CITY'S FOREIGN SUPERSTAR GEORGI KINKLADZE SPENDS A FIRST CHRISTMAS WITH HIS MOTHER, KHATUNA

This festive season a small part of Georgia will come to the North. Simon O'Hagan reports
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IT HELPS to like walnuts if you are going to eat Christmas dinner in Georgia. The turkey is cooked with walnuts, they eat aubergine with walnuts, and traditional Georgian Christmas pudding is a cake flavoured with honey and walnuts. The good news for Georgi Kinkladze, Manchester City's Georgian midfield player, is that now that his mother has arrived in England, he will be able to sit down to all this tomorrow.

"I am very happy that she is here," he said last week from the comfort of the rented home on an executive estate in Wilmslow, Cheshire - all carriage lamps and double garages - that is a far cry from the Kinkladzes' Tbilisi apartment. Living with Georgi and his mother are two Georgian friends, Nataly, who interprets for them, and Nina. While the four of them could do little about the decor or an ambience that is rather more company director than footballer, the flow of Georgian cognac and seasonal Georgian delicacies (more walnuts) suggested they were going to make a pretty good fist of recreating a home from home.

Nothing has enriched British football over the past few years quite like the influx of foreign players. But look at it from their point of view. It is true that most of them prosper and all seem to enjoy the passion with which the game is both played and followed. Home, though, it ain't, and when Christmas comes around, it would be understandable if thoughts turned less to that Boxing Day trip to Highfield Road than the hearth back in Oslo or Rotterdam or Kaiserslautern or New Jersey or, in Kinkladze's case, the city his mother is proud to call one of the most beautiful in what was once the Soviet Union.

The 22-year-old Georgi was bought by City from Dynamo Tbilisi for pounds 2m last summer, after being spotted playing for Georgia by the club chairman, Francis Lee. A player of wonderful touch and vision, he has been the sensation of Maine Road this season. City began it by picking up only two points from their first 11 matches, but as Kinkladze adapted to the pace of the English game they staged a revival which saw them win four and draw two of their next seven matches before yesterday's game against Chelsea.

But while Georgi says he is enjoying himself and thinks the manager, Alan Ball, is "great", living on his own in a hotel for three months was the downside of life as a foreigner in the English League. Last month, though, he was able to move into the house the club had found for him. Then Nataly and Nina arrived, and finally, 10 days ago, his mother, Khatuna.

Mrs Kinkladze prefers to be known as Mrs Abashidze, her maiden name, which is older and more prestigious than that she acquired through marriage, she explained. A history teacher, she seems destined to become one of the most celebrated sporting mothers since Mrs Underwood was shaking the girders at Twickenham.

The long wait she had before she was eventually granted entry to Britain was a little drama all of its own (her businessman husband has remained at home), and she would like to place on record her gratitude to the British embassy in Istanbul, who were rather more sympathetic to her request, it appears, than their counterparts in Moscow.

"People have been very kind," she said through Nataly, a young woman who previously worked as an interpreter for Dynamo Tbilisi before coming to Hastings to study English with Nina. "When I arrived at Heathrow, Nataly was supposed to meet me but she was delayed. I didn't know what to do. I was all alone. I had some photographs of Georgi, and said to people the only English words I knew, "mother of Georgi, City football". But everyone seemed to understand who I was and showed me where to go." She had noticed, she said, a shortage of churches in Manchester by comparison with Tbilisi, but she had not yet had a chance for a good look round.

The Georgian scene in Manchester is not exactly thriving. Georgi received a letter from one compatriot family living locally who he says he is going to contact, but otherwise the four of them are a very isolated outpost indeed. Anticipating that even the Wilmslow Sainsbury's might not stock the traditional spices that go into a Georgian Christmas dinner, Georgi's mother brought them from Tbilisi, so, much to his delight, the occasion can go ahead in a spirit of authenticity.

There is one big adjustment Georgi will be making to English ways, however, and that is celebrating Christmas on 25 December. In the Georgian calendar it falls on 7 January, while the turkey-and-walnuts Christmas dinner, washed down with Georgian champagne and Georgian red wine, is a gargantuan affair that begins at midnight on 31 December and goes on all night.

Georgi has thought better of that this year - City are at home to West Ham on 1 January.

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