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Eyal Berkovic: Fiery, outspoken and brilliant

Eyal Berkovic: Fiery, outspoken and brilliant
The story of a player capable of mesmerising genius...

A supremely gifted and sometimes temperamental midfielder, Eyal Berkovic arrived from Israel to carve a reputation out at Southampton - which he did for a season before being snapped up by Harry Redknapp for West Ham United.

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He quickly became a favourite at Upton Park, but following a training ground fracas with John Hartson who was pictured putting the boot in on Berkovic during an altercation, the Israeli playmaker headed north of the border and joined Celtic, but alleged comments about Rangers didn't go down well with the Celtic fans.

From there, things went downhill and whether an apology would have smoothed things over is doubtful – besides, Eyal stuck to his guns when he felt strongly about something.

He went on loan to Blackburn Rovers and at a time City were crying out for a creative midfielder, Joe Royle – perhaps wary of the fiery reputation - decided not to move for the player.

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Rumours were that Celtic boss Martin O’Neill had hinted that Berkovic was a disruptive influence and that was enough for Joe –it also seemed to put off a number of prospective suitors.

Royle was sacked by City at the end of the 2000/01 season and new manager Kevin Keegan made Berkovic one of his first signings and at just £1.5m - a third of the price Celtic had paid West Ham – he had bagged a genuine bargain fee for what was a special talent.

Keegan didn’t care that additional baggage came with his new recruit -–he just saw a very good player available for a knock-down price. It was great business.

Keegan’s first game in charge saw another new arrival, Stuart Pearce, in defence and Berkovic in midfield for the visit of Watford.

It was an electrically charged evening at Maine Road for the early Saturday evening kick-off and City fairly crackled on the night, all inspired by the slightly-built Israeli who looked immediately at home.

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He capped a mesmerising debut with a superb goal and he lapped up the fans’ acclaim running over to the Kippax to celebrate, waving his shirt around.

He was injured shortly after and in his absence, Keegan brought in Algerian star Ali Benarbia on a free transfer. Another incredibly shrewd move.

Though he now had two similarly styled playmakers, Keegan stated in an interview that he intended to play both Berkovic and Benarbia in the team, memorably saying: “People ask how is it possible to pick both players to play in the same side – I ask, why not?”

It was a bold but intelligent move by Keegan but he was rewarded when the pair commenced taking apart the hapless defences of the First Division when their talents would have befitted any Premier League, Serie A or La Liga side.

Ali and Eyal were just too hot to handle for any second tier defence, but there were some that felt that Berkovic played even better when he was the sole creative force.

At perhaps his most breathtaking best, Berkovic ran alone towards the Norwich City box tracked by three defenders with City down to 10 men.

He stepped over the ball, dropped a shoulder to leave him facing the keeper and then poked the ball home for a magnificent solo effort that sent Maine Road wild with delight.

That’s what he was capable of.

On City’s return to the top-flight, he ran the game against United at Old Trafford and was inspirational in the last ever Maine Road derby, when City beat the Reds 3-1, telling the United fans to ‘ssshhh!’ after the third goal.

Yet things gradually began to deteriorate and his relationship and somewhere down the line player and manager fell out - and the word was that when you fell out with Keegan, there was no way back.

Eyal, by now 31, had asked for a one-year contract extension and when it wasn't forthcoming, something changed for him and he was dropped from the team.

Keegan claimed he had no axe to grind with the player but it's hard to imagine anything else and there was clearly no way back for the talented Israeli.

Many City fans wondered why, when Ali Benarbia had only recently left, Berkovic was left to play for the reserves, particularly with the side now struggling for invention and creativity in midfield.

The signing of attacking midfielder Antoine Sibierski was the final straw for Eyal and he played a handful of games before Harry Redknapp- now at Portsmouth – returned for Eyal who left for the south coast on a free transfer.

Keegan seemed desperate to see the back of a player who was becoming an embarrassing exclusion from his side.

Midfielders of Berkovic’s ability are few and far between and the bitter end to his time with the Club was the real pity and the fans the only losers.

Eyal was a wonderful footballer and nobody could deny his talent.

In one of football’s many ironies, he made his Portsmouth debut against – who else – City, with Keegan adding insult to injury by not stipulating that the player could not immediately face his former club.

If ever anyone was going to give their all to gain revenge, it was Berkovic against Keegan.

City feared what would happen and, sure enough, Pompey won 4-2 with Eyal running the show.

When Redknapp quit Fratton Park, Eyal left soon after and he instead headed back to Israel to play for Maccabi Haifa.

He played 67 times for City and scored nine goals - most of them memorable efforts.

Gifted, outspoken and controversial – Eyal Berkovic was all those things – but he played his best football for Manchester City where he is still fondly spoken of.

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