Georgi Kinkladze could devastate opposing defences but he rarely did his own clubs much good
For Noel Gallagher, Saturday, 19 August 1995 had been the end of quite a week. The previous Monday had seen the release of Oasis’s first single from what would become their masterpiece, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
“Roll With It”, which was a very long way from the album’s best track, was released simultaneously with “Country House”, the first single from Blur’s new album, The Great Escape. It was Britpop’s cup final, pitching the Gallagher brothers, who had been brought up in Burnage by an abusive father, against Damon Albarn, whose mother was an artist and whose father was a musician.
On one record cover was a photograph of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, the other had Manchester’s likely lads wrapped up in duffel coats by the pier at Weston-super-Mare. It was North v South, Beatles v Stones.
The rivalry made it on to News at Ten and Gallagher decided to relax by taking himself off to Maine Road to watch Manchester City’s first game of the season. Sitting in the directors’ box, next to Terry Venables, who was then England manager, he had his first sight of Georgi Kinkladze, playing against Tottenham.
“I thought, ‘Jesus, this is either the most frightening thing I have ever seen or the best things I have ever seen’,” he said of Kinkladze. “I couldn’t decide which it was. It was typical City.” The match finished 1-1. Blur beat Oasis by 274,000 records sold to 216,000.
If Noel Gallagher couldn’t make up his mind, Joe Royle could. Maine Road’s second game of the season saw City host Everton. Royle was enjoying his time in charge of Goodison Park. They had won the FA Cup a few months before, he had just broken the club’s transfer record for Andriy Kanchelskis. Maine Road meant a return to a former club, conversations with Alan Ball, with whom he had won the championship at Goodison in 1970. Everton won 2-0 and afterwards Royle sought out another of his former team mates, Tony Book. The subject of Kinkladze came up.
“He’s a wonderful talent,” said Joe. “But he’ll get you the sack, Bookie.”
Seen from the Kippax, he was proof that, even in decline, City still valued pure ability. Songs were composed in his honour. As a team player, he was unimaginably disastrous. In his three seasons at Maine Road, Manchester City were relegated twice. The season in between saw them end up fourteenth in the old Second Division, which was then the worst finish in their history – a record that would take 12 months to break.
When Kinkladze embarked on his second stint in English football, at Derby in 1999, Francis Lee called Jim Smith to congratulate him on the signing. “He will win you matches that cannot be won. If you get two more players who are on the same wavelength, you will have a devastating team.”
There were very few footballers in England who were on Kinkladze’s wavelength. By the time he left Pride Park, Derby had been relegated once and had narrowly escaped collapsing into the third tier of English football.
The game that changed Georgi Kinkladze’s life came on a rain-spattered afternoon in Tbilisi in November 1994. Georgia had been an independent nation for three years and they had yet to score a competitive goal at home. They were playing Wales.
Ryan Giggs had predictably withdrawn from the trip – he would start Manchester United’s next match, the 5-0 Kanchelskis-inspired demolition of City – but he would play only twice for Wales in their attempt to qualify for Euro 96.
They were, however, still able to field a formidable squad. The Welsh forward line consisted of Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Dean Saunders. Gary Speed and Barry Horne were in midfield while Neville Southall kept goal.
It was, however, a squad that was deeply suspicious of travelling into fragments of the old Soviet Union. The previous month had seen them in Moldova. Training sessions had to be arranged around the two-hour spells the Cosmos hotel in Chișinău had hot water.
The mattresses had mould, the rooms had their quota of cockroaches and when it seemed their return to Cardiff would be delayed, the team said they would sleep on the plane. It may not have been coincidence that when things went against them in Georgia, they collapsed completely.
Their hotel in Tbilisi was luxurious, but the afterglow of Georgia’s civil war still lingered. The team passed a burned-out UN armoured car on the way to the stadium and in the evening they could hear gunfire coming from the suburbs.
To compound matters, Wales had done virtually no research on their opponents and many players regarded their manager with derision. The squad had adored Terry Yorath, who had taken Wales achingly close to qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, but he had resigned when the Welsh FA would not give him a pay rise of £5,000.
His successor Mike Smith was, in the language of the dressing room, a “civvy” who had never played professionally. They called him ‘The Verger’.
There should have been plenty to research. Since breaking away from the USSR, Georgia had nurtured some thrilling talents. Alongside Kinkladze were Temuri Ketsbaia and Shota Arveladze, who would play for Newcastle and Rangers respectively. Between them they annihilated the Welsh defence.
Ketsbaia scored twice but, seen through Southall’s eyes, Kinkladze had been unplayable. Power shortages in Tbilisi meant that it was hard to make out the numbers on the electronic scoreboard, but the certainty was that the 5-0 defeat was Wales’s heaviest since 1953.
In June came the return at Cardiff Arms Park in front of a pitiful crowd of 8,000. The match was notable for Vinnie Jones belting out “Land of My Fathers” in an attempt to prove his tenuous right to wear a Wales shirt, which consisted of a grandfather born in Ruthin. It demonstrated his ability to remember a script – even one in Welsh – which would serve him well when his career turned to acting.
Within half an hour, Jones had demonstrated why so few in Wales had wanted him to research his family tree by stamping on Mikheil Kavelashvili. It was his third dismissal in a year. Seventeen minutes from time, Kinkladze ran, unchallenged, at the Welsh defence and chipped Southall from more than 20 yards.
Southall had not left himself obviously exposed – he was standing on his own six-yard line. He was left helpless. Lee had sent both Colin Bell and Jimmy Frizzell, then Manchester City’s chief scout, to Cardiff.
A few weeks after the triumph in Cardiff, Lee made his move for Kinkladze, who had just turned 22. For Robinzon Kinkladze, Georgi’s father, this was everything he had trained him for.
His work had begun early. To build up his stamina Robinzon would tell his son to walk around their flat on his knees. His mother signed him up to study one of Georgia’s national dances, the mtiuluri, for the same reason.
By 1991, the year Georgia declared itself independent, he became part of the nation’s most famous team, Dinamo Tbilisi, the club that had knocked Liverpool out of the European Cup in 1979 and won the Cup Winners’ Cup two years later, thrashing West Ham 4-1 at Upton Park on the way to the final in Düsseldorf. Because their opponents, Carl Zeiss Jena, were from East Germany, fewer than 5,000 attended the game.
The boys who had destroyed Wales – Ketsbaia, Kinkladze and Arveladze – all played for Dinamo and possessed an instinctive understanding of each other’s games. However, Dinamo Tbilisi was changing. In the Soviet Union, the club had been funded by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs and given special privileges by the Georgian Communist Party, whose most famous member had been Josef Stalin.
Now the Ministry no longer existed and a civil war was being fought between the country’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and the man who replaced him, Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign secretary. On New Year’s Eve 1993, Shevardnadze won. Gamsakhurdia, a nationalist whose slogan had been “Georgia for the Georgians”, found himself cornered in a village in his home province and was found with a gunshot wound to the head. His wife said he had committed suicide.
While Georgia burned, Dinamo Tbilisi attempted to protect its greatest assets – its footballers. Dinamo’s president, Merab Jordania, decreed they had to be got out of the country, either on loan or sold.
Ketsbaia went to Cyprus, to Anorthosis, a club he would eventually manage in the Champions League. Arveladze was loaned out to Trabzonspor in northern Turkey. Kinkladze, Dinamo’s most valuable player, went furthest of all from the front line.
It was a bizarre itinerary. Saarbrücken, Madrid, Buenos Aires. Saarbrücken were in the second division of the Bundesliga. Kinkladze loathed its physicality, played eleven games, scored no goals.
He was offered to Atlético Madrid for £200,000, a tenth of what Francis Lee would pay for him, and had a trial at Real, who thought him tactically naïve. However, Boca Juniors had a scout in the Spanish capital looking for talent that might not be good enough for the Bernabéu, but who might shine at la Bombonera.
In Buenos Aires, Kinkladze was introduced to Diego Maradona, who had just had his contract with Newell’s Old Boys terminated. A group of journalists had gathered at the gates of his home in the plush suburb of Moreno and he had answered by firing an airgun at them. He was spending his time shark fishing and losing weight for the World Cup in the company of a bodybuilder, Daniel Cerrini, whose use of ephedrine would be uncovered after a group game in Dallas.
The meeting would have been the only high point of Kinkladze’s time in Argentina. When he arrived, Boca Juniors were in convulsions. The regime of César Luis Menotti, the man who had managed Argentina to the 1978 World Cup, was disintegrating. Boca were making panic signings from everywhere in an attempt to halt a slide that would see them finish thirteenth. It was not a surprise that Kinkladze failed to settle, and what convinced him to leave was that all the talk amongst Boca’s players was of securing a move to Europe. Kinkladze found himself back in Tbilisi, on the edge of Europe, winning his final trophies for Dinamo. The war was done; it was time for Jordania to cash in.
Alan Ball was presented with Georgi Kinkladze as a gift and it was one he cherished. He relished the skill, the possibilities that he would bring. Just before the opening game against Tottenham, Ball was confident enough to state, “Statistics tell me that City had no problem scoring goals last season and there is no reason why they are going to stop.”
In this he was completely mistaken. Manchester City fell from being the tenth-highest goal-scorers in 1994-95 to the lowest. Ball imagined that Kinkladze could transform Manchester City in the same way Matt Le Tissier had transformed Southampton. They were both fabulous individualists but Kinkladze had nothing like Le Tissier’s talent for putting the ball in the net.
In his 443 appearances for Southampton, Le Tissier scored 141 goals, more than a goal every three games. After leaving Tbilisi, Kinkladze played 260 matches for clubs ranging from Manchester City to Rubin Kazan and scored 35 times – once every seven and a half matches.
“He did not score enough goals,” says Uwe Rösler. “Le Tissier would score 25 goals a season and Kinkladze would score four or five. When you build a team around an individual he needs to be the main man in terms of goals.
“Technically, Kinky was the best footballer I ever played alongside. But when people say who was the best player I played alongside, I always say, ‘Do you mean the most effective player or technically the best player?’
“Now he would have been like David Silva, but we didn’t play like that in 1995 and we didn’t have the players around him to be able to play that kind of football. It was very, very difficult to integrate him into the team without losing some of the aspects that are required to win games.
“Alan Ball tried everything. Two up front, played Kinkladze on the wing. Then he played him in a diamond as a ten. Then he played split strikers when Niall Quinn played on the right wing and I played on the left wing and Kinkladze played through the middle. Niall had played for Ireland in the World Cup and now he was being asked to play right wing.
“Because I came from Germany and was a European footballer, I found it not too difficult to read Georgi’s game but a lot of the British lads found it hard to anticipate his runs and to accept that he didn’t do anything off the ball.
“There were a lot of players who found it hard to accept a free role for one player – the Keith Curles, the Niall Quinns, the Tony Cotons – but Kinkladze is part of the history of Manchester City. People came to Maine Road just to watch him. He made Manchester City exciting.”
If you ask Rösler to name the best goal he scored for Manchester City, it would be the opening goal in the FA Cup tie against United at Old Trafford in February 1996. The pass from Kinkladze was perfect, made on the turn, spotting the gap between three red shirts. Peter Schmeichel sprinted out, Rösler lobbed him and the ball just brushed the tips of the Dane’s gloves, struck the inside of the post and rolled in.
Rösler sits back and ponders the tantalising question. How would Georgi Kinkladze have fitted into the fabulous Manchester City side managed by Pep Guardiola? The answer is that he wouldn’t.
“When you watch Manchester City under Guardiola, everybody works very, very hard,” Rösler says. “He would not have played for Guardiola because he would not have worked as Guardiola likes his footballers to work. It doesn’t matter how much talent he has.”
It took until late November for Kinkladze to show why Lee and Ball had been so enthused by his ability. It was the time Ball won his manager of the month award, three victories and a draw at Sheffield Wednesday. The finest of the wins was against Aston Villa at Maine Road.
The Aston Villa manager, Brian Little, had chosen a three-pronged attack against a club that had spent most of the autumn staggering blindly from defeat to defeat.
However, Kinkladze proved so adept at ripping through space in Villa’s midfield that Dwight Yorke was pushed back in an attempt to plug the gap. Then five minutes from time came a one-two with Quinn and Kinkladze picked his spot from an acute angle. “Give him the ball and he will blossom,” said Ball in what would become a mantra at Maine Road. On that late November day it seemed obvious, but few things at Manchester City ever were.
That performance was followed up with another 1-0 win, this time at Elland Road. Gary McAllister, the creative heart of the Leeds midfield, confessed to Francis Lee after the match: “He turned me one way, he turned me the other way and I turned back and nearly screwed myself into the ground.”
Then there were the 14 seconds of genius against Southampton. When Kinkladze is remembered, it is usually for taking the ball on the right flank, skipping past Simon Charlton and dancing towards the goal.
He never quite loses Charlton, there are times in those 14 seconds that he would feel the midfielder’s hand on his shoulder, his breath on his neck. In front of them are three covering defenders. Ken Monkou meets him on the 18-yard line and almost trips himself.
Neil Heaney, having done almost a full circle in the area, slides in from the right and misses. Suddenly, there is daylight and just the vast 6ft 4in frame of Dave Beasant. But the goalkeeper has already gone down, is already on his knees, when Kinkladze chips. The ball brushes Beasant’s glove on its way to the net.
It is a goal that stands comparison with Diego Maradona’s against England in Mexico 10 years before. That was in a World Cup quarter-final. In a fabulous study of Kinkladze for FourFourTwo magazine, the journalist Seb Stafford-Bloor regrets the fact that it came in a match between Manchester City and Southampton, two unremarkable sides – “a watercolour in a cheap frame”.
However, for Kinkladze and for Manchester City, this was a desperately serious afternoon. Ball had called it the most important fixture the club had faced since his arrival. City had begun it in seventeenth place, two points clear of Southampton in the final relegation spot, although Ball’s former club had two matches in hand. It was mid-March; the clocks would soon be going forward and now matches had to be won.
Kinkladze delivered for the man who had staked everything on him. After 14 minutes he had struck the crossbar. Like Maradona’s slalom through England at the Azteca, his dance through the defence had been his second goal of the game. The first had been a tap-in after Beasant had parried Nigel Clough’s shot.
The win lifted Manchester City to 15th, five points and three places above the relegation slots. They were in a place of greater safety, although like so much about Manchester City, the feeling would be delusional.
Kinkladze was loved far in excess of the goals he produced or the success he brought. In Stafford-Bloor’s words, “He arrived at a time when differences were unusual and when consequently they were most appreciated. English football was about power, size and gelled centre partings and he was an impish player with the feet of an angel and a chorister’s haircut.”
It was perhaps unsurprising Georgi Kinkladze started slowly. Manchester City was the fourth club that had tried to take him on in the space of less than two years. He spoke barely any English. Unlike Rösler, who had Michel Vonk to tell him what Brian Horton was saying, Kinkladze found no one in the City dressing room able to translate for him – very few in Alan Ball’s squad could even place Georgia on a map.
Few at Platt Lane became closer to Kinkladze than Nicky Summerbee. “When he first came over, he couldn’t speak a word of English, but we seemed to hit it off as mates. We’d go out and he wouldn’t speak much – it was odd because it was just the two of us.
“When you got to know Georgi, he had a really good sense of humour – very sarcastic. He could cut you down as well as anyone else. When he first came, nobody knew about him so there was no pressure to perform but as soon as the fans saw what he could do, they liked him straight away.
“I think Alan Ball knew how to play him best. He had a real go with him. Georgi needed a bit of an arm around him to show he was needed and Ball definitely did that.”
After two months living in a hotel, the club found Kinkladze a house on a modern executive estate in Wilmslow. He was joined by a fellow Georgian, Nataly, who had learned English at Hastings and had been employed as an interpreter. Then, just before Christmas, 1995, they were kept company by his mother, Khatuna, who worked as a history teacher at a time when Georgia suddenly had a lot of history to teach.
Khatuna’s journey from Tbilisi to Wilmslow had been a chaotic one. Nataly had failed to show up at the airport and Mrs Kinkladze, armed with a photograph of her son, stopped strangers at Heathrow, employing the only English words she knew: “Mother of Georgi. City football.” With that, she made her connection to Manchester to prepare a Georgian Christmas dinner of aubergine, chicken in walnut sauce and honey cake.
Her son liked cars. Fast cars, parked haphazardly. “He had a nasty habit of leaving his car anywhere in Manchester,” Frank Clark recalls. “My secretary, Julia, had to pay his parking tickets. I told Georgi, ‘This has to stop. You can park where you like but, if you get a parking ticket, it is your responsibility to pay it.’”
A Ferrari almost ended his career in 1997. It was a Testarossa that cost £150,000 and it was parked in the Four Seasons Hotel not far from the airport. Next to it was Summerbee’s BMW.
Both men turned out of the hotel bound for Princess Parkway, the dual carriageway that leads to central Manchester. They didn’t get very far. There was a screech of tyres, Kinkladze lost control, and the Ferrari, which he had owned for less than a month, struck the wall of an underpass. Kinkladze was propelled through the sunroof, which – fortuitously, given it was late October – was open, and on to the tarmac. He required 30 stitches in his back.
It was a gift to the headline writers. Under-performing footballers in over-performing cars, racing while Manchester City careered towards the third division – the club had taken one point from its previous four matches, and that a goalless draw at home to Reading.
Summerbee was adamant they were not racing. Kinkladze was simply not a good enough driver to handle a Ferrari Testarossa, but they were prosecuted for dangerous driving, a case that cost the pair £15,000 between them in fines, although by the time the court convened Summerbee was at Sunderland and Kinkladze was playing his football in Amsterdam.
“I never saw the enigma called Georgi Kinkladze,” Frank Clark says now. “He was a lovely kid. When we first started work at the club, I saw him eyeing me up, wondering how I was going to treat him.
“We played four at the back, four across midfield with Uwe Rösler up top and Kinkladze free behind him. He could go wherever he wanted in the hope that we could get him on the ball in and around the opposition penalty area, where he could be lethal.
“The last home game of the 1996-97 season the players did a lap of honour. Well, it wasn’t a lap of honour, it was to thank the crowd for their support and the reception Kinkladze got was incredible. I turned to my assistants, Richard Money and Alan Hill, and said, ‘We can’t sell him.’
“In fact, we did receive a bid for him that summer for £5m. I won’t tell you who it was from but the board were horrified. They did not understand that if you had Kinkladze in a good team he would have made them into a great one, but in an average team he was a luxury.”
Francis Lee was astonished when Clark asked him where he thought Kinkladze should play. Clark had then been manager of Manchester City for three months. “I thought, ‘Bloody hell, you’re supposed to be the manager,’” Lee said. “He had a coach there, Richard Money, and he was supposed to be a good coach and they didn’t know what Gio’s best position was.” The truth was that nobody did.
The lap of honour after the 3-2 win over Reading stuck in the throats of some players, not least Rösler. Kinkladze, who was carrying an injury, had not played in that game. The stadium announcer that day was Vince Miller, a man without whom no sportsmen’s dinner in Manchester was complete.
Miller revelled in the title of ‘the king of comperes’ and, though he was a City fan who had delivered the eulogy at Bernard Manning’s funeral, he worked the lounges at Old Trafford until in 2017 he was asked to leave for putting his arms around a waitress and calling her “love”. He was 82.
Twenty years before, Miller was in charge of organising the closing ceremony on what had been the worst season in Manchester City’s history. Francis Lee had told him to take Kinkladze alone to the centre circle and “let him wave to the crowd.”
Interviewed by Kinkladze’s biographer, David Clayton, Miller recalled, “Uwe Rösler took exception to this and came over to me to make his feelings known and we exchanged a few heated words. He thought it wasn’t right – to single out one player – but I did what I was asked and led Gio to the middle of Maine Road. The fans had Georgian flags everywhere and messages written in his own language… I am quite sure Gio was planning to leave before that day.”
He should have gone. All the banners, the flags, the pleas written in Georgian script, the fan presenting him with a cuttings book devoted to his career, achieved was to ensure Kinkladze shackled himself to a corpse.
Jim Whitley broke through to the City first team in January 1998, in time to see the last few months of Kinkladze’s Manchester City career. “His fitness by then was laughable,” he says. “But I’d been part of the set-up for a long time before that and had watched him train. Alan Ball would ask him to do sprints and he would go ‘nah’ and walk off. Your Niall Quinns and your Garry Flitcrofts were having to do it. If anyone else had done that they would have been fined, but not Gio. He was separated from everyone else.
“He would go past two players, produce one little shimmy and be voted man of the match, despite the fact we had basically played with ten men. When he was on song he would drag away three or four players and I and everyone else in that midfield would suddenly look very good but as that season wore on and we slipped closer to the edge he lost interest.”
Despite the adulation he received from Alan Ball, Kinkladze himself thought Frank Clark had handled him best. But in February 1998 Clark was gone and he was succeeded by Joe Royle, a man whose first view of the player had convinced him that Georgi Kinkladze was a man who got managers the sack. He was not about to put his own theory to the test.
There was a dreadful match against Port Vale, which convinced Royle his prejudices were correct. He considered Kinkladze’s contribution “abysmal”. He was cast out.
There was one last coda. If Manchester City won their last two games, they would escape. The first was at home to Queens Park Rangers who, in danger of relegation themselves, had signed Vinnie Jones as a player-coach. His brief, according to his manager, Ray Harford, was “to raise the spirits and get the fighting qualities shining through the team.”
Kinkladze was brought back to face the man he had humiliated in Cardiff three years before in the game that had persuaded Francis Lee that this might be the boy who would change everything at Maine Road. Now, Jones would again attempt to bait Kinkladze. This time, he would have more success.
The pressure on Manchester City was now so intense that they no longer warmed up at Maine Road but used the primary school opposite the ground to avoid the jeers. Jamie Pollock was one of those in the school grounds.
The game would be recalled not for Kinkladze’s final display of beauty to those that had loved him, but for one of the most bizarre and balletic own-goals ever scored.
Sport is an innately superstitious business. During the Lord’s Test against Pakistan in 1982, David Gower, Allan Lamb and Robin Jackman went out for dinner. All went against the cricketer’s unspoken code that you do not order duck. The next day each was dismissed without scoring. The evening before the Queens Park Rangers game, Jamie Pollock was at home watching a DVD of own-goals and footballing gaffes. It had been given as a Christmas present but for superstitious reasons Pollock had never, until now, wanted to watch it.
Now, for reasons he did not properly understand, he opened the case, pushed the disc into the machine and began watching. His wife, Lizzie, came into the room and asked what fate he was possibly trying to tempt.
The next day, with the scores level at 1-1, Pollock found himself running towards the edge of his own box to cut out a long ball from QPR’s right-back David Bardsley. Fully aware that the Rangers striker Mike Sheron and a covering teammate were just yards away from him, Pollock calmly lifted the ball over the pair and headed it back towards Martyn Margetson.
It was something Paolo Maldini might have done, except that Maldini might have cushioned his header rather than sending it high over Margetson and into the net. Almost as much as the image of Alan Ball’s side playing for a draw in a match they needed to win, this encapsulated the view of Manchester City, a man with an empty revolver and a bloodied, blown-off foot.
Pollock said he could “feel the silence” all around Maine Road. In the dressing room, Royle and his assistant, Willie Donachie, offered their support. This was the goal that effectively relegated Manchester City to the third tier, but the fatal damage had been done long before.
50 miles down the M6, the drama would be played out at Stoke. The day before, Kinkladze would be playing in Tunisia for Georgia. Tunisia were preparing for the 1998 World Cup that would pitch them against England in Marseille, a match remembered more for the rioting that wrecked the Old Port rather than for anything that happened on the pitch. This match, in Sousse, was a 1-1 draw. Kinkladze scored for Georgia, a gorgeous lob from 30 yards.
Francis Lee, who had stepped down as chairman two months before, had arranged a private plane to bring Kinkladze back to Manchester. Bernard Halford and the club’s fixer, Layachi Bouskouchi, who was brought up in Tangiers, ran a newsagents in Chorlton and had spent years helping out Manchester City and their players, were the ones charged with the mission.
After the match, Halford went to the away dressing room. There, the Georgia manager, David Kipiani, who had been part of the Dinamo Tbilisi side that had won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981 and was probably his nation’s greatest footballer, was debriefing his players. Halford beat a hasty retreat.
Eventually, Kinkladze emerged and the three of them boarded the plane. “He knew it was probably his last game for Manchester City,” Halford recalls. “He had played not to get injured in the friendly and he knew this was pretty much the end of the road. When we touched down, I drove him to his house to pick up some clothes and we set off for Stoke, where we joined the rest of the team at the hotel. It was around midnight.”
The irony was that he was scarcely needed. Manchester City won 5-2, a victory rendered irrelevant by other results. Kinkladze played the final 17 minutes.
In the World Cup summer of 1998, Kinkladze was 25. He had signed for Ajax, a club that more than any other values technique and undiluted skill. They had won the Eredivisie by 39 points. The new, gleaming Amsterdam Arena, rather than the scruffy stands of Maine Road, was where Kinkladze should have played out the peak years of his career.
He would share a dressing room with Shota Arveladze. They had been friends since childhood, Arveladze had spent a first, highly successful season at Ajax and had named his new-born son Giorgi (should this be Georgi?). It should have worked. However, the championship-winning side was being broken up. Edwin van der Sar was sold to Juventus, Ronald and Frank de Boer were agitating to join Louis van Gaal at Barcelona. Van Gaal was due to have signed Jari Litmanen as well, but he remained in Amsterdam. If Kinkladze was to win a place in the heart of the Ajax midfield, this is the man he would have to dislodge.
Litmanen was the finest footballer Finland produced but his greatest impact was in the Netherlands, where he won five Eredivisie titles and three Dutch Cups. To gauge how highly he was regarded, in 2016 the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat produced an entire team of young Dutch professionals called Jari, which is not a Dutch name. Something similar happened in Germany to the name Kevin when Keegan won his two European Footballer of the Year titles with Hamburg. Kinkladze was relegated to the left wing or the bench. The Ajax manager, Morten Olsen, who had persuaded him to come to Amsterdam, became embroiled in a dispute with the De Boer twins who refused to train unless they were granted a move to the Camp Nou. In December 1998, after Ajax were knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage, Olsen was sacked.
Six months after moving to Amsterdam, Kinkladze was dividing his time between living with Arveladze or going back to the hotel. He had been Ajax’s record signing and he felt lost, redundant and angry.
The fanzine editor, Noel Bayley, who went to pay homage to Kinkladze at his new club, glimpsed the Georgian’s precariousness while in Amsterdam. “I first met him at Platt Lane. He was with Francis Lee, who was fussing over him and telling him that he should be wearing a vest because he’d catch cold. It was like seeing a father and son together,” he says. “When Kinkladze first came to Manchester, he would have known nobody and I think Francis looked after him; he had him round to tea at Stanneylands and he may even have stayed with them before they sorted him a house.
“When he moved to Ajax, the Prestwich and Whitefield supporters branch ran a trip to Amsterdam to see him play. The information they printed said the ferry would leave from Horwich, which was unlikely since it’s in Bolton.
“We set off for Harwich at two in the morning from Heaton Park and, on the way, we were told there were problems there so we took the van to Dover but it meant that by the time we reached Amsterdam the game we were supposed to be seeing Kinkladze in was at half-time so we gave it a miss.
“The next day some of the lads went to the Amsterdam Arena for a look round and saw Kinkladze at the training ground. They told him there were some City supporters in town and would he like to meet them?
“We went to this long, narrow bar which had a pool table in the back. Kinkladze was standing by the pool table, wearing a City away shirt from the 1999 play-off final against Gillingham, which somebody must have given him because he wasn’t involved in it. He wasn’t drinking, he was just standing there, very shy and alone.”
Ajax questioned his mental state and like so many Manchester City managers, Jan Wouters, who had replaced Olsen, could not understand how a footballer could make so little defensive contribution. The club finished sixth, behind Roda and Vitesse Arnhem. It was their worst finish since 1965, the year Johan Cruyff broke through at the old De Meer stadium.
“Personally, I believe Gio could play in any position but he was determined he only wanted to play in the centre,” Shota Arveladze told David Clayton. “I remember once at Ajax, Olsen was taking a training session and he wanted to get him putting in crosses from the right. That was no problem for him but he kept putting in awful balls. Olsen was really annoyed.
“Later, Kinky told me he did it on purpose so they would make him play in another position. He never got the chance to play in his best position for Ajax. Gio hated everything there, he even hated Amsterdam, which is crazy really. As a player when you are not getting to play everything can seem wrong.
“But he was stuck at Ajax. Having paid out all that money for him, they needed to get some of it back. You can understand their position – it was a business transaction – but it was very tough for him. All he wanted to do was to come back to England.”
Derby seemed a good place to start, initially on loan, then on a full £3m transfer. The deal was brokered by Derby’s chairman, Lionel Pickering. His manager, Jim Smith, who was to sign Fabrizio Ravanelli and Igor Štimac, had a taste for an exotic gamble.
Kinkladze could go back to his home in Cheshire and marry his fiancée, Louise. They would have a son, Sabba, together. He bought a Porsche Carrera with the number plate: K11NKY and on Boxing Day 2000 he returned to Maine Road. The ovations he received were more memorable than the goalless draw.
However, in 2002 Kinkladze was relegated with Derby just as he had been with Manchester City, although by then he was a far more peripheral figure at Pride Park than he had ever been at Maine Road. Gerald Mortimer, the Derby Evening Telegraph’s chief sports writer, remained unimpressed.
Mortimer was a magisterial writer whom Brian Clough had asked to type his resignation letter in October 1973. He could be acerbic – he once placed a two-pence piece in a colleague’s leaving collection and asked for change – but he was never one for bullshit. Seen through Mortimer’s eyes, Kinkladze lacked the pace and the edge he had possessed at Manchester City and he was becoming involved in a lot of relegations.
Accompanied by his lawyer, Daniel Izza, Kinkladze had arranged a meeting to ask why Smith’s successor as Derby manager, Colin Todd, was no longer starting him. Twelve months later, Derby, like Manchester City, were staggering towards the third division. Mark Lillis, who had spent a season at Maine Road under Billy McNeill, was now his caretaker manager.
Lillis had been a coach at Pride Park when Kinkladze first arrived. “Soon after arriving at Derby, I took training and started singing ‘Blue Moon’ at Kinkladze who just looked at me as if I were off my head,” he says. “He didn’t know I’d played for City before him, but we stayed behind kicking a ball and talking about City.
“We had both moved on from Manchester City but we hadn’t, if you know what I mean. I enjoyed working with Kinky; he had some great talent but I am still not sure what his best position is.”
Derby survived but Kinkladze did not and he began being passed around like a plate of stale sandwiches to increasingly unsuitable clubs.
At Portsmouth, Harry Redknapp played him in a single pre-season friendly. Dundee were interested in taking him to Scotland. Their chairman was Giovanni di Stefano, a convicted fraudster, all-round fantasist and friend of the Serbian war criminal, Arkan.
Eddie Gray, attempting to stop Leeds United’s collapse into bankruptcy, offered Kinkladze a trial at Thorp Arch. He turned up late for training, his weight was a problem and his wage demands were a problem. Given Leeds’s slide towards insolvency, any kind of wage might have been a problem.
He ended up in Cyprus playing under Temuri Ketsbaia at Anorthosis Famagusta. Ketsbaia, whom he had played alongside as a teenager in Tbilisi, with whom he had destroyed Wales all those long years ago.
His journey had gone full circle.
This is an edited extract from Caught Beneath the Landslide: Manchester City in the 1990s, published byDeCoubertin.