TOM JACKSON on the day the mercurial Algerian talents of Ali Benarbia dazzled the Maine Road crowd
Sometimes the Gods of football fate do you a favour. For Manchester City fans, 15 September 2001 was a good day. Legend has it an aging Ali Benarbia was travelling back home to France following a failed trial at Sunderland. Manager Kevin Keegan caught wind of this and, bemused at why a player who had destroyed Newcastle United years before whilst playing for Monaco was not snapped up, invited the Algerian to City’s Carrington training ground. After a brief kick-around with the boss, and a salmon dinner specially prepared by the club chef, Benarbia signed a two-year deal on the spot. He flew home to Paris late that night to pick up some gear, flying back the following morning just in time to make his debut versus Birmingham at Maine Road.
It was the first game at Maine Road following the 11 September Terror Attacks, and the mood was expectedly sombre. A world of uncertainty was comforted with the constant of football. City’s new signing stood in the centre-circle as both players and crows impeccably observed the minute’s silence. Diminutive in stature, the Algerian was swamped in a laser blue Le Coq Sportif City kit seemingly two sizes too big. Not many knew what to make of him, given the speed of the signing, but such was his impact by the end of the 90 minutes Birmingham’s manager Trever Francis was left to lament: “I would have preferred him to have been signed a day later.”
Ali would have to wait a little while before striking up the formidable partnership with Eyal Berkovic which defined the clubs romp to the Division One title that season. Instead, on his debut, he slotted into a central midfield three alongside promising youngster Dickson Etuhu, also making his debut, and club favourite Danny Tiatto.
From the kick off it was clear that Benarbia was head and shoulders above anyone on the pitch, despite his stature. Always demanding the ball, he was calm, measured and precise in everything he did. His off-the-cuff approach to the game, fully confident in his own ability, was perhaps a culture shock to a team made up of remnants from Joe Royle’s dogs-of-war. Given his likely introduction to his team-mates just before kick-off, the way in which he linked the play and threaded telepathic through-balls to the strike partnership of Shaun Goater and Paulo Wanchope was something wondrous to behold. It was as if he’d played with the team for years.
His amazing skill and vision led to the first goal. After a pass to Richard Edgehill in the right wing back role he burst into the box only to be met by three defenders. He chopped and turned 180 degrees, hurdled a tackle and found the Costa Rican on the penalty spot through a cluster of players all in one movement. Wanchope’s shot rebounded off the post which found always-on-the-spot Goater to tap in.
The second goal followed shortly after. Benarbia played a short corner to Tiatto, followed up his pass and with a one-two he reversed a pass back to the Australian taking out the pressing defenders with ease. The subsequent cross found Richard Dunne’s shin from two yards out and inevitably the back of the net. Benarbia’s invention from corners continued with a low drive to Etuhu on the edge of the box which led to a shot off target. The crowd whispered in hushed optimism that the new boy in blue was something special. A hole not filled since Georghi Kinkladze departed a few years earlier.
Coercing his colleagues and conducting his own symphony another goal followed. This time Goater netted a header from a Stuart Pearce corner, putting City 3-0 up at half-time. The Maine Road faithful had only one taking point to discuss over pies and Bovril: how faultless the Algerian’s performance had been!
More of the same followed until the 74th minute. With his audience pleased and his work done Keegan made the move to substitute with debut boy. A rapturous ovation greeted his departure and an instant hero was born. The remaining 16 minutes served as a warm down for the fans who were still beguiled at the talent they’d seen.
Within a few weeks of his debut after a flurry of goals, assists and unparalleled performances, Paulo Wanchope noted: “He can see you when you can’t see yourself!” Tongue in cheek? Maybe. But bizarrely accurate to all those who saw him grace the Maine Road turf in what seemed the briefest but most magical of spells.