Charismatic, enigmatic and unpredictable. Paulo Wanchope’s eight seasons in England left an indelible mark on the Premier League.
His debut will never be forgotten. He scored his first goal in English football and it was immediately filed in the pantheon of iconic Premier League moments, a weaving run from inside his own half that saw him go past Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Gary Pallister, before slotting the ball beyond future City teammate Peter Schmeichel. A quite brilliant moment of individual brilliance and precociousness.
It helped Derby County register their first win at Old Trafford in seven years, at the time a rare blip for a Manchester United side dominating the English game. From that moment, Wanchope, with his telescopic legs and unique playing style, became a household name.
“It was special because it was my first game in England and playing in England was my dream,” he says. “My dream of playing in Europe in a great league came true. It was special to score, and Derby had gone so long without winning at Old Trafford.
“When we were at City together, Peter Schmeichel used to say he made me famous! He used to say he let that goal in!
“It was good to play with him at Manchester City. We have a good relationship to this day. Peter was here in Costa Rica last year and we had a good time. It’s great we are still in contact.”
Twenty-eight goals in 83 games for Derby were enough to convince then-West Ham boss Harry Redknapp to pay £3.5 million to take him to Upton Park, adding Wanchope’s ability to an already super-talented squad.
Redknapp had assembled a group of players with youth and experience. Paolo Di Canio was their mercurial leader, but in Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole they had a home-grown contingent that would go on to play 1,972 Premier League games between them, picking up 277 England caps along the way. If the club had managed to keep them together, they could have become a member of the Premier League elite.
“It was a good move for me because it was a very good squad with great players,” Wanchope says, admitting it was a step up from his Derby days.
“Di Canio, great player and good character. Rio Ferdinand, Lampard, [Trevor] Sinclair as well. It was a very talented squad, with good young players like Joe Cole and Michael Carrick."
Of all the young players at West Ham at the time, Lampard was perhaps the least talked about. But fast-forward almost two decades since Wanchope joined him at West Ham and he’s a bona fide Premier League legend, having scored 177 goals - the highest-placed midfielder on the list of the league’s all-time leading scorers.
His best years were spent at Chelsea, but he also served City with distinction for one season under Manuel Pellegrini. Few players are as well-respected as Lampard and Wanchope says it was obvious back then he was going to become a big star.
“The great thing about him was he always worked so hard,” he says. “He was always doing extra work. I remember him training, doing extra with and without the ball. You could tell he would become a special Premier League player and he did. He did a great job in the Premier League and with the national team.”
But after one season at West Ham, Redknapp cashed in, selling him to City, who were back in the big time after a four-year absence. Joe Royle had overseen miraculous back-to-back promotions and having been midtable in the third tier of English football in late-1998, City were a Premier League team once again at the start of the 1999-00 season.
Optimism was high, and after a miserable opening-day defeat to Charlton, City beat Sunderland. Wanchope could hardly have got off to a better start, scoring a hat-trick on his home debut.
“I remember the game at Maine Road, great atmosphere,” he says. “I scored three goals and it was an instant click with the fans and the club.”
In truth, City struggled adapting to the demands of the Premier League. Royle’s side had enjoyed two years of success but the elite level was proving difficult. The signing of former World Player of the Year George Weah had proven unsuccessful, and there wasn’t quite enough quality in the squad to stay up.
In a season that saw us bereft of ideas and confidence, though, one moment stood out: Wanchope, in typically uncompromising style, backheeling a brilliant goal in a 2-1 win at Leicester that looked to give City hope of a revival.
“I remember that game!” he says. “I played upfront with Shaun Goater. I spoke to him about two weeks ago and I keep in touch with him. It was a special goal, a backheel and the people went crazy!”
Four games later and City were down. Royle, the club’s saviour, was sacked, his perceived stylistic limitations the reason for his dismissal.
“We were unlucky the year we went down," Wanchope says. "Joe Royle deserves a lot of credit because all the things happening now with Manchester City is possible because of him and all the hard work he did.”
But the following season was a memorable one for City. Under the guidance of Kevin Keegan, we won the First Division at a canter, finishing with 99 points, 10 clear of West Brom. In typical Keegan fashion, the accent was on attack. We scored 108 league goals and employed two attacking-midfielders with the freedom to roam, Ali Benarbia and Eyal Berkovic adding soft brushstrokes to a side razor-sharp in attack.
“He managed to bring in some very good players," Wanchope says. "As a striker we always appreciate playing attacking football alongside good players, like Benarbia, Berkovic, Shaun Goater and all those good players. We managed to take the club up to the Premier League and from there we know what happened.”
Wanchope bagged 12 league goals in 15 games and was a firm favourite with the crowd. “I was enjoying it,” he says. “It’s a shame that in my four years at Manchester City I could not play as much because of my injuries. City was a special place to play. I had so many problems with my knee, but I hope the people enjoyed my time there.”
City’s instant promotion coincided with the move away from Maine Road, the Club’s stadium for 80 years, to a new modern site in East Manchester then known as the City of Manchester Stadium. It was a strange period for City fans. Daunting yet exciting; sad but optimistic.
“I knew that as soon as I got there that the club had big plans,” he said. “I knew about the new stadium and we knew things were getting better and the club was going in the right direction. It’s nice to see Manchester City now, playing in Champions League and trying to win it. Always it’s nice to go back and realise that you were part of the building of the new generation of the club.
“I have been playing around the world and I can tell the City fans are special. It was really something special to play at Maine Road and also the new stadium. For us, the players, to have that support that gave us an extra boost to play even better.
“I have a special thing with Manchester City because of the fans, the atmosphere, the players, the club. It was like a family."
His third season was wiped out by injury, before a return in 2003-04 but he failed to reached peak fitness for City again. His fourth season at the club was his final one, a late flourish of four goals in three games, including a double in his final appearance at home to Everton, not enough to convince Keegan to keep him.
“For me, I have Manchester City in my heart," Wanchope says. "I am a big fan of Pep Guardiola and his style. I was very excited when I knew he was going to be the manager of Manchester City. Always when I can I try to watch City’s Premier League games and Champions League games.”
So, what is his message to the City fans?
“Keep supporting the club, enjoying this time," he says.
“The club is going forward and is becoming bigger. The way to do it is by keeping the great support and spirit of the club, that’s the key. You can have good players, the money, everything – but the best thing about the club is the fans. The players know that, the manager will know that, you have to keep supporting the team.”