Some players have lit up the Premier League for a sustained period of time, delighting crowds year after year with their exploits. Others make their impact over a markedly shorter time frame, but live long in the memory nonetheless. Georgi Kinkladze fell neatly into the latter category. The Georgian maestro was an absurdly talented attacking midfielder, or number 10 playmaker, who joined a struggling Manchester City side in 1995. He provided a raft of delightful memories for the Maine Road faithful, while also proving a frustrating enigma to the managers he worked under.
As described by Michael Cox in The Mixer, Kinkladze was “unlike anything City supporters had witnessed before, a marvellously evasive dribbler with an eye for a through-ball and the odd wonder goal.” It was this magic that would earn him a place in the hearts of City fans that sees him still regarded as a cult favourite nearly two and a half decades later.
As a child, Kinkladze been an enthusiastic gymnast and ballet dancer, and the balance and agility he developed in these areas served him well once he belatedly committed himself to football. Kinkladze first played for Mretebi Tbilisi, a lower league team in his native Georgia, before his talents earned him a move to Dinamo Tbilisi, where he was twice named Player of the Year. In the newly independent nation, international football was in a nascent state, but the young Kinkladze soon earned himself a call-up to his national team.
It was while on international duty that Kinkladze really came to wider prominence. He had trials at both Real and Atlético Madrid, and a short temporary stint at Boca Juniors, none of which led to anything more permanent. From a British perspective, it was in two matches against Wales, in qualifying for the 1996 European Championship, that really highlighted his quality. He starred in a 5-0 thrashing of the Welsh, in Georgia in November 1994, before winning the return match the following summer with a delicate chip over Neville Southall. The Welsh keeper would describe Kinkladze as “different class, and the best player on the pitch by a mile.”
Thanks to the victories over Wales, his dazzling displays had now reached a British audience, although Manchester City had actually been tracking the playmaker for some time. Francis Lee, the City Chairman at the time, having already been alerted to his mesmerising talents, had secured an agreement with Kinkladze’s agent that City would have first refusal should Dinamo Tbilisi look to sell him. Come the summer of 1995, City took up that promise and brought the Georgian to England for £2 million.
Initial impressions weren’t great. He stepped into a struggling team and, diminutive in stature and strength, looked wholly unsuited to the rough rigours of the Premier League. In spite of his earlier feats, to many onlookers he was still an unknown quantity and his slight frame made him look a little out of place in the big league.
He made his debut against Tottenham, at the start of the 1995/96 season, but for both player and club it was a difficult time. Kinkladze was desperately homesick initially, living in a hotel far from any home comforts, and being unable to communicate. Equally, City began the season abysmally, failing to win any of their first 11 games, leaving them firmly stuck to the bottom of the league. But the City manager, Alan Ball, was a fan of the gifted playmaker, declaring Kinkladze as the most talented player he’d ever worked with and as a result he sought to build the team around him.
This would be a decision that would ultimately lead to City’s downfall. It was also one that gave those watching some delightfully memorable moments and would give City fans the idol they were craving. While, across town, Manchester United were progressing inexorably upwards with the charismatic Eric Cantona as their driving influence, the contrast with City’s fortunes was eternally wearying to the blue half of Manchester. As Kinkladze started to demonstrate the astonishing skills at his disposal, he became the hero that City fans could latch on to, their diamond in amongst a whole lot of rough. The team’s gradual improvement coincided with Kinkladze beginning to settle a little more. His mother had by now come across from Georgia, along with two of Kinkladze’s friends, bringing some of the familiar comforts of home with them.
He scored his first goal for City in a scrappy 1-0 win over Aston Villa in November, as his talents were starting to emerge in the rough and tumble of Premier League life. His close control, almost entirely with his left-foot, and devastating dribbling skills were coming to the fore and would soon see him make his lasting impression with two stunning goals.
The first came against Middlesbrough at the Riverside in December 1995. Kinkladze collected the ball out on Manchester City’s right before beginning a bursting run cutting across the pitch, the scrambling defenders unable to intervene. He then cut back sharply, wrong-footing the leaden Boro defence, before striking a hard side-footed shot past Gary Walsh in the Middlesbrough goal. It was a goal to grace any occasion, and on this day it gave City an early lead in a vital game between teams scrapping near the foot of the table. This moment of delight was short-lived, however. Kinkladze’s genius was a ray of hope on a dark day for his team. City lost the game 4-1.
Some months later, with City still very much embroiled in a relegation battle, the second spectacular goal also came away from Maine Road, at Southampton. He’d already scored a rather more straightforward, run of the mill goal earlier in the game, as well as hitting the crossbar with a more speculative effort. For his defining goal, he again picked up the ball on City’s right and swiftly accelerated away on a run towards the box, avoiding the increasingly desperate lunging attempts of the Southampton defence to challenge and stop him. His run continued into the penalty area, where a feinted shot caused Dave Beasant to commit himself, leaving Kinkladze to nonchalantly lift the ball over the prone keeper and into the net.
City manager Alan Ball described the goal as “the closest thing I have seen to Maradona’s goal against England.” It won the Goal of the Month for March 1996 and, on this occasion, was a winning goal for his team in a crucial 2-1 victory that took City to their highest position of the season. It wasn’t a position they could maintain, however, as come the end of the season they were relegated on goal difference.
He would remain at City for another two years in the division below, but it was an increasingly frustrating time. A player with his skills and attributes was wholly unsuited to the traditional, rigid 4-4-2 system, and first Alan Ball, then subsequently Asa Hartford, Steve Coppell, Phil Neal and Frank Clark, were forced to adjust the system to suit their mercurial talent. These tactical changes were largely unsuccessful though, leading to a first relegation and then becoming marooned in the lower levels. It was the next manager on the constantly changing merry-go-round, Joe Royle, who insisted on ending the Kinkladze-focused structure of the team, signalling the end of the Georgian’s time at City after three mixed seasons.
At his best, he had been an unstoppable force, his control and agility putting him on another level to the others on the pitch. But, he was an equally frustrating and inconsistent player, who contributed too little to the less glamorous side of team play, and whose talents a string of City managers failed to harness to its full potential. Ball notably would change formation frequently, as if hoping to stumble on the winning formula by chance rather than judgement.
The moments of magic he did produce though, earned him a place in City folklore and the status of a bona fide cult hero. In spite of all the glory that has come City’s way more recently, the diminutive Georgian is still fondly remembered as a hero of the club from a tumultuous time in its history.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams