George's Yellow Boots: When Manchester City Signed George Weah.By Simon Curtis | 12 May 2020
“He’s tri-lingual, a politician but most of all a goal-scorer.” – Joe Royle, August 2000.
Mr George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah, looking a bizarre fit alongside Mr Joseph Royle’s 2000-vintage Dogs of Blunder, lasted just nine league games at the start of what was to be yet another tumultuous season following the ups and downs of the good ship Manchester City. Alongside him, Spencer Prior, Tony Grant and the tattood splendour of Lee Peacock. To teach him about the culture of Kippax Street and Claremont Road and the fabled Route to Goal.
There were many things that seemed unlikely outcomes for the tiny kids playing football in the dust bowl pitches around Clara Town district of Monrovia. One of the poorest zones of the capital of Liberia, the children grew up in rags and progressed if they were lucky to some kind of dreary manual work involving long hours and little pay. For the four Weah brothers destiny seemed even more fickle when their parents split up, leaving them to be brought up by their paternal grandmother Emma Klonjlaleh Brown. That she already had nine other children under her supervision was a small detail lost in the fine dust.
Although a talented school footballer, George would soon be lucky enough to find a job on the switchboard at the Liberia Telecommunications Company. At that point, however, if you had told his colleagues they were sharing a desk with a future World Footballer of the Year and President of his country, the switchboard would have melted.
Eventually donning the shirt of Manchester City was, somewhat surprisingly, a more likely outcome, however.
The young George had been bitten by the same bug as you, dear reader, having seen those beguiling blue shirts on a tiny television in the local café. One day, he thought to himself, I will play for Manchester City at Maine Road. If only he could have been able to reel back time and ask for the tv to be switched over to The Wacky Races.
It was Arsene Wenger, then in charge of Monaco, who brought the by now ex-switchboard operator to Europe via the deliciously named Cameroonian giants Tonnerre Yaounde. The sound of thunder by now, however, was the sonic boom of Weah outstripping opponents with power and athleticism.
He was already a strapping lad; Wenger already a gawky, cerebral manager with an owl’s eye for French-speaking talent.
After initial success on the Cote d’Azur, the natural pecking order in French football took over. Even then, in the early 90s, the route to stardom was through the capital, where Paris St Germain were waiting to pounce. Weah became an unstoppable force in Paris, picking up individual awards and trophies with his team. A goal against Bayern Munich in the group stages of the Champions League showed him to be an effortlessly talented striker with a nose for where the net was, impossible to shake off the ball, direct and muscular, fast and deadly with either foot.
When you grow too big for Paris these days, it is usually the Premier League or La Liga who call next, but in 1994 Serie A was the path well trodden. Fabio Capello was waiting in his crisp AC Milan blazer with a briefcase of Silvio Berlusconi’s lire. He was to form a low-key strike trio with Roberto Baggio and Dejan Savicevic. If this misfired, Marco Simeone could replace whoever was slacking. Berlusconi was still adopting the expansive, extravagant spending that had taken Milan to the top of Europe during a decade of look-at-me largesse for the Bunga Bunga baron.
Despite the obvious talents in their squad, Milan’s European glory days were on the wane. The peak years of Gullit, Rijkaard, Baresi and van Basten were over and they had to make do and mend with a single Serie A title in 1999 and two unsuccessful Coppa d’Italia finals.
It was clearly time to move on to bigger and better things. Edgeley Park and a date with Tony Dinning was just what the doctor ordered. Weah had completed a semi-successful season on loan to Chelsea, playing in the 2000 Cup Final win over Aston Villa in the old Wembley’s damp squib of a swansong. Now came the real deal.
Royle, tiring of trying to prise Jan Koller from Anderlecht, Daniel Amokachi from Besiktas and Duncan Ferguson from Newcastle, let his gaze drop on Weah. Surprised to hear that joining City was the star player’s lifelong ambition, Royle wrapped up a deal in next-to-no-time and made hay while the sun was shining by acquiring Paulo Wanchope from West Ham to set up the prospect of the most unlikely front pairing since Hinge and Bracket hit the London Paladium.
I was away on holiday and remember worrying that the surroundings might phase such a grand lord of the high orders. Would the plastic M of Manchester City fall on his head as he walked through the cramped entrance of Maine Road? Would the local urchins treble their usual demands to look after his car when they saw the extravagant jewelry hanging off his cuffs? Would he return to his Bentley to find it stacked on bricks?
It was a tense start.
Weah’s debut at Stockport involved what Manchester Evening News reporter Chris Bailey named a degree of “hoop-la” and a 4-1 tanning by County. From scoring one of world football’s most memorable goals, when running from one end of the San Siro pitch to the other to net against Verona, here was George being awarded the singular honour of replacing Bob Taylor for the second half at Edgeley Park.
“I have played at some great clubs,” Weah said afterwards, wearing a wide-eyed expression, “but it is up to me to prove to the players that I am just the same as them…”
Whether this was an admission that Richard Jobson and Danny Granville might be occupying a lower level in football’s great dynasties or the searing Stockport heat had momentarily wearied George’s brain, it was not clear.
A visit to Oldham will not have given him any more of an idea what the North West of England held for him in the way of designer boutiques, ball-playing midfield maestros and sushi bars, although he did score and City did win, but improvement was needed and fast.
