Pavel Viktorovich Pogrebnyak. A man of many names.
In his native Russian tongue, he is Pogreb (''The Cellar''), or Velikiy Po ("Po the Great"). To us, he is Pog. THE Pog. Or simply Big Pav.
Whack his initials, PP7, into Google and it is perhaps fitting that the first two results are the PP7 nine-volt battery and the PP7 pistol, appearing in the Nintendo 64 classic, Goldeneye 007 - for The Pog is both of these things: a battery and a weapon.
Ok, granted, my tongue is firmly in my cheek. But make no mistake, during the two seasons that Pog (not to be confused with the 1990s circular-cardboard craze of the same name) has been in Berkshire, in spite of his numerous critics, he's carved out a Pog-shaped cavity within my heart. In a good way, before you ask.
My love affair with Pogrebnyak began in a Welsh pub.
Honestly. 19 months ago, 259 miles from darkest Reading, as I sat in the corner of a Welsh pub in Welsh Wales eating Welsh nibbles and watching Chelsea vs Reading on (a probably highly illegal lease of) Italian Sky Calcio television, it was there and then that knew I had experienced my first encounter of the Pog kind. I was a mere spectator - and so was the stranded Petr Cech - to a 25th-minute moment of magic as a Garath McCleary cross (some things never change...) fell flush upon Pogrebnyak's forehead, flew meteorically through the August evening air, and before my brain could register the quality of his goal (let alone the bewildering babble of Italian commentary) the Russian was already running in celebration, his head bowed and arms outstretched as if to say ''Here I am''. The Pog had arrived on the Royal scene, and in style.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the euphoria of that moment seems distant. Whilst the Pog's goal against Chelsea remains a highlight of last season, it ultimately came in a campaign which saw him feature only 4 further times on a Premier League scoresheet, and relegation to where we are now: back in the Championship.
Over the summer, you could have been forgiven for thinking (even hoping) that Pogrebnyak wouldn't be playing for us in the 2nd tier: there were pockets of Reading fans labelling Pog as 'lazy', 'lumbering', 'a waste of wages' (which can't have been helped by rumours of £65k pay packet flying around, which the club feverishly deny), question marks over his attitude, and general disgruntlement around a player initially seen as a major acquisition the year before - let's not forget that Pav, at Fulham, broke a Premier League record for scoring 5 goals in his first 3 games as a top-flight player (for perspective, he managed the same total over an entire 38-game season for us). In the minds of some if not most, and be it fairly or unfairly, our big Russian had already been written off as a big flop.
Some kept the faith, and this season have been duly rewarded: it would have taken a prophet to predict that Pavel would go on to claim a hat-trick of TTE Player of the Month accolades, and be a truly positive presence in the matchday eleven, even during our Christmas form-slump, when (to dust off the old cliché) he was probably one of the first names on the teamsheet. Ever since the summer transfer window slammed shut - after all, the transfer window cannot be merely 'closed', it must be SLAMMED SHUT - with Pog still in our ranks, he has worked his proverbial Russian crown jewels off: a cynic would claim he's playing for a way out, I'd like to think he's playing for 'the badge', and for a swift Prem return. But perhaps I'm just naïve. Whatever the motivation, only the Pog can truly know why everything has begun to click for the big man...and click it certainly has. In matches this season he has proved to be one of our most reliable sources of goals, scoring at home and away, racking up 9 goals and forming productive partnerships with poacher Adam Le Fondre and, during his fleeting stint in the blue and white hooped shirt, Billy Sharp.
All's well that ends well, eh. We are all familiar with Pav's rollercoaster tale by now. But the big question about our Big Flipping Russian is this: what would we do without him? Take the Pog out of the Royal equation, and where would we be now?
I lay down in a darkened room and had a long and hard ponder about this. Ok, so I didn't really, but I have however come up with a few thoughts and observations around the topic. Some are obvious, some less so, and some could be taken as truly bizarre. Have a look and see what you think, and as always, take a moment to add your own responses in the comments section at the foot of the page - feel free also to post glowing praise / scathing criticism of the meandering ramblings about to follow, or even write a sonnet / haiku / Greek myth about your undying love or loathing of Reading's very own Herculean hero. Here we go:
1.) The Pog is an out-and-out striker in a squad lacking in out-and-out striking options. Right, so this one falls into the 'face-bashingly obvious' category. But after a summer clearout which saw Simon Church, Noel Hunt (prematurely?), and even prospect Uche Ikpeazu pass through the MadStad exit doors, not to mention the pending retirement of the Big Bad Wolf after his injury hell, all of a sudden we are striker-skint. This was made painfully obvious whilst Le Fondre was struggling to cement a place under Adkins earlier this season, and after failing to tie down Billy Sharp to a permanent contract and with no new faces appearing in January (Reading, interestingly, was the only Championship club not to add to its ranks, financial state aside), we've been whittled down to Messrs' ALF and Pog alone.
I realise that I'm not factoring our (very strong and Category One) academy of Samuel, Ugwu and the like into this judgement, plus I've ignored the wing-deployed striker that is Nick Blackman, and the striker-deployed winger that is Hal Robson-Kanu. But now that Ol' Nige has reverted to a two-striker system, and given the as-yet unproven ability of ALF to play up front on his own, Pogrebnyak is a vital, vital part of the entire team jigsaw. It would take only one injury to either Pog or ALF and we'd have a potential pseudo-crisis on our hands, and at the very least a sizeable spanner in our works.
2.) The Pog is a personality. This is something I feel very passionate about. In a sport which should always be entertainment-driven, Big Pav gives Reading supporters someone to sing about - literally. Affectionate cries of ''BIG F*CKING RUSSIAN, WE'VE GOT A BIG F*CKING RUSSIAN'', etc, would be a sorely missed presence in our already pretty tame and sedate MadStad crowd. In fact, one of the most disappointing (if not THE most disappointing) outcomes of Adrian Mariappa being carted off to Crystal Palace - in my eyes - was the loss of the ''MARIAPPA! (Mariappa.)'' chant, to the tune of '500 Miles' by The Proclaimers, from the Reading FC songbook (available on Amazon for £5.99. Only joking. And not just about the price). But in all seriousness, I was more irked by that than the much more pressing loss of one of our defensive playing staff. I need my head seeing to, urgently.
There's another facet to Pogrebnyak which endears him to me: when I mentioned his celebratory jog against Chelsea earlier on, something I failed to mention was his Terminator-esque style of running. I'm sorry, but it's wonderful. More than that, it's majestic. And during matches such as Birmingham and Doncaster this season, the sight of opposition defenders turning to custard as the Pog bears down on them with his leggy, robotic, Action-Man powerstride, and then promptly hoofing the ball into touch in a panic, is nothing short of hilarious.
Now I'm not suggesting that we go out and sign players purely by virtue of a getting a decent matchday singsong or two out of it, nor am I saying that we give a player a contract on the basis of the way they walk, jog or run, in the same way that I wouldn't advocate buying a player because of their name alone (unless it's Jake Forster-Caskey, for sentimental reasons). But it gives a team more colour, more character and personality, and a vibrancy. A player like the Pog gives us all that: a uniqueness. My goodness somebody stop me, I'm beginning to sound like Brendan Rodgers Soundbite-Central.
3.) The Pog scores important goals at important moments. Hang about, I know what you're thinking, "Jacob you daft sod, ANY player does that", and directly relevant to the example of Reading is the common perception that Adam Le Fondre is our match-winner. I won't take anything away from ALF at all, but Big Pav steps up at key times just as often. That sounds controversial, but in reality, there is an argument for it: earlier I mentioned that Pogrebnyak scored 5 league goals last season, and 8 in all competitions, but I would go as far as saying that ALL of his goals were significant in some way. I've already gushed over his equaliser at Stamford Bridge, but let's not forget that it was Pog who scored the winner against West Ham, who scored Reading's 100th Premier League goal at Swansea and in the process secured us a draw, who opened the scoring on New Year's Day after just 4 minutes at White Hart Lane...and the pick of the bunch, who else but THE POG completed our remarkable 3-2 comeback against West Brom, sparking scenes of shirt-removal, sensationalist sports newspaper front-pages and whatnot, but also dreams of staving off relegation. He gave us hope, to be frank, as well as an abundance of memorable moments.
I could go on. In fact, I will. Pogrebnyak scored in every round of our League Cup run: his goals edged out two 3-2 wins against Peterborough and QPR, and he equalised in that Halloween horror-show with Arsenal to make it 5-5. Of course, I've only waffled on about last season and could just as easily spew some examples from this campaign - Derby away, for instance. I was down in the North Stand stairwell when Pog lashed in from that obscene angle to make it 4-1 against Donny, and saw the cheeky grin on his face as he wheeled away. The Pog is a player who is enjoying his football again, and I'm enjoying watching it. But less sentimental is the cold, hard fact that without Pog's goals, our relegation from the top-flight would have been confirmed at a much earlier date, and this season we certainly wouldn't be sitting (albeit shakily) in 6th position.
4.) The Pog provides us with pedigree and experience. Believe it or not, Pogrebnyak is 30. In our current starting lineup, only Jobi McAnuff and Kaspars Gorkss are older, meaning Pav is a steady head in a relatively young team. Look, I won't get too hooked on this point and I realise that Pavel is by no means a fossil but I don't think we should underestimate the impact of an older figure within a squad. After all, wasn't Bryn Gunnarsson treasured for this, in part?
You can see a cool head on Pog in his superb hold-up play: yes, fine, he's been known to leap into the occasional challenge with reckless bravado (or with plain stupidity, depending on how you see it. Certainly referees have shown him red on more than one occasion for it, most memorably in my mind last season when Wigan embarrassed us 3-0 at home. Not one of Pog's finer moments). You could argue that his oft-criticised "softness" in falling to the floor - Russian ballet, if you like - in certain cases is part of the cynicism that age brings. Don't lynch me for that.
Dodgy arguments about age and experience to one side, something that cannot be disputed is Pav's impressive CV. Pedigree alone does not score goals or win matches, you only have to look to QPR last season and their recent form in the Championship to see that, but it certainly helps, especially when that pedigree includes winning the UEFA Cup and UEFA Supercup with Zenit St Petersburg, scoring the winning goal against Manchester United in 2008/2009 (though to be honest, scoring against Man United in any competition as of late is not all that mightily impressive), and being in Pogrebnyaction for Zenit and Stuttgart in the Europa League and Champions League. Combine all that with 8 goals in 33 games for the Russian national team and by jingo - if Pav's CV became any more achievement laden you'd start to think it was pre-liquidation Rangers'. Och.
If (and I mean IF) we mount a challenge in the play-offs this season, then it might just be that Pogrebnyak's big-match experience is the difference between promotion and...er, non-promotion. But then again, we might just go and lose to Burnley in the semis. Again.
5.) The Pog has a penchant for hats. Oh yes he does.
But don't just take my word for it. And if that photograph is anything to go by, Pav has a soft-spot for jumpers made of badgers, too. On a similar tangent, I would love to have been a fly on the wall during Pogrebnyak's traditional Reading Football Club dressing-room karaoke initiation. If my memory serves me correctly I think he sang an old Beatles classic. Though it could just as easily have been Depeche Mode.
And there we have it, an exhaustive Pog-bonanza. Penning this article has given me an appreciation of one thing: a world without Reading's Russian man-mountain would be a bleak, washed-out, cold, lifeless, monochromatic and melancholy place indeed. We'd probably have less points on the board to boot.
The bottom line is we shouldn't take Pavel Pogrebnyak for granted. In my opinion - and you're more than entitled to disagree - he is an asset to this football club in more ways than one.
Pog - keep on Pogging.