Premier League Career: Manchester City (1995-1996), Derby County (1999-2002)
With plenty of dribbling ability and the quality to hurt opposition defences, Georgi Kinkladze was often the shining light in some grim days at Maine Road with Manchester City. The diminutive Georgian might have not been able to save the Citizens from Premier League relegation in 1996 but he did his best to do it virtually single-handily. His solo effort against Southampton is still widely remembered as one of the best goals of the 1995-1996 season.
Born in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Kinkladze won three league titles with the main powerhouse in Georgian football, Dinamo Tbilisi. He was named national player of the year twice and gained some prominence within the minds of UK supporters with his dazzling displays in European Championship qualification matches against Wales.
In July 1995, Manchester City beat off stiff competition from several European clubs to acquire Kinkladze’s signature. The £2 million fee would mean he would become the first Georgian to play in the Premier League and despite some initial problems with trying to earn a work permit, Kinkladze would get his documents ready in-time to be in the starting XI for Manchester City’s opening game of the 1995-1996 season – a 1-1 draw at home with Tottenham Hotspur.
City made a wretched start to the season under new manager Alan Ball. They didn’t win a league match until defeating Bolton Wanderers in early November. Nevertheless, Kinkladze was the shining light and already very popular with the long-suffering supporters. In November 1995, he scored his first Premier League goal in a 1-0 victory over high-flying Aston Villa that briefly took Ball’s side out of the bottom three.
Initially, he struggled to settle due to the language limitations and bitter winter climate but his mother moved to Manchester just before the festive period and if anything, this home comfort made Kinkladze an even better player. In March 1996, he produced his best moment of the campaign against relegation rivals Southampton. He beat five Southampton players on a mazy solo run and clipped the ball over the experienced Dave Beasant with calmness personified. City won the game 2-1 and Kinkladze’s goal was voted Goal of the Month by BBC Match of the Day viewers.
He was named Player of the Year by his fellow teammates and supporters of the club but one high-quality player can’t always save a faltering team. On the final day of the season, Manchester City were relegated to the First Division. Despite interest from the likes of Celtic and Inter Milan, Kinkladze elected to stay at Maine Road and try to help City back to the top-flight at the first attempt.
It didn’t happen and the club went backwards. He continued to shine in the First Division but Manchester City were slipping towards the third-tier of English football and were relegated in 1998. Joe Royle saw him as a luxury player and often left him out in the 1997-1998 relegation run-in, thinking his skills were too much of a hindrance in a struggling side rather than a help.
Kinkladze joined Ajax in the summer of 1998 for £5 million but played in an unfamiliar wide position after Jari Litmanen’s planned transfer to Barcelona collapsed. He never settled in the Netherlands, playing just 12 times and felt frustrated by a lack of first-team opportunities. He returned to English shores and joined Derby County on-loan initially in November 1999 making his Premier League return as a late substitute in a defeat at Highbury.
He made 14 appearances in the loan spell with the Rams and did enough to make the move into a permanent switch with Derby paying Ajax £3 million which was a transfer record for the club that stood for the next seven years. A hernia operation kept Kinkladze on the sidelines at the start of the 2000-2001 season and further injury setbacks meant he couldn’t nail down a regular place in Derby’s line-up. He wasn’t as influential in the Midlands as he had been at Manchester City. Some managers seemed to appreciate his flair like John Gregory and Jim Smith. Others like Colin Todd were not interested in this and made that abundantly clear by often not selecting him due to his lack of work ethic. In 2002, Derby were relegated from the Premier League – a third relegation on Kinkladze’s English CV.
Although he liked him, Gregory had to slash the wage bill following Derby’s drop into the Football League and had to tell Kinkladze he had to leave for the good of the club. Settled in the region, Georgi didn’t want to go and even turned down a potential move to Turkish champions Galatasaray. He stayed with the Rams until his contract expired in the summer of 2003.
An 18-month spell without a club followed. Trial periods with the likes of Portsmouth, Leeds United and Panathinaikos led to no permanent contract offer and his career in England was most definitely over. He did win the Cypriot championship in 2005 when he returned to club football with Anorthosis Famagusta before ending his career at Rubin Kazan. Retiring in 2007, he later worked as a sports agent and spent a year back at Anorthosis as Sporting Director before leaving in June 2012.
He might have been a weak tackler and a lack of defensive contribution meant he was not always a manager’s favourite. However, Georgi Kinkladze was a playmaker artist and is still fondly remembered as a bright light in very difficult times at Manchester City.