"I don’t think
fans in the last 20 or 30 years
will have seen many
players like him..."
One of the most revered players of City’s recent past celebrates his 53rd birthday today – here we look back at a magical couple of seasons from a very gifted footballer…
It’s fair to say that when Ali Benarbia signed for City in October 2001, nobody really knew very much about him.
He’d spent a successful career in France, but as there was no televised highlights of Ligue 1, many stars of French football were largely unknown until they moved to Spain, Italy or England.
It’s safe to assume that, apart from the more knowledgeable members of our fanbase, the Algerian playmaker was a completely unknown quantity.
A decade with French minnows Martigues had been followed with stints at Bordeaux, Monaco and PSG, though a disagreement with the Algerian FA meant he only won a fraction of the caps he could and should have.
In playing terms, he was getting on a bit and at 33, he went to Sunderland with the expectation his reputation in France would be more than enough of a CV, but things didn’t pan out with the Black Cats.
Ali was not happy about what he perceived as a lack of respect Sunderland had shown him during his brief trial where it was reported that Black Cats boss Peter Reid wasn't present at an arranged practice game.
Prior to the visit to Wearside, he'd popped into Carrington with his agent Willie McKay who was Alioune Toure's agent as well.
He'd only recently landed at Manchester Airport and McKay thought it would be nice to stop and have Ali meet the great Kevin Keegan in person and catch up with a few friends in the City squad.
"Ali Benarbia, who I didn't know, sat down in the canteen and I was in my office and Arthur Cox, my assistant and mentor, came in to me and said, 'Do you know that player with the agent?'" recalled Keegan.
"I said, 'I don't know him at all'. He said, 'That player single-handedly destroyed Newcastle United for Monaco just after you left. That guy is one of the best players I've ever seen'.
"So I thought, 'I'll go and have a chat with him'. I could see the French players loved him. You could tell they respected him so much.
"I said, 'Look, when you're on the way back, if you want to train, come and train with us'.
"He went to Sunderland and, apparently, the manager [Peter Reid] didn't even come to the practice game so he came back with us and we rigged him up with kit and he trained with us on the Thursday.
"He was unbelievable so I said to the agent, 'We'll take him'. We got him for absolutely nothing.
"He didn't want a lot of money. He just said, 'I want to play'. I said, 'Go home, get your boots'.
"He came back on the Saturday morning, I put him in the team and he got a standing ovation when he took a corner after about 20 minutes. That's how good he was."
It was perhaps the easiest signing City had ever made, and also one of the best.
Keegan pencilled Ali in for a possible debut a two days later with a home game against Birmingham on the horizon, but when he was told he was in the squad for Saturday, he very nearly missed the chance to make the immediate impact he did.
“Kevin Keegan said I could come – he didn’t know if I’d play or not – so I went to the airport, missed the first flight and then got on another and at 11.15am,” recalled Ali.
“I arrived at Maine Road at about 1pm and I just about had enough time to go out and get warmed up!
For me, it was a dream to play in England, but coming and playing in the Second Division and seeing 35,000 people against Birmingham I thought, no – maybe this is wrong – how can there be so many people watching a game at this level?
“Of course, I played, things went well, we beat Birmingham 3-0 and went I came off, I received this amazing standing ovation and it was just the best start possible for me.”
It had taken Ali about 10 minutes to bewitch a packed Maine Road and, by the end of his first game, the player City fans had known little or nothing of before he signed was now just about the only thing our supporters wanted to talk about.
The real mystery was how he had slipped beneath the radar for so many years?
Benarbia had it all – skill, vision, and most of all, a wonderful football brain. He may have been at the wrong end of his career, but City fans knew they were in the presence of a genius from the first time they saw him play up until his final game for the club, just shy of two years later.
Along with Israeli magician Eyal Berkovic, City perhaps had one of the best midfields in the country – including the Premier League, where City were hoping to return to before long.
Second tier defences simply couldn’t handle Benarbia who was physically strong on the ball and couldn’t be bullied out of a game the way the physically slighter Berkovic sometimes was.
“I don’t think Manchester City fans in the last 20 or 30 years will have seen many players like him,” remarked Keegan a few months into Ali’s time with the club.
“They will come up with names like Colin Bell and he is definitely in that class.”
Few disagreed and for almost a generation of City supporters, here was a real hero to worship – a genuine, world class talent that the club hadn’t had since perhaps Trevor Francis a couple of decades before.
Ali inspired a City team who were thrilling to watch and during the 2001/02 campaign - one of the most enjoyable for perhaps thirty years – it was the Algerian genius who was conducting the orchestra.
City won the league in a canter, finishing comfortably ahead of the chasing pack and also scoring a record number of league goals in the process.
Benarbia’s influence cannot be underestimated and his vision created innumerable chances and goals for the likes of Shaun Goater, Darren Huckerby and Paulo Wanchope – so many in fact, that Wanchope said “he finds you when you can’t find yourself!”
Goater benefitted more than most, becoming the first City striker to bag 30-plus goals in a season since Francis Lee in the early 1970s.
I used to check before the games ‘Ali, are you ok? Do you need a cup of tea? Do you need your ankle strapping?’ Because i knew if he was okay, I was going to be okay!
Despite Goat’s record haul, Ali win the 2001/02 MCFC Player of the Year award by a landslide
The question many wondered next was: could he cut it in the Premier League?
Of course, there was no doubt he was more than capable of doing exactly that, but time was against him. Ali turned 34 a few weeks into the 2002/03 season and as the physical demands of the English top flight became greater, his appearances became less frequent in the top division.
Ali’s was never less than inventive and bright when he did play, but his influence seemed a little less while his midfield partner Berkovic excelled.
It was clear that, despite having another year on his contract beyond the 2002/03 campaign, Ali wasn’t entirely happy with his contribution and ahead of his third year with the club, he decided to call time on his career with City following a competitive pre-season friendly at Mansfield Town.
With the career and stellar time Ali had enjoyed with City, it was understandable he didn’t want to be remembered as a bit-part player in his final year.
It was a major blow to Keegan who hadn’t envisaged Ali’s departure and shortly after, the City boss fell out with Berkovic, thus going from having two incredibly gifted playmakers in his midfield, to none.
Ali did return for the inaugural City of Manchester game against Barcelona and was welcomed back as a hero, but without his guile and Berkovic’s dynamism, City were almost relegated in 2003/04.
People would say: ‘if only we’d had him six years earlier’. If only indeed!
When asked once by a journalist if he’d had the kind of adulation he was getting at City anywhere else, he replied “Everywhere I go!”
His star shone brightly, if briefly, and his stint at City was perhaps one of the most enjoyable of his career.
I played two years in Manchester but I feel like I was there 10 years because I enjoyed every minute of my time with City
“When you have the love from the fans like I did and you feel it every time you play, it makes it possible to create magical moments when you go out and the pitch and that’s why I did so well for the club.
“I gave everything for the City fans because of the love and respect I felt from them.
“I played against Barcelona in the new stadium and while players like Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva have their stories there, I still miss Maine Road so much – that’s where I wrote my story in the history of this fantastic club.”