Blast from the Past no.26: Finidi George
Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
In Ipswich Town’s penultimate Premiership season in 2000/01, they finished fifth in the table. That summer, they spent £3.1m - the second highest sum they had ever paid - on the Nigerian international wing wizard Finidi George. The following summer, they were relegated. George was subsequently paid to leave the club and Ipswich have not returned to the Premier League since.
From that simplified version of the story, the Nigerian international wing wizard looks like a nailed-on culprit for the club’s demise. Indeed, many Ipswich fans see it that way.
“Not the kind of player needed for a relegation scrap,” said one supporter on the TWTD website. “He started slow and got slower,” agreed another. “So good we had to pay to get rid of him because nobody else would take him,” added a fellow fan. “An unmitigated failure who went missing when it mattered most,” summarised another. Even the East Anglian Times newspaper has called George “the most costly blunder in the history of Ipswich Town Football Club”.
But is this shiny-headed attacking magician, who remains one of the most talented, decorated players to ever turn out at Portman Road, really to blame?
One of 12 brothers brought up in the Niger Delta town of Port Harcourt, in George’s early 20s he was invited to a training camp in Holland and spotted by an Ajax scout. The Dutch giants signed him for £3,000 with their manager, a certain Louis van Gaal, personally funding the transfer due to financial problems at the club. Two years later, George played in the Champions League final victory against Milan. In the following year’s final, he was in the side that lost on penalties to Juventus.
Finidi also starred in the Super Eagles side that impressed at the 1994 World Cup, where he scored a stunner against Greece and inexplicably celebrated by impersonating a urinating dog. After successful stints in Spain with Real Betis and Mallorca, plus another good showing for Nigeria at France 98, it was time for George’s lucrative move to the Premiership, aged 30.
Or was he?
One popular explanation - lying at an unknown point on a spectrum with truth and racism at opposite ends - for George’s perceived Premiership failure is that his birth certificate was a fabrication.
“I have it on very good authority that he was in fact at least 10 years older than he had said, so would’ve been circa 40 when he was here. I was in the academy at the time and my dad was quite friendly with the Town physio team who made no secret of it,” is the claim of one Ipswich fan.
George didn’t look especially sprightly when he lined up at Sunderland on the opening day of the 2001/02 season, but his home debut against Derby three days later was a different story.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen a more dominant and exciting individual performance by a Town player,” recalled one fan, with fellow crowd members describing the display as “unbelievable” and “incredible”.
“He comes from Africa, he drives a big tractor,” sang the infatuated home supporters as George scored twice in a dazzling show, which at the time was the third best performance Opta had ever recorded.
If it was the best display by an Ipswich player that season, it must have been the best performance by a 40-year-old anywhere in the history of football.
That wasn’t all Finidi did in an Ipswich shirt, either. His goal and assist in a 2-1 win at Torpedo Moscow kickstarted a Uefa Cup adventure that lead all the way to the San Siro, where Town were eventually knocked out by Inter Milan. There was also a match-winning display in a 2-1 victory at Tottenham, plus an outrageous chip in a 5-0 thrashing of Sunderland.
“I have not seen a better goal at Portman Road than that chip,” gushed one fan, while another said the strike “matches any goal that I witnessed over the Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen years”.
All of which would indicate that a) George wasn’t that bad and b) he clearly wasn’t 40 years old.
As one fan explained, “If there was ever a Marmite footballer, it was Finidi.” Because for all the fans that demonised George, there are many others that loved him.
“A fantastic player who was somewhat ludicrously named as a reason for our relegation by several fans,” was how one put it. “Seven goals from midfield in a rubbish team - we had a lot of issues that season but he wasn’t one of them,” said another.
“He will generally be ridiculed to a certain extent by those that don’t really understand association football,” elaborated one Portman Road diehard. “I have been a regular since the mid 70s so I have watched many a star here but Finidi is up there. He gave some superb performances but was instructed by the increasingly insane George Burley to track back and get the ball. What Burley should have advised was for all the rest of the team track back and give the ball to Finidi. I look back fondly on the man.”
Despite all of this, it’s impossible to make a case George being a successful signing. After Town’s relegation he became a bit-part player and was eventually offloaded with a £1m pay-off. It was calculated that the eight goals he scored in his 46 appearances came at a cost of £760,000 each. On the bright side, at least a couple of them were worth it.
“It’s a bit harsh to hold him personally responsible for relegation,” said one Tractor Boy. “He’s more emblematic of a point (summer 2001) where the club mistakenly thought it had arrived in the big time - decided to build two new stands, handed Burley a bumper new contract, signed foreign fancy Dans like Matteo Sereni (a £4.8m Italian goalkeeper who broke the club transfer record one day after George signed) - and the club fanzine briefly changed its name from ‘Those Were the Days’ to 'These Are the Days’. Pretty much all those decisions turned out to be wrong.”
Fifteen years later, Ipswich are still striving for a return to the big time. As for Finidi, by some fans’ estimates should be pushing up daisies by now. In fact, after spending several years “on the Mallorcan beaches in the sun” (his words) he’s now 44 years old and getting his coaching badges. He never did get a licence for that tractor though.
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