FEATURE: Sublime And Ridiculous, The Mercurial Paulo Wanchope

Paulo Wanchope’s first goal at Maine Road knocked Manchester City out of the League Cup.

The gangly Costa Rican had been at Derby County for 18 months and had settled into life in the Premier League, following his transfer from CS Herediano in his native country. Having scored a memorable goal on his debut – skipping past four Manchester United players to slot the ball past Peter Schmeichel in a surprise victory for the Rams at Old Trafford – he settled into life in England with 17 strikes in his first full season.

It was at the beginning of his next, 1998-99, that the Premier League outfit were drawn against City in the second round of the League Cup. Following a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Danny Tiatto had equalised Rory Delap’s opening goal, and the tie was finely poised into the reverse fixture at Maine Road.

The Blues were in Division Two, then the third tier of English football, while Derby were a solid top flight side – they’d finish eighth in the Premier League. Despite that gulf, the League Cup matches were tight, so City would have been happy with an away goal and a level scoreline.

But, seven days after that 1-1 draw, City went down 0-1 to Derby at Maine Road, and it was Wanchope who beat goalkeeper Tommy Wright just before the half hour.

Wanchope and City didn’t cross paths again until August 2000, when he eventually signed on a four-year deal from West Ham. He’d been hesitant, stalling on the £3.65m transfer because he wanted to speak with his family first – though it looked like he would have to leave Upton Park for regular first-team football, following West Ham’s signings of Davor Sukur and Freddie Kanoute.

In a James Bond-style turn of events, he met manager Joe Royle at a secret location where he underwent a medical and signed a contract ahead of the 2000-01 campaign. He was the third summer signing, ahead of the club’s return to the Premier League, joining Alfie Haaland and George Weah.

Wanchope made his debut on the opening match of the season and it was a game that set the pattern for the 37 matches to follow – it finished 4-0 to Charlton at The Valley. The Costa Rican had the chance to level the score in the first half after the hosts had taken the lead, but his header was flicked onto the post by Dean Kiely.

It was in his first home match for his new club – his second appearance at Maine Road – that he’d truly make an impact, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Sunderland. He smashed a half-volley into the net at the back post first, scrambled onto his own flick-on from a long ball second, and toe-poked home after a one-two with Haaland third.

The first year in Manchester wasn’t smooth for Wanchope, though. He reacted badly to being substituted in an FA Cup win over Coventry at Maine Road, gesticulating at the bench and barging past the physio. Royle later made allegations in his autobiography that the striker had tried to attack him in the dressing room after a row at half time of a defeat at Chelsea earlier in the season, just after the time Weah acrimoniously left the club, and that their relationship had been going steadily downhill since that point. Royle thought the Liberian veteran had a lot of influence over Wanchope and that his departure had a big effect on the striker.

Wanchope was transfer listed, but no offers came in and – after not featuring in the team since that FA Cup tie in January – the Costa Rican was reinstated for the end-of-season run in at the beginning of April.

He scored once more and it was a typical Wanchope goal, if such a thing could exist. It won the match at Leicester, a battle of two teams that were desperate for points at the bottom of the table and a game that was befitting of a scrap for survival. Shaun Goater opening the scoring by having the ball punched into his back by Foxes goalkeeper Tim Flowers, Wanchope won it with a back-heel half-volley in the second half.

After a summer where he scored six goals in five games in the Copa America for his country, Wanchope came back and quickly settled into Kevin Keegan’s new-look Manchester City – following the sacking of Royle in the close season.

But it began with a red card. The striker, eager to get the game restarted quickly after City trailed 2-0 at Norwich, clashed with a ball-boy and was given his marching orders in added time.

On his return, though, he was a consistent scorer. In a season where Goater and Darren Huckerby were also regulars in finding the net, City played some of their most attractive and entertaining football in living memory – and the 2001-02 campaign still remains one that fans look back on fondly, despite great attacking displays in the Premier League title-winning seasons under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.

For Wanchope, there was a stylish first-half hat-trick against Burnley in the December. There was a stunning winner against Preston North End, hammered in off the near post and into the top corner in a 3-2 victory. There were several cool and calm penalties.

It wasn’t the roaring success he’d have hoped, though. Despite being a regular on the scoresheet when in the team, he missed large swathes of the campaign injured – and didn’t feature at all after the FA Cup defeat to Newcastle in mid-February.

He missed all of 2002-03 side-lined with injury, having aggravated a knee problem at the World Cup and, on his return, he dislocated his shoulder in training before he could make an appearance. He didn’t feature again for City until August 2003, 18 months later, as he got back into the team for the club’s return to European football – though he didn’t score in the 5-0 home win over TNS.

His first goal back in the Premier League came in the last minute of a 2-2 draw with Fulham, earning Keegan’s side a late point. A notable strike at Southampton sealed a 2-0 win for his team six weeks later, and he celebrated by deafening a producer and screaming into a pitch-side microphone.

Throughout 2003-04, City struggled to make chances and their inconsistent form left them in a relegation dogfight in the final weeks of the campaign. Wanchope had been unable to truly influence fixtures – though that changed on his return to fitness.

He scored the winner in a 1-0 home victory over Newcastle, a result that left them effectively safe. With two games of the season left, City were six points above the relegation zone – but their goal difference was far superior to both Leeds and Wolves, who could both draw level on points. For City to go down from there, it needed a 35-goal swing at least.

Despite losing 2-1 at Middlesbrough, in which Wanchope scored the consolation, the next round of fixtures confirmed City were to stay in the Premier League. The pressure was off on the final day, as Keegan’s side battered Everton 5-2, with the Costa Rican netting a first half brace.

After a battle with injury, the striker was sold to Malaga for £500k, leaving Manchester with a record of 29 goals in 75 appearances over four years.

Wanchope was always exciting for the fans to watch, taking to football like a daddy long legs takes to anything in its three-year lifespan. Perhaps part of the reason he was an entertaining striker for the club was that it was impossible for defenders to work out what he was going to do – most probably because he didn’t know what he was going to do, either.

Nevertheless, supporters could easily be forgiven for wondering what might have been had the Costa Rican not been so unlucky with his injuries.

Written by David Mooney

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