Long before Agüero, Silva and De Bruyne called the Etihad home, there was Maine Road. Far from the glory of Premier League titles and Middle Eastern riches, it was a beautiful old ground with gently sloping stands, the odd pillar to obstruct your view, and narrow walkways. Ok, so perhaps it wasn’t beautiful at the time, but as football stadiums become more refined and house as many hotels as they do food stands, the gentleman in me yearns for the delights of yesteryear. Maine Road was one of them.
The stadium ignited joy in so many fans – excitement at what was to come – largely because watching Manchester City was one of the most eventful experiences in English football. You rarely knew what to expect. And that’s no slight; it made City a team I’d always look forward to watching. I may have been Liverpool to the core, and perhaps the fact that they too hated Manchester United helped, but City engaged me like no other rival could.
There was also the small matter of the most brilliant Georgian footballer I have ever seen. Long before Agüero, Silva and De Bruyne called the Etihad home, there was Georgi Kinkladze.
From Tbilisi to Buenos Aires
Kinkladze, for all his natural talent and effortless ability to glide past players, was a reluctant footballer in his early years. The child of two academics, growing up in Soviet Georgia, Georgi was drawn towards ballet and gymnastics from an early age. His slight frame and ability to learn quickly made him ideal for a sport that was popular amongst young boys in the Soviet Union at the time. Indeed, gymnastics played a key role in the early years of Kinkladze.
With the balance and agility of a dancer, Kinkladze took his first steps in football. His father, an engineer and passionate follower of the sport, would train Georgi to strengthen his body to cope with the physical demands of Georgia’s most popular sport. It was a sport for the big boys – not necessarily the small but naturally gifted Georgi.
Working on his control, Georgi’s father Robinzon would make his son walk with the ball around the house, training both his close control as well as strengthening his legs. Knowing his son was destined to become a ball-playing midfielder, Robinzon understood that strength would be key to his development. With that in mind, he took Georgi to local club Dinamo Tbilisi’s open trials in 1979. The youngster was a resounding hit.
With his interest in football piqued, Kinkladze set about forging a path in the youth teams and senior side that would eventually see him leave in search of first-team football aged 16. Joining the newly formed FC Mretebi, another Tbilisi club, he was able to taste senior football for the first openly declared professional team in Georgia.
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Two years at Mretebi saw Kinkladze lift the second division title and become a regular in his favoured position off the striker. Georgian football at the time was in the midst of an attacking revolution, with offensive players granted the freedom to roam the pitch and find space. It suited Kinkladze perfectly.
His form for Mretebi had not gone unnoticed at his previous employer, Dinamo. With his friend and former teammate Shota Arveladze shining for the biggest club in the country, Kinkladze was re-signed in 1991 to provide an attacking foil for the striker. After Georgia broke from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kinkladze and Arveladze were soon shining for the national team. They were the first band of stars to come through the ranks.
Kinkladze’s form for Dinamo marked him out as the best player in the country. Lifting the double in his first season back, his combined tally of goals and assists – 28 in 34 games – was the highest in the league. Surely greatness awaited. Sadly, however, the Georgian Civil War of 1993 would put the brakes on his career.
Having scored 13 goals in 14 games at the start of the 1993/94 season, Dinamo sent most of their best players abroad to escape the clutches of war and find security. With Western Europe knowing little about the diminutive playmaker, he moved to 2. Bundesliga side FC Saarbrücken. It would prove to be a dismal period in his career as he struggled to cope with the physical demands and professionalism of the German game. Kinkladze rarely played 90 minutes and was duly sent back to Dinamo in mid ’94.
Named Georgian Player of the Year in 1993, Kinkladze was subsequently offered to Atlético Madrid in 1994 for the paltry sum of £200,000. A trial ensued at the Vicente Calderón but again his fitness and lack of tactical discipline proved off-putting in the professional world of Spanish football.
A trial at Real Madrid followed before one of the most bizarre transfers in Georgian football history.
Having shone in a trial match for the Madrid giants, Kinkladze was spotted by a Boca Juniors scout looking for rejected Real talent. Joining Boca on loan, Kinkladze impressed in Argentina – even meeting his idol Diego Maradona – but was unable to hold down a regular spot. The penchant in Argentina at the time for picking local talent ahead of imported players came to the fore as the Georgian was sent back to his homeland.
It was a period of impasse for the young star as, despite still starring for the national team, he was without a stable home. Italian clubs came and went before Dinamo president and controversial football figure, Merab Jordania, found him a home in the most unlikely of settings.
