Georgi Kinkladze didn’t look like a footballer. He had the stumpy physique of a bank branch manager and doleful gaze of a man who would beat you at chess. If you encountered him in the high street you’d assume he was en route to Marks and Sparks for a meal for one before heading home for an evening of ITV dramas.
He rarely played like a footballer either, at least not in the traditional sense. There was a scarcity of the basics – that whole tackling, passing and tracking your opposite number malarkey – but also surprisingly little posturing or hissyfit indulgences, the prerogative of most prima donnas too grand to put a shift in.
Instead Gio drifted into space and if the ball arrived he would enact moments of sheer brilliance that blew your mind to kingdom come. If it didn’t arrive he’d stand, hands on hips, looking like a bank branch manager.
When fully charged the Georgian was all slalom dribbles and five yard bursts; the rest of the time he was a faintly traced sketch of the enormous talent he possessed.
There was never anything in between; no mean average. That was for the average.
He came to England from Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia in July 1995 to a mixture of curiosity and excitement, signed reportedly on the back of a video watched by chairman Francis Lee. In those pre-broadband, pre-Football Manager days all-too-few blaggers could claim to be Umaglesi Liga experts and espouse his virtues but there were encouraging clues gauged from his international showings most notably a virtuoso ripping apart of Wales that left Neville Southall – a man not known for hyperbole – stating the 21 year old was ‘different class’.
That summer was pre-takeover Manchester City in a nutshell. They signed arguably their most mercurial, mesmerizing, and extravagantly gifted player in their history while installing Alan Ball in the dug-out. The former offered up exhibitions that made you think those old dears on Songs Of Praise might be onto something. He twisted opposition spleens with a dip of his shoulder and performed conjuring feats like that famous one-man spree against Southampton that would have easily grabbed the Goal of the Season vote if not for Tony Yeboah’s physics-defying belter vs. Wimbledon. The latter, flat-capped and clueless, led us to relegation.
The prospect of Kinky playing in what is now the Championship seemed vulgar and preposterous and inevitably Barcelona, Inter, and Liverpool circled. After such a blistering introduction to the top flight nobody would have really blamed him for jumping ship but surprisingly the lad remained loyal perhaps inspired by the integrity shown by his former club president at Tbilisi who had reluctantly loaned his best player out to Boca Juniors two years earlier to keep the youngster safe from the ravages of the Georgian Civil War. Perhaps too he had fallen in love, with a club and fanbase who had become smitten in the depths of despair with their unassuming jewel.
So Kinky stayed true to City and City stayed true to themselves, shooting their lineage repeatedly in the foot in typical fashion with a chaotic calamity of a campaign that saw four different managers in the hot-seat and a mediocre team drift to a mid-table finish. The little Georgian may deserve kudos for his devotion to the cause but here he warrants some criticism too: If he was a star pupil in the Premier League then surely the league below would be his playground yet his hit-and-miss influence only waned further to occasional glimpses of genius. The season after things got significantly and perplexingly worse when the second favourites for promotion slid apologetically into a relegation scrap. With a bloated squad, Barry Conlon leading the line, and Kinkladze off crashing Ferraris around the city it was a fight they were doomed to lose and even with Joe Royle at the helm for the latter stages they barely drew blood.
Apocryphal or otherwise Royle’s first words as he entered Maine Road were said to be “We have to sell Kinkladze” and before City’s fate was sealed and they plummeted into the third tier for the first time in their history negotiations were already taking place with Ajax to move on their enigmatic star. He had become a luxury they could ill afford, an impracticality akin to owning a Cartier watch on the dole.
In the summer of 1998 Kinky left for Ajax and the Eredivisie for £5m which represented a decent profit for the Blues but though he went with best wishes and much mutual love his departure was a side-show to the kitchen sink drama supporters now found themselves in. City’s staggering decline that took them to the football hinterlands of Wycombe and Wrexham capped off a thoroughly miserable era where the club became a national punchline. It was a time of chronic mismanagement and kneejerk desperation, a time made a million times worse with the all-conquering success of those lot down the road.
It is impossible now, revelling in City’s riches of Silva and Yaya and Kompany, to imagine it. It was impossible back then to endure.
That is why Georgi Kinkladze will forever be cherished for his artisan adventure, his balance of a Subbuteo player, and his meandering runs propelled from a low centre of gravity that left a trail of defenders in his wake. Much more so he will always hold a unique and special place in our hearts.
Because he was a blur of Oasis in a nineties City that couldn’t string two chords together. He was our pre-takeover superstar who gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead before we could even conceive of such wonders. He was a flare of brilliance that lit up the dark days, who got us out of our seats when all else around him demanded we take to our beds.
When Kinky was a young boy his mother insisted he take lessons in mtiuluri, a form of traditional Georgian ballet. He brought that ballet to Manchester, on a stage shared with Ged Brannan and Jamie bloody Pollock.
Georgi Kinkladze didn’t look like a footballer. He rarely played like one either.
Thank God for that.