Kinkladze: Maine attraction

“Imagine what I’d have been like under Guardiola at City?!”

- Words Chris Flanagan Interview Vazha Tavberidze

Georgi Kinkladze was a light in the darkness of Manchester City’s late ’ 90s misery, ensuring a special place in Maine Road history. More than 25 years on, it’s all still love – not least from the man himself, who takes FFT back through a wild life of Maradona, Madchester and Vinnie Jones menacing

Like all the great goals, it started with Steve Lomas. The Northern Ireland internatio­nal arguably did the easy bit: a square pass near the halfway line, to a diminutive left- footer on the right flank. From there, magic happened. A quick drop of the shoulder, and a dart inside Simon Charlton. A swerve past David Hughes, as the penalty area drew closer. A touch that defeated Ken Monkou, then another one to befuddle Hughes for a second time. The path to goal had been opened up. What followed was a brilliant stutter to put Dave Beasant off balance, then a lavish dink over the helpless goalkeeper into the net.

In the long history of the Premier League, no goal has been quite so similar to Lionel Messi at his finest, yet the Argentine was just eight years old at the time. Long before Manchester City were linked with ‘ The Atomic Flea’, came Georgi Kinkladze.

“It was unforgetta­ble,” beams the Georgian to Fourfourtw­o, as he reflects on that goal against Southampto­n at Maine Road in 1996. “I didn’t even realise it was 25 years – I think I dribbled past 25 people!”

It says much about the standard of iconic moments during the mid- 90s that Kinkladze didn’t even win the BBC’S Goal of the Season – that went to Tony Yeboah. But in the space of 10 seconds, the ball seemingly glued to his left foot, he’d produced one of the most famous goals in Manchester City’s history... and secured hero status for life.


Given the parallels in playing style with another pint- sized Argentine left- footer who had a tendency for solo strikes, it’s no surprise that Kinkladze’s idol was Diego Maradona. For a brief period, the 5ft 8in playmaker even shared a dressing room with Diego, during an unlikely loan spell at Boca Juniors.

The route from Tbilisi to Buenos Aires was far from convention­al. Kinkladze had grown up in Georgia while it was part of the Soviet Union – if his football skills later became balletic, it owed something to his childhood, when he took up mtiuluri. “It was traditiona­l Georgian dance, which you could argue has a lot to do with both gymnastics and ballet,” he explains. “It gave me fleet feet, quick reactions and a sense of rhythm, as well as making my ankles very strong. I was actually considered something of a talent, but then my dad took me to a local football team and I never looked back. Georgian dancing’s loss was Georgian football’s gain!”

Kinkladze joined the youth setup at Dinamo Tbilisi but left for city neighbours Mretebi to gain first- team experience at 16, helping them to reach Georgia’s top flight in 1991 just as the country became independen­t. Dinamo paid one million rubles to re- sign him – Kinkladze promptly inspired them to a league and cup double, also earning national team honours and becoming Georgia’s player of the year for 1993.

That year, though, with the Georgian Civil War causing mayhem and Dinamo kicked out of the Champions League following a failed attempt to bribe a referee against Northern Irish side Linfield, the club protected their asset by moving him overseas – initially on loan to Saarbrucke­n in the German second tier.

“It was a horrendous time, very traumatic,” Kinkladze says of the war. “We had a lot of talented guys, an incredibly gifted generation, but Dinamo were disqualifi­ed from Europe. In order for us to retain form, our president Merab Jordania loaned most of the players out for six months. We’re so grateful to him until this day, because nobody knows what could have happened if we’d stayed there – whether we would have any career at all. Nobody had time for football back then. The country was in chaos.

“At Saarbrucke­n there was a Georgian there already, Murtaz Shelia, and he helped me to cope. It was tough as the 2. Bundesliga was really physical, something I wasn’t used to – back home we played with more flair. I got kicked a lot in Germany.”

When Kinkladze’s loan deal expired, Dinamo offered him to clubs in Spain. “Myself and two other players had

trials with Atletico Madrid,” he reveals. “We played a match against Boca Juniors, and afterwards I was asked whether I’d like to go to Argentina. I said yes straight away – I was going to Maradona’s club. He was my idol.

“For all of the Messi versus Ronaldo debate, for me the number one was and always will be Maradona. Football lost a genius when he passed away, and I lost part of my childhood. My whole childhood was watching Diego.”

Kinkladze was only 21 when he travelled to Argentina – Maradona wasn’t officially a Boca player at the time, but had turned up to train not long after failing a drugs test at the 1994 World Cup. “Here I was, training with him – to say it was a dream come true would be an understate­ment,” smiles the Georgian. “Well, training is a bit of an overstatem­ent – he’d appear, take a few free- kicks, then call it a day. Not that I complained; I just stood there in awe and watched him. After Boca, I trained at Real Madrid with Michael Laudrup, Fernando Redondo, Raul, Luis Enrique and Emilio Butragueno. They had an outstandin­g side and offered me a place in their B team – I was considerin­g staying, but Dinamo’s ban was over, UEFA allowed us to play again and I went back to Georgia, where we had real European ambitions.”

Tirol Innsbruck soon dashed those dreams in the first round of the UEFA Cup, but weeks earlier he’d started to catch the eye on the internatio­nal stage. Georgia played their first ever competitiv­e internatio­nal at the start of qualifying for Euro 96, but despite losing 1- 0 at home to Moldova, Kinkladze’s performanc­e attracted the attention of scouts – and then City chairman Francis Lee.

Two months after that, he was the star as Georgia thrashed Wales 5- 0 in Tbilisi, netting his first internatio­nal goal in the rout. “Wales had a decent team back then – most of their players were playing in the Premier League – but it was our day,” says Kinkladze. “Those days are quite rare, though they can happen. Whatever you want to pull off – an exquisite pass, a cheeky lob, dribbling past two players in one move – everything works. We ran riot.”

In the summer of 1995, Georgia travelled to Cardiff Arms Park for the reverse fixture and Kinkladze scored the only goal of the game with a brilliant 25- yard lob over Neville Southall – a year before Philippe Albert did similar in Newcastle’s famous 5- 0 thumping of Manchester United.

“Wales came out hungry for revenge, and Vinnie Jones was being, well, himself,” grins Kinkladze. “He kicked Mikheil Kavelashvi­li, who was already on the floor, and rightly got a red card. I scored the winning goal and it


wasn’t bad, if I’m allowed to say so myself! To a large extent, you could say my move to Manchester City was decided by those two games. Then when I went to City, Kit Symons was there and had played in both games for Wales – I drove him mad by reminding him about them constantly.”


Kinkladze moved to Maine Road ahead of the 1995- 96 campaign, for a fee of around £ 2m. “I found it difficult for the first two or three months,” he remembers. “I don’t think that’s anything out of the ordinary – some players need the whole season to adapt. The tempo of the Premier League was two to three times higher than it is now, and the referee would stop a game only for the most blatant fouls.

“It was rough. Some of the referees cared about technical players not being hacked to pieces, but for others, unless somebody was literally sawing your leg off, they refused to blow their whistle.

“I had problems with the language as well, but not a lot of talking was needed anyway with what I was doing on the field. The first words I learned were ‘ give me the ball’ and ‘ get in space’. I made do with those phrases. I was thinking all the time that if I managed to show everybody what I was capable of, if I played my game, that success would come, and with that the respect and the love of the fans too. They were very supportive from the beginning – I was an unknown entity, but they afforded me time and never jeered me. That was important, and I’m still extremely grateful for it.”

Kinkladze had joined a club that finished just two places above the relegation zone in the previous season. During his adaptation period, City lost eight consecutiv­e league games and collected only two points from their first 11 matches, culminatin­g in a 6- 0 battering at Liverpool.

Soon though, the playmaker started to give them hope. After setting up the only goal in their first victory of the campaign at home to Bolton, he got off the mark himself in a 1- 0 triumph over Aston Villa. The Sky Blues took 13 points from five matches to climb out of the bottom three.

By the time they hosted Southampto­n in March, they sat 17th in the table, one place above the visitors. Kinkladze had already put the hosts in front with a tap- in when he tore Saints apart with his iconic individual effort six minutes later. Alan Ball’s side eventually prevailed 2- 1, ensuring everlastin­g adulation for their match- winner.

“In addition to being a beautiful goal, that game was a six- pointer,” recalls Kinkladze. “Both teams were battling relegation – after that win, we went five points ahead of them. Francis Lee said to me, ‘ I’ve been in English football for decades and I’ve never seen an ovation that long’.”

Kinkladze relished playing at Maine Road, City’s base until 2003. “Fans were a hand’s reach away – the atmosphere was different, more intimate,” he says. “It felt like home.”

Sadly, the euphoria of that Southampto­n game didn’t last. The team took one point from their next four games and succumbed to relegation on the last day of the season, mistakenly keeping the ball in the corner in the final minutes against Liverpool, believing a draw was enough. It wasn’t.

City’s player of the year was in demand that summer, with Liverpool among those keen to keep him in the Premier League. “I was aware of Liverpool’s interest, and there were other clubs as well,” he says. “But City decided they would rather not sell me, and I wasn’t overly sure about the move because I enjoyed being loved by the fans. I wanted to repay them – no deserting the sinking ship.”

What Kinkladze couldn’t do, however, was stop the ship from sinking further. Despite scoring 12 times in 1996- 97, he was part of a City side that finished a disappoint­ing 14th in the second tier. Ball was replaced in the dugout by Steve Coppell, who lasted just 33 days before quitting and eventually being succeeded by Frank Clark.

A season later, Clark was a goner too, with Joe Royle installed for the latter stages of a campaign that ended in shocking fashion: City were relegated to the third tier for the first time in their history.

“They sold every player who was decent,” is Kinkladze’s explanatio­n for the club’s rapid decline during that era. “With all due respect to my team- mates, in the Premier League and the First Division, our direct competitio­n had better squads. Yes, we added a couple of guys, but in general, better players left than those who came in. I did stay, but you can’t win with only one player in good form. You need about seven at least.”


Kinkladze had been crowned player of the season for a second consecutiv­e campaign, even signing a new three- year contract after fans made it clear how desperate they were for him to stay by paying for adverts on the Maine Road scoreboard.

His third and final season was challengin­g. After the ink had dried on his new deal, he’d treated himself to a Ferrari, but then crashed it into a motorway bridge in October and missed two matches as he recovered. When Royle took over in February, it was clear the boss regarded him as an unwanted luxury – supremely talented, but too individual­istic to benefit the team as a whole.


“To the fans, he was the only positive in all that time,” Royle wrote in his autobiogra­phy. “To me, he was a big negative. I’m not saying that City’s ills were all down to him, but too often since Kinkladze’s 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.”

In the years that have followed, there have been some suggestion­s that the tweaks of formation to accommodat­e Kinkladze played a role in City’s Premier League downfall, too.

“So City’s relegation was my fault? Give me a break,” is the Georgian’s robust response to those claims. “There was no need to change the formation just because of me – I played in a 4- 4- 2; I played from the left, sometimes in a 4- 3- 1- 2. I don’t know who thinks getting relegated was all my fault, but what I think is that if we’d had a few better players, we’d have stayed up.”

For a period towards the end of his third and final season at Maine Road under Royle, Kinkladze was dropped. “It was his decision – as a manager, he was entitled to do so and I respect it,” says the 48- year- old. “He didn’t stick me on the bench straight away – it was after talks about my future intensifie­d, about whether I’d stay or be sold. I think financial concerns played a part, making the club more amenable to selling me.”

Kinkladze was restored to the line- up for the penultimat­e game of the season against QPR, which would prove to be his last home appearance for City. He did his best to save the club from the drop, despite intimidati­on tactics from Vinnie Jones. “There was a bit of a scuffle in the tunnel,” Kinkladze explains of events before kick- off. “Jones tried to play the hard man, promising to break my legs. We went out, and within a couple of minutes I’d put us 1- 0 up. I was smart enough not to get anywhere near him!”

Ultimately, Jamie Pollock’s crazy own goal was a major factor in denying City victory, as he flicked the ball over an opponent’s head, then accidental­ly nodded it over goalkeeper Martyn Margetson. With the club having long since recovered from that 1997- 98 relegation, Kinkladze can chuckle about the goal now.

“Pollock’s own goal was quite something,” he says. “As bad as it was, you have to admit it was exquisite, the way he lobbed his own keeper. Some of our guys even clapped. Jokes were made about whose lob was better – me against Wales or Pollock against ourselves!”

Kinkladze departed City that summer, with the team two divisions lower than when he arrived. But he has no regrets about staying for the full three years, rather than taking up one of the big offers he received after falling out of the Premier League.

“Never in my life have I or will I regret that,” he insists. “Firstly, there’s no point regretting things that happened decades ago. That’s not going to get you anywhere. I might not have won anything with City, but I saw and felt what I meant to the fans. I couldn’t have betrayed that trust. I’m not the kind of guy who abandons a sinking ship.

“Twenty- five years have passed since, but the supporters still remember me. Every now and then, a Georgian flag is waved there as a homage, and I couldn’t have wished for more respect and appreciati­on. For an English fan, who you are is as important as your skill on the pitch. When you’re in peak form, they all cheer for you. But when you return years later with your career long over, and you see they still give you a standing ovation, that’s a feeling I struggle to put into words. During my time at the club, there were several cases when die- hard City fans would kneel down holding my posters with ‘ Don’t Leave’ written on them in Georgian. How can you leave after something like that?

“I wish I could have won at least one trophy with City, but that doesn’t mean I’d have left for trophies – I’d do exactly the same again.”


A parting was inevitable when the Sky Blues plummeted into the third tier, however, and Kinkladze joined Ajax that summer for £ 5m. It was a move that didn’t go as planned – the Dutch giants came sixth in his debut season, still their lowest placing since 1965.

The schemer was stranded on the left wing – his normal spot was taken by Jari Litmanen, who was poised to sign for Barcelona, only for

the switch to be delayed. When Jan Wouters came in as coach, Kinkladze was eventually frozen out altogether.

“It’s not unusual that disagreeme­nts with managers ruin your chances to make it at a club that on paper seems ideal for you,” he reflects. “It’s not like I just put the blame on others – it was my fault too. But then again, when I went to Ajax I was 26, already the finished article and playing a position on the field where I was effective. I wouldn’t mind


helping the club by playing in an unfamiliar role, even in defence, for two or three games, but totally transformi­ng yourself is another matter altogether. I was struggling to play in a way that was completely new and alien to me. I didn’t really help the team and wasn’t useful in that position.

“As the new season was about to kick off, I went to the manager and told him, ‘ I know Litmanen is a phenomenal footballer and I’m not demanding to play in his place, but I’m happy to be on the bench as long as I get to play in my preferred position’. The Dutch have a somewhat different mentality, and instead of somehow sorting it out, he dropped me altogether. I was disappoint­ed. I blossomed when football was enjoyable and struggled once it became a job. It was difficult to find motivation, but I found it at Derby. I enjoyed my time there very much.”

After talks with Sheffield United, Kinkladze joined the top- tier Rams in November 1999, initially on loan. He spent three and a half years at Pride Park – longer than he’d been at Maine Road – although his impact proved limited: only eight goals in 100 appearance­s.

He played alongside former Middlesbro­ugh and Italy marksman Fabrizio Ravanelli in the East Midlands – just like their previous spells in England, they joined a side in the Premier League but couldn’t prevent its slide into the second tier. Again, Kinkladze remained at the club following relegation. “There weren’t any offers from a team I’d be more interested in,” he reveals. “I had a contract, so I stayed.”

Both Ravanelli and Kinkladze departed in 2003, after Derby had finished 18th in their first season outside the top flight. Kinkladze turned 30 that July, and trained with Leeds and Portsmouth in a bid to prolong his career in English football. He’d actually go more than a year without a club before linking up with former Georgia team- mate Temuri Ketsbaia at Anorthosis Famagusta in Cyprus.

He did well enough there to secure a move to Rubin Kazan, but 12 months later, injuries meant he hung up his boots at just 33. There was a sense that he hadn’t maximised the ability he had; that he’d shown the potential to achieve a lot more during his playing days.

“So many people are angry at me because of that – if I started getting angry with myself, it would be too much,” he concedes. “To be honest, I’d be angry and devastated every day, and that wouldn’t help, so I try not to think about it very often. Obviously, I’m well aware that I could have achieved much more in my career, but due to a combinatio­n of reasons, it is what it is.”

Whether fairly or not, some have claimed he could have tried harder at times. “I wasn’t lazy, at least by Georgian standards!” he says. “Well, unless it’s considered a sign of laziness that I could learn whatever was asked of me in 30 minutes, while it took the others three days. I may not have played well sometimes, but it was never due to a lack of effort. There were no allowances for anyone in the Premier League. Nobody will let you get away with a half- hearted performanc­e. You always had to put in a full shift.”

Opinions are rather less divided among City fans. Kinkladze settled in Russia for a period after retirement and met some old mates.

“Oasis always had my respect, as they were die- hard City supporters and wouldn’t miss a match unless they were on tour,” explains Kinkladze. “After performing at Maine Road once, they invited the City players backstage and that’s how our friendship started. We’re still mates to this day. I remember going to an Oasis gig in Moscow. The security guard was a City fan – he clocked me straight away and took me to Noel Gallagher. The concert was supposed to start at 3pm, but we spent two hours talking to each other, reminiscin­g. At 5pm, the organisers began banging on the door, trying to get him to finally go on stage! Whenever I’m back in Manchester, I always meet him. Ricky Hatton is a good friend, too.”


Kinkladze briefly returned to Anorthosis as sporting director in 2011, but now runs an agency with an ex- internatio­nal team- mate. “Due to the pandemic, I’ve been spending most of my time in Georgia,” he says. “Goga Gakhokidze and I have a football agency – we try our best to support young, promising players, to give them the opportunit­y to play for elite teams and strengthen the Georgian national side. I planned to open a Manchester City football academy in Tbilisi – negotiatio­ns were going on before the pandemic started, so hopefully we can resume those. I’m really keen for it to work out.”

Two years ago, Kinkladze also announced plans to launch his own brand of wine and open a bar near Manchester. “Georgia is the home of wine – we have several millennia of experience making it,” enthuses the Sky Blues legend. “When I visited Manchester with my eldest son, I’d always bring Georgian wine for him and my English friends. They liked it so much that we started something, so let’s see. If Georgian wine can gain a foothold in England, that would be brilliant for the whole country – though the UK wouldn’t have much to complain about either, because our wine is delicious! When the pandemic is fully over and doesn’t impede our ambitions, I’ll invite

Fourfourtw­o for a glass of the best Georgian wine, I promise.”

Whether he can travel or not, Kinkladze will continue watching his old club with interest, as City bid for a fourth Premier League title in five seasons. Asked what he might be worth if he was playing today, he has an immediate answer: “A billion and a half!”

Does that mean he’d have backed himself to make City’s current starting line- up? “It’s hard to say, but I’d definitely play,” declares Kinkladze. “Pep Guardiola is among the three best coaches of all time, and I don’t think I’d have much problem adapting to the team’s philosophy. If I played as I did with the old City, imagine what I could have done under Guardiola in an all- star team?”

Imagine, indeed. In a chapter of gloom for the club, the Georgian was the lone flicker of greatness; the lone messiah among a sea of despair. For all of the current side’s success, few Manchester City players will ever be more popular than Georgi Kinkladze.


• Georgi Kinkladze, a lightbulb in the dark: the twinkle- toed Georgian hero remembered ( by Seb Stafford- Bloor)

• The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw… Georgi Kinkladze vs Middlesbro­ugh, December 1995 ( by Joe Marshall)

• Ranked: The 15 finest own goals, including Popovic, Pollock and Brass ( by Greg Lea)

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 ??  ?? Above Giving Butt and Becks the runaround
Below Georgi briefly trained with idol Diego
Above Giving Butt and Becks the runaround Below Georgi briefly trained with idol Diego
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 ??  ?? Above Kinkladze couldn’t keep City afloat in 1995- 96
Above Kinkladze couldn’t keep City afloat in 1995- 96
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 ??  ?? Above Now 48, the Sky Blues hero plans to open a Man City academy in Georgia
Above Now 48, the Sky Blues hero plans to open a Man City academy in Georgia

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