Probably City's most notable signing of the 1990s was the Georgian midfielder Georgiou Kinkladze, or "Gio" as he preferred to be known (never "Georgi" as the media would have it). Having been seen on T.V. by then chairman Francis Lee scoring a spectacular goal against Wales in a Euro 96 qualifying game, Lee decided the central midfielder from Dynamo Tblisi would be an ideal addition to City's squad and he made the necessary enquiries as to Kinkladze's availability and the possibility of obtaining a work permit etc.
On a Friday in July 1995 City unveiled their new manager (alan ball) to replace the sacked Brian Horton. The press conference was extended as Lee's intention had been to also introduce Kinkladze as his new signing, but a delay at Manchester Airport meant a 40-minute conference was stretched to three hours. When the player finally turned up, the pressmen were somewhat surprised to discover the Georgian couldn't speak English and that ball himself had appeared to be completely unaware that this player, who was until now virtually unknown in western Europe, would be playing for his new team.
During the conference it emerged that Kinkladze was a fan of Diego Maradona and had spent a year on loan at the Argentine's former club, Boca Juniors, apparently on Maradona's recommendation. It was also mentioned that City were not in fact the first western club to show an interest, or even the first in the Premiership; Gio had also had a few months' trial at Real Madrid, but failed to appear for the first team, and Middlesbrough had also made enquiries but felt the £1.5 million asking price to be too high for a player who at the time was still relatively inexperienced. Through his Turkish interpreter friend, Kinkladze revealed he preferred to play on the left side of midfield as he favoured his left foot, and felt his best position was in the middle where he could build attacks and play his teammates in whenever they pushed forward.
With the new season so close, Kinkladze hardly had time to train with City, let alone play in any pre-season friendlies. He made his debut on the opening day of the season at home to Spurs and showed a few clever touches in a 1-1 draw. City struggled though, losing the next eight league games in a row as the Georgian battled for match fitness and a way to attune to the side. Suddenly however, City embarked on an unbeaten streak as the little Georgian started to pull the strings in midfield, linking with Niall Quinn to provide Nicky Summerbee with the only goal of the game at home to Bolton. He started to settle in Manchester, particularly when his mother and sister came over to stay with him for a short while. It was suggested later in the season that fellow Georgian Mikhail Kavalashvili had been signed in the March expressly to keep Gio happy, but the little maestro replied that the transfer was for purely football reasons, adding, "Mikha is a better player better than ME!"
Kinkladze scored his first goal in the home game against Aston Villa during a spell in which he finally appeared to gel with his team-mates, playing wingers such as Nicky Summerbee and strikers Uwe Rösler in and creating chances for them. At this point he still knew very little English, relying mainly on Rösler (who communicated to him in Russian) to convey his ideas. Suddenly the critics sat up and took notice of what he was capable of; early in the next game, away at Middlesbrough, Gio received the ball on the halfway line early in the first half, accelerated through the 'Boro midfield, beating four opponents and feinting to one side before whacking the ball in to the opposite corner. Although the Blues contrived to lose the match 4-1, Kinkladze left his mark as he came out on top in the inevitable comparison with the Teessiders' recent signing Juninho.
City slipped back into the relegation zone as teams were now aware of the Georgian's trickery and strength from his central or right-sided position and they knew he could get off a powerful shot without backlift at almost any time. He was therefore man-marked out of games or suffocated by five-man midfield formations fielded by visitors to Maine Road.
A morale-boosting win in the F.A. Cup was needed for confidence, if nothing else. City provided it in spades as Leicester were blitzed 5-0, the pick of the goals being from Kinkladze, who picked up the ball near the halfway line and effortlessly carved a path through Leicester's midfield before finishing with aplomb; a goal so similar to the one he'd scored a month before at Middlesbrough. He then produced a mark 3 version in the home win over Southampton, this time beating four Saints defenders from wide on the right touchline, then dummying goalkeeper Dave Beasant before nonchalantly lobbing the ball over him and into the corner. As Match of the Day commentator Jon Champion said, "that's mesmeric!" the goal easily claimed the Goal of the Month award for March, finishing second in the overall Goal of the Season competition.
Further disappointment arrived at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the Cup as the exhausted Blues (playing their fifth match in fourteen days) lost a lead to a controversial penalty decision and a late winner after Kinkladze's delicate flick had wrong-footed the entire United defence for Rösler to delicately lob future Blue Peter Schmeichel to go in front. Again the opposition sought to single out the Georgian for tough treatment to suppress his artistry.