This improvement was nowhere evident on the opening day of the season in the Liberian sunshine of south east London. Charlton Athletic, fellow promotion novices, wiped the floor with City 4-0. Weah “found it hard to make an impression” stated Bailey in his MEN piece. George had swapped swooping victories at the Della Alpi and the Stadio Olimpico for high-diving face-first into six feet of custard at the Valley.
Awarded a desultory 5/10 for his efforts, the verdict ran that “nothing went to his feet”. As a first taste of the glory of wearing the sky blue, this was not what Weah had dreamed about as a kid in the dusty Monrovia suburbs. The ball was in the air, next to the sun and George’s boots lost none of their new veneer that afternoon.
What followed that harrowing opening curtain may have been a bit closer to what had made his duvet twitch all those years ago, however.
City welcomed Sunderland to Maine Road on a balmy Rusholme evening. Wednesday 23rd August was a little early for City to produce their best performance of the season but that is what we got. With a raucous Maine Road crowd loving every minute, a topsy-turvy game ended 4-2 to City, with three goals going the way of new signing Wanchope. From my seat low down in the North Stand that night, I watched a sweat-drenched Weah flick and poke and twist and turn to such great effect, it was possible to think Royle’s patchwork side might just have a chance. Heavily involved in a cut and thrust game, his pedigree was there for all to see: a master at ease with his working environment. Weah, in a pair of bright yellow boots, looked the epitome of the world class superstar, lithe, athletic, powerful, confident and imbuing in the Sunderland defence a state of total panic not witnessed at Maine Road since Alan Ball pointed eagerly towards the corner flag.
That August evening was as good as it got for City and for Weah.
While breaking off briefly to phone his friend, Liberian president Charles Taylor, to broker a deal to free a four-man British TV crew held on spying charges in Liberia, Weah seemed to be able to do a little of everything. But an anonymous performance in the wretched home defeat to Coventry (where he tempted fate by swapping his yellow boots for silver ones) preceded a quick jaunt to play for Liberia against Mauritius. Suddenly, the jet-setting Weah seemed to be trying to pack slightly too much into his schedule. Missing from the trip to Leeds, where City won surprisingly, he made the substitutes’ bench at Anfield, coming on to score after replacing Mark Kennedy in a 3-2 defeat. But the writing was on the wall, on the carpet and halfway across the pavement by this stage.
Already news was beginning to swirl that the man he called “Mr Royle” was not as impressed as he was supposed to be. Weah issued the traditional rallying cry in times of doubt: “I feel everything will work out well,” he told the Evening News. I was very disappointed that we lost (at Liverpool) and a professional player is always unhappy when he doesn’t play, but I have to respect the decisions the coach makes…”. There was a feeling that George no longer saw Royle as a mister and had already resorted to calling him other names under his breath.
Weah made the starting line up in a flaccid draw with Middlesbrough but lost his place to Paul Dickov for the trip to Tottenham. Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium must have looked like part of a psychedelic dream after the towering glory of the San Siro, but Weah glided through a Worthington Cup match in Kent with two more goals to his name.
His final ineffectual appearance in Manchester came on 30th September as the alarm bells announced a home defeat to Newcastle. Paul Hince’s Evening News report spoke of “Weah and Wanchope being starved of service”, a truth exacerbated by Royle’s artistic midfield four of Jeff Whitely, Kevin Horlock, Gerard Wiekens and, unbelievably, Paul Dickov. What Weah made of this went unreported, but the damage had been done and, when the Liberian didn’t make the team at all for the game with fellow strugglers Bradford, Weah’s mind was made up. You could imagine his phone call to his Mum in Monrovia. “Mother, I am not playing this weekend. My place has gone to Mr Paul Dickov…”
Being brought off in the home defeat to Newcastle had been bad enough, but not making the cut to face one of the relegation-fighters seemed to snap his resolve. In truth it had been an uneasy balancing act for both player and manager. Royle, desperately trying to instill the battling attitude that might save a brittle City fresh from two consecutive promotions, could hardly afford the luxury. Weah, needing to play and feel cherished, had picked the wrong team in the wrong league at the wrong moment. On a reputed £23,000 a week, which would not cover Sergio Aguero’s dry cleaning bill these days, Weah was also City’s highest paid player ever. For him not to be playing made little sense. At 34, his days in Europe were said to be over. The Evening News excitedly reported that the USA would be Weah’s next port of call.
The glimmering Bentley that carried him away from the bland prefabs of Carrington was as incongruous as Weah himself had been in City’s make do and mend side. The bonhomie of mutual understanding at the need to part ways lasted all of 24 hours before news broke of Weah’s true unhappiness with his manager. “I will not stay for someone to insult me, insult my integrity and to make me look small in front of younger players,” he harrumphed. “The reason I am leaving is not because I am not playing but because of the lack of respect and communication from Mr Royle.”
“There is no big man,” Weah had stated humbly on arrival two months earlier. The Big Man had by now returned, however. The world footballer of the year, the President’s best chum, the ex-Milan icon could not handle Royle’s blunt approach to team bonding. Four goals in 11 games (three of which had come in two games with Gillingham) told the tale of what might have been. Even in a side destined to go straight back down in May, Weah’s nous and talent had shone intermittently in a difficult start to the campaign.
The Big Man had indeed brought a big ego with him to Manchester. He had fulfilled his dream of playing for City, but his time was up. He was soon shipping up in Marseille to sign a juicy new contract, while City, bereft of yellow-booted icons, travelled to the Dell and won with the kind of guts-and-braces display that would only have made George’s eyes stand out on stalks.
The King was dead and, in fact, so were City.