They are moments in a football club’s history that become so inexplicably part of the club’s identity that they shape and embody what it means to support the club. These can be extreme highs like The Aguero goal or they can be extreme lows like getting beat away at York. Regardless of victories or defeats, these “I was there” moments bind you to a club and make it impossible to turn your back. This moment for me was watching Kinkladze for the first time at Maine Road.
Across the city, they were winning every domestic competition in sight and had a team that was the envy of every club in Britain. In contrast, City’s team could be conveniently compared to the Manchester weather: grey, depressing and lacking anything to get excited about; until the Georgian signed for the cub on the 15th of July 1995. Narrowly avoiding relegation the season before, we needed that player that could unlock defenses and provide that bit of magic that had been lacking at Maine Road since the mid 70’s.
A few months into the season and City were winless and had only scored three goals; it was clear that it was going to be another very difficult season. But every mancunian cloud has a silver lining. Everyone has seen or remembers his exceptional solo goal against Southampton in March 96, which went on to win Match of the Day’s goal of the season, but it was a match a few weeks earlier at Maine Road, which made an indelible mark on my life as a City fan. We were playing Newcastle, who were challenging for the league, at Maine Road and I was a seven year old sat in the North Stand with my dad who had been talking fervently about City’s new playmaker all season. This was my first chance to see him live and I wasn’t disappointed. What struck me first was the noise the crowd made when he got the ball. I had never seen or heard anything like it before at a football match. The whole ground murmured with excitement as he controlled the ball in the middle of the pitch with two Newcastle players around him, a roar of approval as he manipulated the ball and burst away before rocketing a strike that skimmed the top of the bar from 25 yards. This was to be just one of many such incidents in an action packed game that finished 3 all. Much of the post match talk on the radio was either about Newcastle’s dwindling title hopes or Asprilla’s volatile introduction to British football. But all I could think about was City’s number 7 and his magic feet. I was hooked.
Fast forward just over twenty years to a February evening in Manchester and City are welcoming Monaco to the Etihad stadium for the first leg of a Champions League tie. Monaco were the surprise package of the season’s competition, although they had beaten Tottenham, an extremely strong team, both home and away and were scoring goals freely in the French league. Before the game, I got speaking to a couple of City fans in the pub and they mentioned in passing that Monaco’s number ten was one to watch and had been impressing for Monaco in the league. I asked what type of player he was and they looked at me almost mischievously and only replied, “You will have to wait and see”. I was intrigued.
Fans who were lucky enough to have tickets for the game saw one of the best exhibitions of attacking football from both teams ever seen on English soil. They game ended 5-3 in City’s favour. There were many talking points after the game: City’s shambolic defending, Monaco’s flying fullbacks and the expectations for the second leg. But all I could think of was Monaco’s diminutive right winger who was by far and away the best player on the pitch, despite his team losing by two goals. The way he rode challenges belied his small frame and his speed of thought and quick feet gave him that yard of space that only great players seem to possess. It all seemed so familiar.
When we signed Bernardo Silva earlier in the summer I immediately thought about the impact he was going to have on both the City team and the Premier League, which inevitably made me think of that summer in 95 when we bought Kinkladze and how he quickly held the hopes of a club on his shoulders. He was brought into a City team that lacked any other players on his wavelength; he was brought to a league before Arsene Wenger and the influx of foreign players had brought continental ideas to the English game. Furthermore, in a rigid 4-4-2 system it was always questioned where he was going to play or how he would fit into the team. Taking these into consideration, it was always going to be difficult for Kinkladze to succeed and reach his potential in a City shirt, but it was those flashes of brilliance that kept the fans coming to the stadium and made him a hero to City fans. In many ways, Kinkladze personifies that era of the club: so many hopes and aspirations and flashes of “what could have been”, but ultimately falling up short.
This is what excites me about Bernardo Silva. Where Kinkladze was the missing piece of a different jigsaw, Silva looks to be an exciting piece that is being added to an already dynamic and exciting City line up. Where Kinkladze was found a place in the team, often on the wing where games would pass him by, Silva will fit effortlessly into a several positions in Pep’s new look City side next season. Kinkladze was a great player in a poor City team and it was this that ultimately elevated him to a cult hero and the embodiment of the club’s hopes and failures of that era. Silva arrives at a club that has everything needed to be successful both domestically and on the continent. Everything is now in place for the club to be a success and to create more moments that will define the club, and you never know, in twenty years time many fans will be looking back fondly and saying, “I was there” for Bernardo Silva’s first game at the Etihad.