The Blues suffered another setback in a 3-3 home thriller with league leaders Newcastle, who some thought were lucky to see two of their equalisers scored by Faustino Asprilla after he blatantly elbowed City skipper Keith Curle in the face and head butted the same player under the linesman's nose deep into stoppage time. The Geordies' manager Kevin Keegan glossed over the incidents in his post-match interviews, instead opting to praise the brilliance of Kinkladze and his own midfield genius David Ginola.
As the season reached its climax many thought relegation would be inevitable; prompted by Kinkladze, City twice pegged United back at Maine Road but lost to a late Giggs goal and the Georgian was given no quarter by Wimbledon in a 3-0 thrashing 48 hours later on Easter Monday. 1-0 wins at home to Sheffield Wednesday and away to Aston Villa kept survival hopes alive, only to be cruelly dashed in the final game at Maine Road, as Gio led the Blues back to level after Liverpool took a 2-0 lead. The result was not enough to save City however, as each of their fellow strugglers got draws to send the Blues down on goal difference. The sight of Kinkladze openly weeping as he left the field after the final whistle said it all.
During the close season City were installed as hot favourites for immediate promotion, although fans had little faith in the manager's ability to run the team effectively. Chairman Francis Lee sought to allay these fears but also issued a stark warning to alan ball that results must significantly improve and City must be promoted immediately. It was also feared that teams in the lower league would try to nullify Kinkladze by all means possible; another was that there was little (if any) money to spend on strengthening the team - a fact which was starkly illustrated by skipper Keith Curle's comment that he'd left City to join a "bigger" club in Wolves, with the resources their benefactor Jack Hayward could offer. Fans' favourite Niall Quinn departed for Premiership newcomers Sunderland less than 48 hours before the season started.
City's first game of the campaign was selected by Sky TV as the curtain-raiser to a new sports channel for Friday night Nationwide League action and the Blues took the field at a packed Maine Road against Ipswich, another club many fancied to go up, the night before the official first day of the season. An early Steve Lomas goal crafted by Kinkladze (who else?) was eventually enough to secure a narrow 1-0 home win, but in truth the Blues looked lightweight for most of the game without Quinn or Curle and with a little more luck Ipswich could easily have left Manchester with at least a point to show for their efforts.
Kinkladze was indeed neutralised in successive away defeats at Bolton (1-0) and Stoke (2-1), which sealed ball's fate: officially he resigned as manager but anyone who followed events at Maine Road was reading between the lines and regarding the event as yet another sacking. City were to struggle along as big-name candidates George Graham and Dave Bassett initially showed interest in taking over, only to back out at the last minute. Reserve coach Asa Hartford filled in as caretaker and, although City suffered an embarrassing League Cup exit following a 4-1 hammering at Lincoln and League results were generally a mixed bag, Kinkladze tried his best to inspire the team. Sometimes, as in the home 1-0 win over Birmingham (where the little Georgian scored a disputed penalty in injury time) he was successful but at others such as the 2-0 away loss to Sheffield United, he was marked out of the game (in every sense).
The eventual recruitment of Steve Coppell as manager seemed to offer Gio a chance to flourish; the Liverpudlian had played successfully in a similar position two decades before for United and was known to favour attacking football by best utilising his available resources, as he'd shown when managing Crystal Palace to promotion and a Cup Final six years previously. Kinkladze again demonstrated his talents in the new boss's opening game as City came back from 2-0 down to grab a point at Queens Park Rangers, setting up the first for Ian Brightwell then slotting in a penalty equaliser. He also came close to snatching all three points in injury time as his long-range effort shook the crossbar. Despite fluctuating form and antagonism from the opposition in most games Kinkladze could still turn it on and remained the star of the show on the occasions things went well for the Blues.
Coppell's reign then suddenly ended after a month; in a hastily arranged Friday afternoon press conference he and chairman Lee read brief statements explaining the manager was being released from his contract due to ill health. Coppell instantly departed the scene, leaving Lee to face the questions from the stunned media and announce that assistant manager Phil Neal had immediately been appointed as the Blues' third boss of the season. Results however, generally continued to deteriorate once again as the Blues sank to the edge of the relegation places; unthinkable for the team which had been red-hot pre-season favourites for promotion. Kinkladze's form continued to fluctuate, although he scored two early penalties as City beat Bradford 3-2 at home, but missed another before scoring in a 2-1 away defeat at Oldham. Home defeats by Tranmere and (on Boxing Day) Port Vale saw the return of demonstrations against the board. The Blues ended 1996 with a dismal in a 2-0 surrender at Barnsley and the fans' displeasure was aired once again as they jeered Lee for preferring to holiday in Barbados over festive period as his club was apparently dying on its knees.
