Kinkladze firing City's revival

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Coventry defenders have a Georgian on their minds. Guy Hodgson reports
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There are many reasons to believe that Georgi Kinkladze has settled in England. His outstanding form for a start and the eagerness of his club, Manchester City, to extend his contract well into the next century. Then again things occur to the Georgian that suggest otherwise.

The danger that yellow lines represent, for example. Let loose with a car this week, he parked on the double variety as he accepted an award as Greater Manchester's outstanding sports personality for December. The result was a missed chance to see Simply Red in concert, a towed-away vehicle and a pounds 105 fine.

The following day he was still mystified. "The police stole my car," he kept saying with exasperation until the club's chairman, Francis Lee, took him to one side for a quiet word. Even then Kinkladze still had a "it wouldn't happen in Tbilisi" expression fixed in place.

Thankfully for English football, Kinkladze is happening over here. Bought for pounds 2m, he is performing wonders in a weak team and is arguably the best purchase from abroad last summer, and that includes David Ginola or Dennis Bergkamp. Certainly City, who meet Coventry in the fourth round of the FA Cup tomorrow, would not swap him for either.

His goal against Leicester City in the third round showed why. Not many players can collect the ball on the half-way line, surge past two markers, bewilder waiting defenders on the edge of the area and score. Then few have his ability.

"I think he's one of the best I've seen in the last 10, 15 years," Lee, not a man to go overboard with praise, said. "If he continues to improve, gets stronger and develops sides of his game, we could just be looking at one of the best we've ever seen.

"I knew he had an exceptional talent but what he has done has shown an amazing strength of character. He came into a side which didn't win for 11 League games and it didn't affect him. He couldn't speak the language. He was on his own. Everything was stacked against him. Yet he showed what a wonderful boy he is to come through all this and reach the standard he's at now."

Right on cue, as Kinkladze and Lee were talking, his goal against Leicester appeared on the television above them. The City fans allowed into the training complex to mingle with the players gawped in admiration and burst into spontaneous applause. A small, shy smile broke over the Georgian's face.

"I know I received the ball from Nicky Summerbee," he said, "then nothing. I just ran forward. Instinct took over." Lee interjected: "How does Andre Agassi get a 100mph serve back? Do you think he knows? Georgi won't have a clue how he did it."

Clueless would be an apposite description for Kinkladze's introduction to the Premiership. The 22-year-old was shifted around the field as City tried to find a position that would suit him and them, until his manager, Alan Ball, gave him a role he had also handed to another supremely gifted player, Matthew Le Tissier. He has since played like a Saint.

Ball acknowledges that his other midfield players bore the brunt during the settling-in period. "When the kid was bewildered," he said, "and we were getting overrun in midfield, two players were doing the job of three. They did it unselfishly but in their minds I don't think they were too happy with it.

"They're happier now. Look at the ground he covers. He's come to terms with what to do when we haven't got the ball and he's tackling back. The players admire him because he has worked on his game. The youngsters copy him too. In this country it's monkey see, monkey do and our players could not have better skills to follow."

Kinkladze acknowledges that he struggled at first but his perspective has been anchored by Georgia's war for independence. "A lot of friends went to the war," he said. "A lot of friends died. Any hardships or difficulties I have suffered since are nothing by comparison.

"I wanted to fight, too. Everyone in Georgia did, women and boys as well. Lots of people went to the war without even knowing how to use a gun." Dynamo Tbilisi's club president perceived patriotic duty differently, however, and transferred his players - with rock solid return tickets in the contracts - all over Europe to keep them out of battle. Kinkladze spent a year at Saarbrucken, a linguistic bonus now at City where there are three Germans on the staff.

The City players help Kinkladze off the field, taking him out to his favourite Chinese restaurants, making him feel wanted, and on it a protective shield surrounds the Georgian who is attracting the type of tackles that have forced other imports like Eric Cantona and David Ginola to lose their rag.

He is calmer, less precious, than either Frenchman and appears to have greater mental strength. There have been no perceptible mood swings and bad tackles are met with a look of injured contempt rather than retribution.

When he came back from Anfield on crutches this season the first words his interpreters could prise from him were, "I'm going to play in the next game. I must play." He did as well. "They kicked me in Georgia too," he says. "I'm used to it."

The close attention that he will no doubt receive at Coventry does not worry him unduly either. The City players are encouraged to bounce the ball off Kinkladze even if he is marked tightly. "It is bad for me personally, he said, "but good for the team. If two or three players are concentrating on me there is more space for others. The FA Cup is very exciting for me. My dream is to play at Wembley."

He will achieve that dream, fitness and form permitting, when Georgia play England in the World Cup qualifiers but his preference would be to go with his adopted City first. "The traditions of the two people are very different but they are warm and kind in Manchester just as they are in Georgia," he said. "I have made many friends here, the chairman, the manager, my team-mates. It's my second home. I feel almost like I was born here."