It’s the nature of celebrity that you can spend decades working tirelessly in the full glare of the public eye and wind up being remembered for just one thing. For Tony Blair, it’s the Iraq war. For Ini Kamoze, it’s Here Comes the Hotstepper. For George Galloway, it’s dressing in a red leotard and pretending to be a cat. And for Temuri Ketsbaia, it’s a celebration.
While most footballers seem quite happy in the moments after they’ve scored a goal, the former Newcastle midfielder’s reaction to finding the net against Bolton in January 1998 was one of outright rage. The substitute “celebrated” the late winner by throwing his shirt away, trying unsuccessfully to remove one of his boots, then ferociously kicking in some McDonalds and Adidas advertising boards while trying to have a fight with his team-mate Alessandro Pistone.
It was a remarkable spectacle, and for most fans it is Ketsbaia’s only memorable contribution to Premier League football. But was there more to the Georgian than one infamous release of pent-up aggression?
The Newcastle side Kestbaia joined in the summer of 1997 were considered serious title contenders, having finished Premier League runners-up two years running, but it was a team in transition. Manager Kenny Dalglish sold off popular players including Peter Beardsley, David Ginola and Les Ferdinand, replacing them with a mixed bag of experienced pros (John Barnes, Stuart Pearce), future stars (Shay Given) and sad flops (John Dahl Tomasson, Brian Pinas). But Ketsbaia, a free transfer signing from AEK Athens, didn’t really fall into any of these categories.
“For better or worse, Ketsbaia’s direct manner would liven up Dalglish’s drab sideways football,” recalled one Newcastle fan on the NUFC Forum. “There was at least the possibility of his making something happen. I can remember the clamour around the ground for his introduction from the sub’s bench.”
Supersub is never the most flattering description of a player, but it wouldn’t be unkind to say that Ketsbaia’s best work on Tyneside came from the bench. Never more so than when he replaced Tomasson in a Champions League qualifying match against Croatia Zagreb, weeks after joining the club. With the tie heading for penalties, Ketsbaia capitalised on some kamikaze defending to fire the Magpies into the group stages for the first time in the club’s history. This feat alone ensures the ‘Georgian Geordie’ will always be fondly remembered by the Toon Army.
“He’s still very well liked, mainly because of his 100 per cent effort in every game,” said another Newcastle fan, while a fellow Magpie commended Ketsbaia’s “commitment and attitude” and another labelled him “eccentric and totally mad”.
Ketsbaia also appeared as a substitute in the club’s 3-2 victory against Barcelona in the Champions League group phase, but that famous night at St James’s Park would be a rare highlight in a frustrating season. Dalglish’s side finished a disappointing 13th in the league but fared better in the cups, reaching the FA Cup final for the first time since 1974. It turned out to be a one-sided affair against Arsenal, who won 2-0.
Despite Ketsbaia’s popularity with the fans, it’s unfortunate that his spell in the north-east coincided with a miserable three-year period in which the club struggled to recover from the departure of former boss Kevin Keegan. Dalglish was sacked two games into the following campaign and replaced by the equally hapless Ruud Gullit. Ketsbaia played in a second successive FA Cup final at Wembley, but this time treble-chasing Man Utd ran out comfortable 2-0 winners. One of Ketsbaia’s best Toon performances came on that season’s road to Wembley, a 4-1 quarter-final win against Everton in which the Georgian netted twice. Bobby Robson eventually replaced Gullit, but he sold Ketsbaia to First Division Wolves the following summer for £900,000. After spending a season at Molineux and another at Dundee, Ketsbaia finished his career in the Cypriot league with Anorthosis.
“In all honesty he wasn’t that good. If he didn’t kick off and go crazy kicking them advertising boards he would probably be long forgotten,” was one Newcastle fan’s summary.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing him boot a few Sports Direct boards in,” added another Geordie (although he replaced “Sports” with another word beginning with s).
So why did scoring against Bolton make him so angry? It turns out Ketsbaia has got a bit fed up with answering that question.
“Every time I speak with someone they ask about this celebration,” he once said. “ I scored a goal. I was happy to score a goal but I was not happy to not be playing and I was frustrated. It was not malicious.”
It seems Ketsbaia will never shake off his reputation as the nutcase who booted that McDonald’s sign, but he has an intriguing plan for reinvention.
Now a well regarded manager at Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia, having previously had spells in charge of Olympiacos and the Georgian national team, Ketsbaia throws his hat into the ring for the St James’s Park hotseat whenever it becomes vacant. “Any time that the job becomes available, I am available to speak to Newcastle about it,” he said in early 2015. Kestbaia feels he has unfinished business on Tyneside, and not just with those advertising hoardings.
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