Having recently quit as manager of Nottingham Forest, Frank Clark took over as the Blues' new boss, but a winter freeze which caused the postponement of a New Year's day visit to Birmingham and an away F.A. Cup tie at Brentford (twice in the case of the latter) meant Clark could spend more time with his new charges at the training ground, instructing them on his tactics and formations in an effort to produce better results and growing confidence.
Results improved as City progressed to the fifth round of the Cup and picked up in the League. Gio played no small part in the upsurge: he inspired the Blues to their biggest win and best performance of the season at Oxford, scoring two and laying another on for Rösler. After sealing the win in the second half Kinkladze appeared to offer a hex gesture to the home supporters who had jeered him throughout, emphasising (as if it were needed) the extent of his magic which had destroyed their team. Three days later Gio ran the show against Watford in the Cup as City strolled through to the next round in a 3-1 win.
The Blues secured survival with this nine-match unbeaten run and even threatened to grab an unlikely play-off place as Clark's new signings gelled with the best of the existing squad; at one point even United manager Alex Ferguson famously confessed he'd placed a bet on City to make the play-offs. Failure to do so was confirmed in a 2-1 home defeat by eventual runaway champions Bolton, though Kinkladze established City's early lead with a quickly taken free kick. It was to be his last goal of the campaign, injury robbed him of the chance to play in the final game, at home to Reading.
It had been widely published in the media that Kinkladze was delaying a decision to remain at Maine Road since promotion hadn't been achieved, though he had secured the fans' Player of the Year title for the second season running and the Reading game became something of a homage to the Georgian. As City fell two goals behind early on, the fans chanted his name and demanded that he stay with the club. The graphics display of the Platt Lane Stand's new corner scoreboard echoed the message repeatedly throughout the match. The Blues stormed back to eventually win 3-2 and the game became as much a celebration of what it meant to be a Blue despite the continual disappointments endured as it was a tribute to Kinkladze, who joined the first-team squad on a lap of honour after the final whistle. A week later it was announced that Kinkladze had signed a contract extension; with a new manager, improved squad members, and the retention of the Georgian, City fans looked forward to the new season in earnest.
After an impressive pre-season during which City won all their friendlies (all away and some by huge scores against lower league opposition), the new season began poorly as City slipped towards the bottom of the table and out of the League Cup at the first hurdle, beaten on penalties by Blackpool. Kinkladze scored in a 3-1 defeat at Sunderland and inspired the Blues to a 6-0 hammering of Swindon, but this turned out to be another false dawn as City suffered embarrassing defeats culminating in a 3-1 defeat at Stockport where the home side went 3-0 up in the first half-hour and the visiting supporters turned on manager Frank Clark.
Kinkladze's involvement in a car crash after training in which his Ferrari was written off also failed to impress the supporters, who began to suspect that the little Georgian was becoming disinterested in toiling away for a City side which was by now full of journeyman strugglers and low on confidence. Clark had reported that he'd seen Kinkladze substituted during a recent international friendly during which he'd "practically stayed in the opposition's centre circle for the whole of the first half, making no impression on the match whatsoever". City fans were amazed at Clark's apparent surprise since, in recent games, the Georgian was putting in the same type of non-performances for City.
By the New Year, with City once again in the bottom three and Clark seemingly running out of time to save the club and his job, the F.A. Cup appeared to offer respite. City disposed of Bradford easily enough at Maine Road, winning a dour game 2-0 and winning the right to entertain the Premiership's West Ham United at home in the next round. Kinkladze produced another mazy dribble and fierce shot for City's equaliser, but goals by future Blue Eyal Berkovic and former favourite Steve Lomas sent them out of the competition. Now they only had survival in the First Division to fight for, when once again they'd started the season as favourites for promotion.
Things finally came to a head in the middle of February as newly promoted Bury claimed all three points in a relatively comfortable 1-0 win at Maine Road. After heated protests against the manager, chairman Francis Lee and the board, Clark lost his job and Joe Royle came in with a brief to keep the club up with only 11 games remaining. Results continued to be mixed as Royle adjusted the team, bringing in new signings such as Lee Briscoe (on loan), Ian Bishop, Jamie Pollock and Shaun Goater. Suspicions grew that the new boss didn't "fancy" Kinkladze and matters came to a head during a depressing defeat at Port Vale when Royle singled the Georgian out for criticism and substituted him at half-time. Doubts now surfaced about Gio's overall fitness and willingness to play as the Blues remained in the bottom three. The Georgian went missing (physically as well as spiritually), only to be brought back for the last home game againt Queens Park Rangers, when a win was vital to give the Blues any realistic hope of survival.
Royle's desperate gamble appeared to pay off as early as the second minute, as Kinkladze rifled home a trademark quickly-taken free-kick, but once again the unfit Georgian made little impact in midfield as Rangers recovered to take a 2-1 lead, the second a bizarre headed own-goal of almost comic proportions from Jamie Pollock. Kinkladze was duly substituted again at half time. An Uwe Rösler equaliser in the second half rescued a point, but it wasn't enough to put the Blues' destiny back in their own hands on the last day. They would have to win at Stoke City and hope at least one other result would go in their favour in order to survive.
On a now infamous Sunday in May 1998, City stormed to a 3-1 lead at the Britannia Stadium, relegating the hapless Potters in the process. As the game wore on however, news filtered through that fellow strugglers Portsmouth and Port Vale were winning by similar margins. The Blues eventually ran out 5-2 winners with Kinkladze making a late cameo appearance as a substitute, hardly touching the ball. As the fourth goal went in to muted applause, the realisation began to dawn that, although they'd saved one of their best performances of the season until the very last day, it wouldn't be enough and Manchester City would soon be playing their football in the third tier of the game for the first time in their history. At the final whistle, Kinkladze sank to the ground in tears of utter despair, much as he'd done at Maine Road two years earlier when then Blues lost their Premiership status. This time it was worse; Kinkladze was acknowledging that he'd played his last game for City.
It transpired that, shortly after taking over the reins, Royle had met with the City board and told them that the club had to sell the Georgian. He could see no way of accommodating Kinkladze in any formation and at any rate the player appeared determined to no longer make a meaningful effort in matches or during training. Shortly after the season ended, City sold Georgiou Kinkladze to Ajax of Amsterdam for a club record fee of £5,000,000. By now even the supporters had accepted it was the right thing to do, although a year before they'd begged the same player to sign a new deal and remain with the Blues.
Kinkladze lasted barely a year at the Amsterdam Arena before again falling out of favour with his coach; he returned to the Premiership with Derby County on loan and scored a memorable goal for the Rams in a defeat at Old Trafford early in 2000. He later joined Derby on a permanent deal but again suffered relegation in 2002. during the 2002-03 season Kinkladze remained a peripheral figure as the Rams failed to bounce back and were almost relegated again; looking somewhat overweight in comparison to his best days at City, he was released by Derby at the end of the season and at present is looking for a new club.
Former City boss Alan Ball once said of Gio: " This kid will have the supporters hanging from the rafters of the Kippax when they see what he can do - he must be the most skilful East European player I've ever seen". His successors Frank Clark and Joe Royle frequently admitted they were unable to accommodate Kinkladze in any form of tactical plans, Clark even said he eventually gave up and told the player to do what he wanted behind the two strikers. It seemed everyone loved Gio but no-one had a clue as to how to get the best out of him.
At a club which became infamous for lurching between the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measure, Kinkladze was the perfect player to sum up the club as he eventually delighted and frustrated City fans in equal measure. I liked him tremendously and appreciated his ability and talismanic importance at a time when City had few (if any) gifted players on their books and their neighbours were collecting trophies at a rate of knots. It was nice, even for a short while, to finally have a player whom supporters of rival clubs would covet, especially when the same player shrugged off suggestions he might leave by declaring that his only interest was to win matches for City. His unforgettable solo goal against Southampton has been acknowledged as arguably the best-ever goal scored by a City player and seeing Gio at his very best will live long in the memory. At the "Parade of Legends" before the last City match at Maine Road, Gio repeated his statement from years before that "City is the one club dearest to my heart and wherever I go I'll always love and be grateful to the City fans for the support they gave me".
Despite his difficulties in his last year in Manchester, I'm sure I speak for Blues everywhere when I say the feeling's mutual, Gio!