“For years all I had was that lad and that shirt.”
So once said a City fan and he was right. All we did have was Georgi Kinkladze and that iconic Umbro shirt with ‘brother’ emblazoned across the front of it.
When the diminutive Kinkladze joined City in August 1995, few could have envisaged the legacy he would leave or what it would mean for Georgian football. ‘Gio’ as he affectionately became known to the City faithful signed for City after an unsuccessful loan spell at Boca Juniors and despite interest from some Italian clubs he ended up in Moss Side (after chairman Francis Lee saw a VHS recording of him).
Little did Kinkladze know that he joined the club at the wrong time and as City tumbled down the divisions he became the only ray of light for City fans until he was eventually sold to Ajax for £5m following relegation to Division Two (now League One).
But Kinkladze somewhat overshadowed what proved to be a bizarre and golden age for Georgian football. Following the success of Kinkladze, City chairman Francis Lee and best chum manager Alan Ball decided to snap up the bargains that were to be found in this new footballing hotbed.
Kinkladze’s national teammate Mikheil Kavelashvili joined on transfer deadline day (yes there was one then –March 1) and scored against Manchester United on his debut (albeit in a 2-3 home defeat) and it looked as if City had unearthed another gem but it was not enough to stop them slipping out of the top flight (which City fan could forget the flat-capped Alan Ball telling Uwe Rosler to take the ball to the corner flag in the final minutes of the last game against Liverpool only for Niall Quinn to realise they needed another goal to stay up). Injuries blighted Kavelashvili’s City career and at the end of his second season he had not played enough games to secure a new work permit and he was loaned out to Grasshopper Zurich.
Relegation, however, did not deter the city chairman and after dispensing with the services of his friend Ball, Frank Clarke was placed at the helm and in came two more mysterious players from the newly-formed soviet state. Defenders Murtaz Shelia and Kakhaber Tskhadadze joined from Dinamo Tbilisi (what a surprise) and Alania Vladikavkaz respectively.
Tskhadadze’s two-year spell in Manchester was plagued by injuries limiting him to 12 appearances and two goals before he moved back to Georgia with Lokomotivi Tbilisi.
Shelia followed the time honoured tradition of scoring on his debut in a defeat to Birmingham City but played only a handful of games before an injury in a game against Reading in October the following season (City now playing in Division Two) effectively ended his career.
At around the same time, as if it were written in the stars, Georgia were drawn in the same World Cup Qualifying group as England (the only meetings of the two nations) giving the minnows a chance to show their talents on a world stage.
England won the away leg 0-2 in Tbilisi in November 1996 with goals from Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand and the return leg at Wembley the following April ended with the same scoreline; this time with Shearer joining Sheringham scoring.
In truth, Georgia flattered to deceive, but for a couple of years Kinkladze ensured that the whole country was known in England, and Gio aside, there were only ever two or three players in the Georgian side who achieved anything of note. In typical City fashion it appeared they ‘bought the wrong Georgians’ with Shota Arveladze arguably the best player to come from the Black Sea nation scoring regularly for Ajax and Rangers.
And who could forget Temur Ketsbaia’s angry celebrations at Newcastle, but other than that Georgia has faded back into obscurity in terms of international footballing talents.
But those City fans who lived through those heady days of the Georgian revolution with Gio leading the parade will never forget that romance he brought from the Eastern bloc. What we would give to have seen him in the current side!