Georgi on his mind

Posted by David Mooney

Shaun Botterill/AllsportGeorgi Kinkladze gave City fans reason to attend games even during the Blues' down years.

Now, I’m not one for tenuous links, but it’s an international midweek and we’re still four days away from Manchester City’s home tie with Tottenham -- so sod it, we’re going to go with it. This week, I have been watching Season 1 of the American drama-comedy "The Newsroom." During one episode, one of the characters confuses the U.S. state of Georgia with the former Soviet republic and now-independent country of Georgia.

And, as that happened on my TV screen, I thought: "Remember when City were half of the Georgian national team?" Told you it was tenuous.

It all started on Sept. 7, 1994, when a 21-year-old Georgian played for his national team in a 1-0 defeat against Moldova in Tbilisi. While the visitors won, it was the home side’s No. 10 who was attracting all of the plaudits -- Georgi Kinkladze. Several Italian sides had seen footage of his performance, but there was no bid -- until then City chairman Francis Lee contacted his club, Dinamo Tbilisi, and secured a first option on the midfielder.

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In July 1995, City took up their option and secured his services for a fee reported to be in the region of two million pounds.

Kinkladze quickly became a shining light in a team that was bereft of ideas and struggling to pick up points. In the first 11 matches of the season, the Blues drew two and lost nine, scoring just three goals. The Georgian’s first strike for the club came that November against Aston Villa, as fortunes turned and the side were in the middle of a five-game unbeaten run.

He began to find the net on a semi-regular basis, but the goal that all fans will remember was to come in March 1996. City hosted Southampton at Maine Road. Having scored the Blues’ first, Kinkladze stunned the Saints’ defence with the winner.

He picked the ball up about 40 yards out and wide on the right. He beat men at will, dancing between them until he was one-on-one with Dave Beasant, who he expertly chipped. It was one of the best goals that stadium had ever seen.

Thanks in no small part to Kinkladze, City almost got out of trouble. The Blues earned 36 points from their final 27 matches -- had they been acquiring them at that rate for the whole season, City would have finished in the top half. As it was, they were relegated on goal difference.

As the club fell through Division One, Kinkladze continued to shine in an otherwise drab team. In truth, the Georgian must have wondered what was going on, as he looked around to see manager after manager in the home dugout and the squad he was part of balloon in size.

Nevertheless, his goals continued, including a special 35-yard free kick against Swindon. He was one of the few reasons some fans kept going, despite regular disappointments in results.

Things went from bad to worse and, at the end of Kinkladze’s final season with the club, City were relegated once again, despite a 5-2 victory at Stoke. His skills and flair had made little impact, not through any fault of his own, but simply because of the turbulence at Maine Road at the time. There was nobody in the squad who was on the same wavelength as him and he couldn’t single-handedly drag the team kicking and screaming up the table.

While fans will remember Kinkladze as one of the club’s best players, some may forget that he was joined by several of his international team-mates, as the Georgian contingent grew in Manchester (which, at one point, included Kinky’s mum, who had flown over when he was feeling homesick at the start of his City career).

In March 1996, the Blues signed one of Kinkladze’s former Dinamo Tbilisi team-mates in Mikhail Kavelashvili. He was thrown into the deep end, making his debut in the Manchester derby at the start of April. He scored to equalise for the Blues, but it wouldn’t be enough as United went on to win, 3-2.

The following season, the Georgian played 25 times for the club in all competitions, scoring twice -- in a defeat at Crystal Palace and in a draw at Grimsby. The striker was struggling to find the net and City were unable to obtain a work permit renewal. In the end, the club loaned him to Swiss club Grasshoppers.

But, as one Georgian left, another arrived, with Murtaz Shelia joining Maine Road -- again from Dinamo Tbilisi. In keeping with Kavelashvili’s precedent, the defender bagged a debut goal. He opened the scoring on 88 minutes at Birmingham and had given the visitors the lead, but it lasted less than a minute, and the away side conceded twice in stoppage time to lose 2-1.

Roughly six weeks later, a fourth Georgian joined the Blues in Kakhaber Tskhadadze (or Peepo, as then manager Joe Royle and the rest of the squad nicknamed him). He looked impressive during his brief appearances at the club, but, as was the way with Shelia, his career at Maine Road was plagued with injury.

In the 1998-99 season, both Shelia and Tskhadadze finished with the Blues. The former had to leave the action with a career-threatening injury in the 61st minute of a 1-0 defeat at home to Reading, while the latter was carried off in just the second match of the campaign -- a 3-0 loss at eventual champions Fulham.

Neither was able to force their way back into the first team (Shelia barely played again in his career, retiring in 2001), especially as Royle brought in extra defensive cover in Andy Morrison midway through that season. In the following year, the Blues also had Richard Jobson returning from the physio room and Gerard Wiekens had slotted into defence comfortably.

The fortunes of the four Georgian players at the club pretty much summed up City’s existence in the late 1990s. There were always signs of promise, but when they needed a bit of luck or a helping hand from elsewhere, it was nowhere to be seen. Despite their wretched fortunes, though, there were one or two highlights for the fans.

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