The 1995/96 season is definitely one to be forgotten in Manchester City’s history, but there was one shining light in a dismal season, and it came in a small but lethal package from Georgia.
In July 1995, City manager Alan Ball persuaded chairman Francis Lee to part with £2m for a relatively unknown midfielder from Dinamo Tbilisi. Although established in the national side of Georgia, Georgiou “Georgi” Kinkladze was an unknown entity in the Premier League.
In actual fact, Lee didn’t need much persuasion as he already had an agreement in place with Dinamo president Merab Jordania to give City first refusal on the talented midfielder. Kinkladze signed on 15th July 1995, and a legend had arrived.
The blues started badly, failing to win any of their opening matches, and only recorded their first won of the season in a 1-0 home win over Bolton. Kinkladze was initially homesick and it was his mother that provided him with some form of comfort, moving to Manchester to be able to cook him some familiar foods. Soon after, the blues improved and Kinkladze was at the heart of it.
The little midfielder scored his first goal for the club in a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, and the bleus went on a five match unbeaten run, of which the blues won four. On 9th December, City travelled to Middlesbrough and Kinkladze came up against another brilliant midfielder by the name of Juninho. Kinkladze scored a brilliant solo goal to give City the lead, however his opposing number stole the she and Boro ran out 4-1 winners.
Kinkladze will be forever remembered for scoring one of the goals of the season at Maine Road as City defeated relegation candidates Southampton 2-1. With the score at 1-1, Kinkladze beat five Southampton players as he dinked his way into the box and chipped the ball over Dave Beasant in the Saints goal. The goal won Match of the Day’s goal of the month award, and was named second in the goal of the season.
The blues were relegated at the end of the season, but Kinkladze opted to stay with the blues and became the club’s main penalty taker and also scored a number of free kicks. However, the bleus struggled to make an impact in the First Division and finished well outside the promotion places, which again prompted speculation that the Georgian maestro would leave the club. Instead, Kinkladze signed a new three year contract then, with the proceeds of the contract, went out and bought a Ferrari and promptly crashed it, ruling him out for the team for two games.
City continued their descent down the league and when manager Frank Clark was sacked, new boss Joe Royle decided Kinkladze was a luxury, rather than an asset and recommended the Georgian be sold. The midfielder injured his ankle in February 1998 and was sidelined for a month. When he returned against Port Vale, Kinkladze was barely noticeable and was dropped by Royle for six matches.
Kinkladze returned for the final home match of the season, a must win game against QPR. The midfielder scored the opening goal from a free kick, but a culmination of defending and odd own goals meant the match ended in a 2-2 draw. On the final day of the season, City won 5-2 at Stoke, but as result elsewhere went against them, the blues were relegated again.
It would later be revealed by manager Royle that he viewed Kinkladze as the weak link in the City team. In his 2005 autobiography, Royle wrote that “to the supporters he was the only positive in all that time. To me, he was a big negative. I am not saying that City’s ills were all down to Kinkladze, but there was too much about the whole Kinkladze cult phenomenon that wasn’t right ...too often since his arrival, the team had under-performed. I couldn’t help deducing that contrary to popular opinion, he would be my weak link not my strong one.”
Kinkladze moved to Ajax for £5m, and although he had gone, he was never forgotten as blues fans would regularly look out for Ajax results.
Kinkladze made just 118 appearances for City, scoring 22 goals, but he will always be remembered for his skill, speed, lack of fear when taking on an opponent but most of all, his loyalty to the club that gave him his chance in one of the big leagues.
Relive some of Kinkladze’s most magical moments here