Georgi Kinkladze returns to the club he insists he never wanted to leave when he goes back to Manchester City today.
The little Georgia midfielder remains an idol at Maine Road. His name is still sung there, he still receives mail from true-Blue followers and, when he left for Ajax Amsterdam in May 1998 for £4.92million, some City fans even turned up in Holland to watch him train.
Kinkladze, 27, has hardly been a stranger at Maine Road in the last year, visiting the ground where his heart lies when the fixture list allows. Derby's visit this afternoon will be his first as an opposing player. You sense the excitement in his voice.
He said: 'I will be proud to go back to Manchester City. They were my first team in England and I love the club. It will be nice to play there again, especially to see the supporters because every game I played for City they were always behind me.
'I still follow them and I'm pleased to see them back in the Premiership. There's nobody left from when I played there. If City hadn't been relegated from the Premiership, I think I would still have been there, though.
'I stayed when the club went down to the First Division. But when they were relegated to the Second Division I couldn't stay any longer.'
After four weeks out with a recur-rence of the groin injury which needed an operation before the season, the Georgian lit up Derby's 2-0 win over Newcastle on Saturday.
He was on the pitch for only 20 minutes, yet curled over the cross for Deon Burton's 73rd-minute clinching goal to add to Horacio Carbonari's 33rd-minute opener. Derby manager Jim Smith, happy after 14 points from eight games, said: 'I think he came on and said: "Look, I've got to be in that side on Boxing Day.î
'He'll get a good reception - to start with anyway. He'll play from the start. I wanted him on against Newcastle to get him ready. I would hope he would be up for it.'
While Kinkladze's heart remains in Manchester, he realises his pay packet comes from Pride Park. He said: 'It's been frustrating for me to be injured, particularly as the team have not been playing well.
'There's only a point between Derby and Manchester City. I want to play against City not just because I played for them but because it's a big game for both clubs. I hope they stay up, too, but first I have to think of saving Derby.'
City, beaten 1-0 at Sunderland on Saturday, will aim to bring their two-game losing run to an end in a match which sees Steve Howey up against Smith, who managed him at Newcastle.
Howey said: 'I've got a lot of time for Jim. He's a great manmanager. I'll probably say hello to him before the game but that will be it, and hopefully I'll say "unluckyî to him after the game.
'This is a very important game for us. The Christmas period will have a big say in how the season goes.'