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Football: Derby pray for second coming of Kinkladze

Glenn Moore finds the former darling of Maine Road eager to repay the faith shown in him by Jim Smith, whose struggling Premiership side are seeking a saviour
TO LOOK at him, you might wonder if he had tucked into the Christmas dinners of his Derby County team-mates as well as his own, but the podgy look to Georgi Kinkladze is easily explained and it has nothing to do with festive excess.

Kinkladze, one of a clutch of would-be saviours Jim Smith has recently brought to Pride Park, is still recovering from a year spent on the sidelines at Ajax. Signed by Morten Olsen he fell out with his successor, Jan Wouters, so badly that the Georgian made just nine starts last season and was not even given a squad number this campaign, never mind a game.

Cue tales of him living it up in Amsterdam, which put Smith off signing Kinkladze until one of his many contacts assured the Derby manager that he was "working very hard and wanted to prove a point". "He is in good shape," Smith added. "He weighs less now than when he joined Ajax."

Having also suffered a bout of flu last week, Kinkladze is far from being match fit but, while he is yet to play a full 90 minutes for Derby, in the appearances he has made he has already shown he has lost none of the skill that made him the darling of Maine Road.

His appetite for the game is back, too. Meeting him at Derby's training ground, Kinkladze seemed genuinely relieved and delighted to be not only playing again but to be doing so in England.

"I'm very pleased to come back," he said. "Of all the countries I have played in [and it is quite a list], England has suited me most. It is the best for my pace, ability and technique. It is tough but there are great players playing here. That you have to play 75 per cent of your country's internationals to get a work permit ensures that."

Kinkladze, dropped inevitably by Georgia because he was not playing for Ajax, struggled to fulfill that requirement but Derby managed to gain special dispensation thanks to the impact he made while at Manchester City. Such was its intensity that a group of City supporters would travel to watch him play in the Netherlands, and the love affair remains mutual. When the conversation turned to City his face broke into a smile and he said: "I will go to watch City play. I couldn't get to Wembley [and the play-off final] but I was very pleased to see them doing well."

Kinkladze, who still has a house in Manchester, added: "I always felt City could develop some momentum if the team got some confidence from some wins."

Kinkladze came to City, and English football, for pounds 2m in August 1995 and was quickly adored. In a poor team his nimble footwork, balanced dribbling and visionary passing stood out and he scored some exceptional goals, most notably against Southampton. However, the deep-rooted problems at the club meant he suffered two relegations in three seasons and played under half a dozen managers.

"We had six managers," he said, laughing in disbelief. "It was very strange. Every month you saw new players, players going and coming. Every manager brought in new players. I was at my happiest under Frank Clark. I thought we played very well, but he was also sacked."

Having survived a high-speed crash in his Ferrari, Kinkladze could view a second relegation with a renewed sense of perspective but it brought an inevitable parting. Kinkladze had become an expensive luxury. The club needed the money generated by his sale and Joe Royle, the latest managerial incumbent, knew Kinkladze's wages could be spent more usefully in the Second Division. Thus, for pounds 5.5m, the Netherlands was added to a CV which already featured Georgia (Dinamo Tblisi), Argentina (Boca Juniors), Spain (Real Madrid) and Germany (Saarbrucken). Not bad for a player who is still only 26.

It is not quite clear why Kinkladze has played for so many clubs. He was sent to Saarbrucken to escape the civil war which ravaged Georgia after independence ("it is fine there now, peaceful") but the rest appear to have been arranged by an eager agent. He was only 17 when he played in Argentina and, while the thought of following the footsteps of his hero, Diego Maradona, appealed to him, he did not see a future there because "all the best players there move to Europe, to Spain or Italy".

Derby have bought him, he said: "To help the strikers score goals; I am to play just behind one or two strikers." This would appear his ideal role, though Wouters, apparently, did not agree. "He wanted me to play left-wing. I had a little bit of an argument with him and after that everything went wrong."

There are obvious doubts about his latest move, too. Kinkladze's career has hardly been blessed with success given his natural talent, but Ajax's loss could be Derby's gain. He has been signed on loan until the end of the season with an option to buy. "I hope it is a longer move," Kinkladze said.

"It's a chance for him, as well as for us," Smith added. "He is capable of instigating our survival package and becoming a major influence but he will need four or five games before we see him at his best."

"Once he gets his fitness levels up he should be an asset for us," said Tony Dorigo, Derby's left-back. The former England international added: "We have let ourselves down in giving the ball away so much this season. Geo is a player who can get the ball and keep it, and we can get the whole team up the pitch.

"It always takes a while to settle people in but getting him is a boost. Everyone knows what he did at Manchester City and I hope he reproduces that play for us."

Meanwhile, Kinkladze looks forward to Christmas. Yes, forward. In the Georgian Orthodox calendar Christmas Day falls on 7 January and, with Derby County already out of the FA Cup (the fourth round of which is on 8 January), he will even be able to celebrate it.

Just so long he does not overdo the traditional walnut sauce.