#8 Georgi Kinkladze: The man with the Midas touch
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, Kinkladze was a mercurial midfielder who lit up a particularly bleak period in City’s history.
Having lobbed Neville Southall superbly in a game playing for Georgia against Wales, then-City chairman Francis Lee knew he had to act, signing him from Dinamo Tbilisi for £2 million in 1996.
In those simpler, pre-YouTube days, it was mysterious move. There was very little information available, but City boss Alan Ball promised fans they would be “hanging from the rafters” to get a glimpse of the Georgian.
He wasn’t wrong. Kinkladze was a joy to watch, a beacon of hope and quality in a troubled time for the club.
He spent three years at City, leaving in the summer of 1998 to join Ajax for £5 million.
Born on July 6, 1973, Georgi was the second child of Robizon and Marina Kinkladze. In those days, a bizarre Soviet Union rule dictated men could not see their new-born for a week, but Robizon covertly forced his was way into the hospital after three days and got a glimpse of his baby. “He's got bandy legs - he'll make a good footballer,” he thought to himself.
As soon as he could stand up on his own, Robizon rolled a football to the infant and the two-year-old Georgi trapped it with his left foot. His father was amazed; no one else in the family was left-footed.
After taking him to watch Dinamo Tbilisi against Inter when he was four, Robizon knew his son was interested in football. He began making it his mission to coach him and continued doing so until the age of 15.
He joined the Young Dinamo football school when he was six and enrolled in Georgian dance classes to further develop his balance and footwork.
A lack of senior opportunities saw him grow frustrated and he moved to Mretebi Tbilisi when was 16 in order to get first-team games under his belt. His form was excellent and after one season returned to Dinamo where he won a league-and-cup double in his first season, before making his international debut aged 19.
In 1994, he scored a sensational goal against Wales, a game Georgia won 5-0. "They murdered us... (Kinkladze) was different class and the best player on the pitch by a mile,” Southall said afterwards.
The return game in Wales saw Kinkaldze score the only goal of the match and Lee, who had secured first refusal a year earlier having seen footage of the playmaker playing against Italy, made his move.
Kinkladze was a City player; the start of one of the most unlikely but brilliant relationships in 90s football.
He scored his first goal in a 1-0 win over Aston Villa, and his next, away at Middlesbrough, was a stunner, Kinkladze collecting the ball on his chest from a throw-in, gliding past Juninho in midfield before skinning Phil Stamp, Phil Vickers, Craig Liddle and Nigel Pearson and finishing with aplomb. It was archetypal Kinkladze.
However, the game at the Riverside was a microcosm of Kinkaldze’s City career: his individual brilliance offering hope, before the team collapsed to lose 4-1.
Perhaps his best performance came in one of the most memorable games ever played at Maine Road, a 3-3 draw with Kevin Keegan’s brilliant Newcastle United in February 1996. Newcastle were title contenders while City were looking to remain in the Premier League after a horrendous start, but what looked like a potential mismatch on paper turned into a classic. Kinkladze was close to unplayable, eclipsing the much-vaunted David Ginola, and almost scored a goal that would have trumped his famous effort against Southampton that came three weeks later.
Indeed, his moment of genius against Southampton is the moment he will always be remembered for, a jinking run that saw him beat four players before chipping Dave Beasant in impudent fashion. It was Maradona-esque and the City fans at Maine Road gathered on the concourse at half-time to watch footage of the goal, cheering every time it was replayed.
But at the end of his first season, City were relegated from the Premier League, a 2-2 draw with Liverpool on the final day not enough to keep us up. Kinkladze cried on the pitch afterwards; two points from our opening 11 games ultimately proving our downfall. Ball’s mishandling of the side, which had seen him allow key players to leave to be replaced with substandard quality, saw us rightfully pay the price and lose our Premier League status.
Kinkladze was expected to leave for more illustrious pastures, but he wanted to stay and return City to the Premier League. It was a decision that solidified his status as a legend with the fans.
However, City were a club in rapid decline. Expected to bounce straight back up, the following campaign was defined by mismanagement and mistakes. City went through five different managers, and with Kinkladze targeted by opposition defenders and handed some rough treatment, we finished a disappointing 14th, losing 19 of our 46 games.
“It was tough,” Kinkladze said of his second season.
“It’s true I had chances to leave. Barcelona and other sides had expressed an interest, but I couldn’t go. I wanted to help City back into the Premier League, so it wasn’t a hard decision for me to make.”
A fan campaign convinced him to stay on again, in the hope of igniting a push for a return to the top flight. But things instead went from bad to worse. City were relegated to the third tier of English football in 1998, plunging us to our lowest-ever position.
Joe Royle had replaced Frank Clark as manager in February 1998 with City hurtling towards the drop. He was unable to keep City up, but there were clear improvements. One of Royle’s first major decisions was to instruct the board to sell Kinkladze as he looked to construct a side workmanlike enough to cope with the rigours of the more industrial football played outside the Premier League.
Kinkladze left in the summer to join Ajax, his position as one of the most beloved players in our history cemented.
Not everyone was a fan, though. Royle decided he couldn’t build a team around him, and Ball and subsequent manager Frank Clark had both been criticised for putting too much faith in Kinkaldze, who some saw as a luxury player City couldn’t afford to accommodate. Paul Walsh, who had been superb for City during an 18-month stay between 1994-96, says it was a major reason in his decision to seek a move away.
“As soon as Alan Ball got there, after one or two games I knew it was going to be a nightmare,” Walsh said. “A lot of it was to do with Georgi Kinkladze. Georgi didn’t score enough goals, didn’t run around enough, didn’t tackle, didn’t chase no one – and Ball moved the whole team around to accommodate him because of what he couldn’t do, playing [Peter] Beagrie and [Nicky] Summerbee tucked in where they didn’t play.
“Georgi was silky on the ball but two relegations in three seasons doesn’t lie, does it? It can’t all be his fault, but he flattered to deceive for me. For all his ability, he caused more problems than he solved.”
Kinkladze’s move to Ajax was far from a success, their insistence on playing him as a winger limiting his impact. By November 1999, he was back in the Premier League with Derby County on loan, a move that was made permanent soon after. Despite looking unfit for much of his time there, he was still capable of producing magic and won the club’s Player of the Year award in 2002-03.
“I didn’t enjoy my time with Ajax at all,” he said. “The coach played me on the wing instead of through the middle and it just didn’t work out. The one nice thing was that a lot of City fans came to Amsterdam to watch me play.
“I decided to leave and returned to England with Derby County and it was OK, but it wasn’t the same. I came back to Maine Road just once with Derby and the reception I was given was incredible.
“I couldn’t play that day because I didn’t ever want to play against City. I loved the Club and the fans, and my heart just wasn’t in it.”
His vintage performances have now made way for vintage wines. Kinkladze has launched his own brand of vino made in Georgia, one of the oldest wine-making regions in the world, and he is reportedly looking to open a bar in south Manchester.
His time at Maine Road may have coincided with a disastrous run of results, but Kinkladze’s place in the pantheon of City greats was secured by a succession of mesmerising performances.
Few players could beat a man like Kinky.