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Manchester City chairman Francis Lee had seen footage of Kinkladze in action for Georgia and was impressed enough to inquire about his availability. Establishing the tricky two years that Kinkladze had experienced at home and abroad, and the willingness of Jordania to conclude a deal, Kinkladze was snapped up by City for the healthy sum of £2m in 1995.
It represented – and perhaps still does – one of the most unlikely, engaging transfers in English football history. Here was a Georgian footballer, barely heard of outside his homeland, who had commanded the serious sum of £2m. Who was he? How could someone so small cut it in the Premiership? The questions rained in from around England.
In the last of football’s great era of unknowns, Georgi Kinkladze stepped onto the field in August 1995 with fans unaware of what to expect. Genius, however, would soon follow.
“The best City player I’ve ever seen”
Despite starring in what was admittedly an average Manchester City side, Kinkladze soon became the big draw for the northerners. His mesmeric ability to shift the ball onto his left foot and glide past players was unlike anything people had seen in the Premiership before. Indeed, his style was instantly compared to Maradona.
Though he struggled to adapt to life in England, Kinkladze was determined to overcome his struggles, build up his fitness, and help City stay in the top flight. With his form consistent, the great debate in English football at the time surrounded who was the better playmaker: Kinkladze or Middlesbrough’s Juninho.
For me it was always the Georgian, for pure ball mastery and audacity. Juninho was probably the better overall player, and his success with Brazil highlighted as much, but Kinkladze was an unbridled genius. Nobody had ever been able to dribble like that in English football before, and there’s a valid argument to suggest that nobody has been able beat a man like Kinkladze since.
At his best, he had superb acceleration from a standing start, with his control rarely suffering despite travelling at speed. To steal an old cliché, the ball really was glued to his foot. He was tremendously one-footed, rarely shifting it to his right. It would all be on the left, but like Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi today, it seemed impossible to stop at times.
His goal against Southampton summed up his magical feet best. Cutting inside off the right flank, he beat five players by jinking and accelerating inside, sat Dave Beasant down by feigning to shoot, and then cheekily dinked it over him. It was a moment of artistry that was voted the second-best goal of the season on Match of the Day. It also ensured that Kinkladze would forever be written into City annals.
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Despite his performances over the course of season standing out above anyone else in sky blue, he was unable to prevent City from being relegated to the First Division. The unknown present from Georgia had become a superstar in no time. Barcelona, Liverpool and Internazionale were all said to be circling the midfielder, hoping to tempt him away from a place he was now referring to as “home”.
It would prove the impossible, however, as Kinkladze opted to remain in Manchester and help City return to the top flight. If being voted Player of the Year for the previous season wasn’t enough, he still believed he had unfinished business, well aware of the rampant adulation he had received from the fans.
Although City failed in their push for promotion, Kinkladze again opted to stay at Maine Road, signing a new contract and continuing his impressive form – albeit a little more inconsistently than before. He was again voted the club’s Player of the Season despite playing under five managers during 1996/97.
“The best City player I’ve ever seen was Georgi Kinkladze.” Noel Gallagher
It would prove to be the final high in the City career of the Tbilisi wizard. Injuries, a loss of form and off-field problems disrupted what was a tricky season under Joe Royle, a manager noted for his cautious approach; one which worked well for the majority of his career.
Despite receiving criticism from the City fans for dropping their hero, Royle brashly stated some years later: “To the supporters, he was the only positive in all that time. To me, he was a big negative. I am not saying that City’s ills were all down to Kinkladze, but there was too much about the whole Kinkladze cult phenomenon that wasn’t right … too often since his arrival, the team had underperformed. I couldn’t help deducing that contrary to popular opinion, he would be my weak link not my strong one.”
With one fell swoop of the Royle sword, Kinkladze’s days were numbered. Although he still showed flashes of quality, he had put on weight, was struggling to maintain his fitness and contributed very little defensively. Quite simply, it was back to basics for City in their quest for promotion.
Kinkladze eventually left England a legend; a man who changed so much in the domestic game, put clichéd hypothesis to bed, and became one of the greatest players in Manchester City history.
“Could have been as good as Maradona”
It was inevitable that Kinkladze would move to one of Europe’s heavyweights. While the interest from Barcelona had cooled, Ajax still held the Georgian in high regard, tempted by the prospect of linking Kinkladze up with his old friend and international teammate Shota Arveladze. Indeed, it was Arveladze who convinced the Amsterdam club to sign his comrade.
The £5m fee saw City more than double their outlay as Kinkladze was lined up as the replacement for the Barcelona-bound Jari Litmanen. The Finn, however, eventually stayed at Ajax, which meant that Kinkladze had to settle for a place on the left wing – his least favoured position in the front line.
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Unable to cut in off the flank, he was often forced wide, used as a direct crosser of the ball. Having lost much of his earlier acceleration, he couldn’t get to the byline and supply Arveladze with the type of service manager Morten Olsen was looking for. With Litmanen still performing as one of Europe’s best number 10s, Kinkladze was eventually forced out of the side as he struggled to regain his best form. When he did appear on the right flank or behind the striker, he duly improved and showed glimpses of his ability. Sadly, however, it was too little too late – the dye had been cast and he would rarely get a chance to impress.
Unlike in Manchester, the Ajax fans, used to seeing outstanding attacking talent at the time, were quick to criticise Kinkladze for his poor work rate and his inconsistency. There would be no leeway in Amsterdam. Fifteen games and no goals saw the man who believed he “could’ve been as good as Maradona” sent out on loan back to England. While Manchester City fans pleaded with the club to bring back their hero, it was Derby County who snapped him up.
Fitness and finance
The move to Derby signalled the last embers in the career of Kinkladze – one which had burned brighter than most at times but was all too often played out in the shadowy darkness of half-fit cameos. Manager Jim Smith had brought Kinkladze to Derby for a record £3m after his loan, such was his faith in the Georgian. Smith had said upon his arrival, “We want to build our team around Georgi.”
After starting brightly as he became accustomed to life in England again, Kinkladze struck up an instant rapport with Malcolm Christie, just as he had done with Niall Quinn at City. Injuries would disrupt his first season back although he had shown enough to warrant a permanent move to the Midlands.
His inability to play across the front line would eventually hamper his progress at Derby as former Italy international Stefano Eranio was often preferred on the wing ahead of Kinkladze, offering greater pace in Smith’s direct approach, and was adept at tracking back. Playing a 4-4-2 system with two out-and-out strikers meant that Kinkladze was relegated to the bench.
His rapid fall from grace continued throughout his time at Derby as the club’s financial problems off the pitch cast Kinkladze as the bad guy for not terminating his contract and moving on elsewhere. The lack of stability in the boardroom was mirrored in the dugout as Kinkladze struggled to find a manager that would trust his talent.
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Kinkladze eventually left derby after 90 games and just six goals in 2003 and had to wait almost 18 months for his next club – Anorthosis in Cyprus – to come along. With his motivation to keep training to prove his talent diminishing, and his time with the national team up, Kinkladze gave it one last shot at Rubin Kazan, but his body had had enough.
The Georgian would retire in 2006 aged just 33.
The last great romantic
The post-City career of Kinkladze is an intriguing modern tale. Why was one of the most gifted players on the continent continually shifted out wide and asked to play as an orthodox winger? Sure, he could dribble, but he was never that type of player.
It was a mistake that countless managers made throughout the Georgian’s career. Perhaps it was just a case of bad timing – that if Kinkladze had played today, perhaps he would have been ideally placed to operate as a free-roaming number 10 or as an inside forward, like he did so well during his best years at City.
There’s a counter-argument to say that perhaps Kinkladze wouldn’t have shone at all during this all-encompassing, ultra-professional era. He came to English football as unknown as anyone ever has. Fans had no idea what to expect from the Georgian, who had enjoyed brief success at Dinamo Tbilisi but had wandered around the world in voluntary exile from war.
It’s this fact that made Kinkladze, and so many others from that generation, the last of the great English footballing romantics. Along with players like Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Philippe Albert and Marian Pahars, he dazzled fans by providing the unexpected. He also shone in an era where great number 10s seemingly did the rounds across the country. At Middlesbrough there was Juninho; at Southampton there was Matt Le Tissier; at Manchester United there was Eric Cantona; and at Arsenal there was Dennis Bergkamp. Indeed, Eyal Berkovic, Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla were also outstanding talents.
Perhaps Kinkladze and his peers’ greatest achievement was that they opened the door to a whole new breed of footballer in England. The archaic belief that the national game was too physical for the slight, fleet-footed schemer was put to bed in emphatic style. At Maine Road alone, Kinkladze paved the way for the likes of Ali Benarbia and David Silva to later shine.
He may have been existed somewhere between frustrating and mesmeric, but Georgi Kinkladze was more than just a footballer. He was the son of two academics, an accomplished gymnast, and, above all else, a dreamer. He played football in the only way he knew – by dancing around the pitch, gliding past players, and putting smiles on the faces of fans, young and old.
His lack of success outside of Manchester City gave rise to the idea that Kinkladze was one of their own. It’s almost as if he was sent from a faraway land to make the people of Maine Road happy. It was destiny. He did that and some. And that’s why, despite never fulfilling his potential, Georgi Kinkladze will always be remembered as one of the greatest City players in history. A rare genius at his best.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem