Georgi Kinkladze says he would still turn to down the chance to play for Barcelona to play for City.
The brilliant Georgian playmaker sacrificed his opportunity of playing for the Catalans to remain with the Blues despite relegation from the Premier League in 1996.
With several top European clubs keen to take the Blues’ Player of the Year following the City’s demotion, ‘Kinky’ instead decided to stay at Maine Road in a bid to win promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt.
His goal against Southampton in March 1996 was arguably the best individual goal ever scored by a City player, as the Georgian glided through tackles with the finesse of a ballet dancer and was also voted best opposition player by Middlesbrough supporters after scoring a breath-taking goal at the Riverside.
Kinky joined City from Dinamo Tbilisi in 1995 and quickly became a terrace idol for supporters during a difficult time for the Club.
Manager Alan Ball promised fans would be “hanging from the rafters” to get a glimpse of the Georgian in action and he wasn’t far wrong.
Blessed with the kind of dribbling ability only players like Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona seem to possess and a range of passing that Ali Benarbia would be proud of, Kinky was a shining light in a struggling team that drew two and lost nine of the opening 11 games of the 1995/96 season.
Though City rallied towards the end of the season, Ball’s side were relegated on the final day of the campaign and Kinkladze was expected to leave the Blues along with several other prominent stars.
Such was the devotion from the City fans, however, Chairman Francis Lee convinced Kinky to stay another season and help the Blues back to the Premier League where the diminutive playmaker quickly became a target for some of the Championship-level hatchet men.
“I had chances to leave,” said Kinkladze who was back in Manchester this week as a guest of the Club. “Barcelona and other sides had expressed an interest but I couldn’t leave.
“I wanted to help City back into the Premier League so it wasn’t a hard decision.”
His second season saw him left battered and bruised on several occasions as opposition players attempted to stop him by any means necessary – often succeeding – but despite his best efforts and some memorable goals and assists, City finished 10 points adrift of the play-offs in 14t.
Ball had been sacked, his replacement Steve Coppell lasted just five weeks before resigning and after a succession of caretaker managers, Frank Clark took command.
Kinkladze was injured for the last few games of the 1996/97 campaign and fearing their hero would leave, the City fans turned the last match of the season into ‘Kinkladze Day’, chanting his name throughout, waving Georgian flags and banners.
After a 3-2 win over Reading, the players and Kinkladze came out for a lap of appreciation but it was Kinky the fans wanted to thank more than anyone else and, if nothing else, to say thank you.
“It was incredibly emotional, I couldn’t believe the reception I was given,” he said. “Again, I had chances to leave and maybe for my career, I should have done – but I couldn’t leave. My heart was with City and so I decided to stay another year and see if we could get promoted.
“I didn’t want to leave those fans behind and wanted to do everything I could to help us get back to where we belonged.”
It was an incredibly unselfish act from a player who had again been voted the MCFC Player of the Year and could have commanded a fee of £10m – probably about £50m or more in today’s market.
Instead of the Bernabeu, Nou Camp or any of England’s top grounds, Kinky was again playing at Vale Park, Roots Hall and Blundell Park.
He showed what he was still capable of when the Blues hosted Premier League West Ham at Maine Road and he scored a brilliant solo goal, but former midfielder Steve Lomas drilled him a winner for the Hammers later in the game.
“Steve Lomas!” smiled Kinky. “He almost never scored for us but like all returning players at Maine Road, he scored that day.
“It was tough going at times, were on a terrible run and when Joe Royle arrived as the new manager, I was dropped from the side.
Royle felt perhaps too many of the City side were relying on Kinkladze and the Georgian didn’t fit into his plans and after taking over in February 1998, the manager began leaving Kinkladze out.
However, after a run of games that saw City take just five points from a possible 24, Kinkladze was recalled for the penultimate game of the season against QPR and responded by scoring a magnificent 30-yard free-kick.
The game ended 2-2 with Jamie Pollock famously scoring a bizarre own goal.
For the final game away to Stoke and with City needing a win to have any chance of surviving, Kinkladze was on international duty with Georgia but after playing the day before, he took a private jet back to make the Blues’ crucial final game at the Britannia Stadium.
“It was a big rush but I made it back, but I then found out I was only a sub so wondered what the point had been?” he said.
“I came on for the last 15 minutes but other results meant we were going down to Division Two.
“It was a sad way to end my time at City. Ajax had already agreed a deal so everyone knew this was my last game so I just went to the City fans and thanked them. I was in tears as I didn’t want to leave and even today if it was the same situation and a club like Barcelona came in, I’d want to stay at City.
“I didn’t enjoy my time with Ajax. The coach played me on the wing but a lot of City fans came to Amsterdam to watch me play.
“Then I returned to England with Derby County and it was OK, but it wasn’t the same. I came back to Maine Road just once and the reception was incredible. I couldn’t play that day because I didn’t want to play against the team and supporters I loved. My heart just wasn’t in it.”
Gio retired in 2006 and today owns a string of sports clubs across Russia. He has three sons and was a guest at City Square before the derby.
“I always keep up with City’s results and come back whenever I can,” he said. "It was great to be back for the Manchester derby, too.”