to mention the towering presence of Dave Beasant in the goal.
Cue the sexy bit.
Kinkladze skips past Ken Monkou with the ease of a man avoiding a piece of litter on the street and then once inside the Southampton area, does the same to the sprawling David Hughes, who rather strangely had run across Kinkladze in his initial attempt to halt the Georgian. With Beasant only to beat, he then dinks the ball over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net with his left foot.
Nine seconds from start to finish, four players beaten and one beautiful goal scored. “It was impossibly impudent, impossibly cool headed,” says Curtis, who was at Maine Road that Saturday afternoon. “I remember the euphoria at seeing such a breathtaking goal and watching the little man run to the Platt Lane end beckoning, as if to say, ‘come and join the celebrations’. It was a magical moment.”
Two things in particular stand out about the goal. The first is the command of possession Kinkladze displayed. It’s a cliché to say the ball appeared stuck to his feet, but not once does it drift or deviate as he dribbles forward, holds off Charlton, glides inside Monkou and then around Hughes’s legs. The control is magnetic and utterly remarkable.
The second is the finish. One-on-one with Beasant, it would have been easy for Kinkladze to simply smash the ball past the keeper, but instead he dummies to shoot twice and waits for the man in front of him to collapse on to his knees so he can lift the ball over him. His message to Beasant was clear: “I’m going to make a dickhead out of you here, son.”
It’s often forgotten that Kinkladze beat the former England goalkeeper twice that day, with his first goal coming five minutes before the second via a tap-in from close range after Beasant had failed to hold on to Nigel Clough’s shot. Paul Tisdale pulled one back for Southampton on 64 minutes but it proved to be a consolation and City ultimately secured victory in a match their manager, Alan Ball, had described prior to kick-off as the most important since his arrival from Southampton the previous summer.
The win moved City up to 15th but they still ended up going down in bizarre circumstances following a 2-2 draw with Liverpool on the final day of the season. In truth the campaign had been a disaster from the start, with the team failing to win any of their opening 11 fixtures and failing to convince thereafter. The only real highlight was Kinkladze, who in terms of raw talent was several levels above his team-mates. Quite frankly, seeing him play alongside the likes of Lomas, Garry Flitcroft and Ian Brightwell was akin to seeing Jimi Hendrix jam with Toploader.
“It didn’t take long after Georgi arrived for us to recognise we had a naturally gifted footballer in our ranks. He was an out and out match winner,” remembers Keith Curle, City’s captain at the time. “Off the pitch he was very shy, very unassuming, and someone who didn’t enjoy the limelight. But on it he came alive. We used to call him ‘Happy Feet’ because he always seemed happiest when he had a ball at his feet.
“The goal against Southampton didn’t surprise me because I’d seen Georgi do that type of thing in training all the time. In fact, he did it so regularly that after a while our defenders stopped committing to a challenge when he had the ball because they knew he could and would make a fool out of them. He had an ability to quickly change direction, exceptional vision and a wand of a left foot. And you saw all of that in that goal.”
Curle’s affection for Kinkladze is obvious but he says there was also resentment within City’s ranks regarding how the player was excused by Ball of any defensive duties, something which “disrupted the ethos of a team built around 10 outfield players working hard for 90 minutes”.
“I remember losing away to Arsenal that season and one of the goals we conceded came because Georgi hadn’t tracked a runner,” adds Curle, currently the manager at Carlisle. “The lads were not happy and some said as much to the manager after the game. In reply, he told them that if they were as talented as Georgi they wouldn’t have to track back either.
“Alan adored Georgi and gave him the responsibility of being our matchwinner. He told him to not worry about defending and instead concentrate on finding space when the opposition had the ball and being prepared to attack once we won it back. He’d had a similar approach with Matt Le Tissier at Southampton and Matt flourished. Alan’s feeling was that Georgi could do the same at City.”
And that he did, providing heavenly moments during a season of hell for City’s supporters –as well as seeing their side relegated they also had to endure the sight of Manchester United winning a second Premier League and FA Cup double in two years. And their love for ‘Kinky’ was cemented after he decided to stay at the club, only leaving once they had endured yet another drop down the divisions.
“Kinkladze produced the same level of brilliance at the lower level, scoring marvellous goals at Oxford and Southend and a giant end to end slalom verses Leicester in the Cup that is still etched on the memory,” adds Curtis. “If only he had been around in today’s City side. People would have recognised the true genius of Giorgi Kinkladze.”
It is something of travesty that the midfielder’s career tailed off after he left Maine Road. After struggling at Ajax he joined Derby County, first on loan and then on a long-term deal. But back in England Kinkladze could not recreate the magic of old, and following a spell at Rubin Kazan he retired in 2006.
Kinkladze could have become a great of European football. Ball, for one, was in doubt of his talents, describing him as “the best player to ever come out of Eastern Europe”. But the Georgian will always have those three years at City, and in particular that goal against Southampton, when he gave a club on its knees a reason to stand tall and feel good about itself.
As Joe Royle, the City manager who sold Kinkladze to Ajax, put it in his autobiography: “I wasn’t blind to what lay behind our supporters’ worship at the throne of King Kinky. In the long dark days at Maine Road he was a shining beacon who lit up the gloom with his flashes of genius.”