He might not say much to the English press, but when it comes to the media from his home country it appears that Pavel Pogrebnyak has a lot to say for himself. In an open and honest interview, the Russian international talks about his future, life in England, why Anton Zingarevich sold the club and who he considers the star at the Madejski Stadium.
In your day, you scored against a team managed by André Villas-Boas. Not Zenit St Petersburg, but Tottenham Hotspur. And by the way, weren't you playing on January 1st?
I remember it well! It was all a bit strange, because before the game we were shut up in a hotel whilst our families were merrily celebrating the New Year. All in all, "Welcome to England". I remember clearly how Ian Harte’s free-kick struck the crossbar and I was able to nod it home. But Tottenham were very strong at that time and we probably scored too soon and got our opponents riled. And in the end they beat us 3:1. Michael Dawson in particular sticks in my memory.
One of my least favourite defenders. I have always said that playing against him is incredibly hard. The man is a monster – strong in the air, with great feet. I'll remember him for the rest of my life. Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey also stood out in that team. I played with Dempsey at Fulham. Before the start of the season we were in touch and I invited him to join us at Reading because he didn't want to stay with Fulham. It’s a shame his high transfer fee prevented such a move.
In 2012 you were playing with a motley bunch from Antigua and Barbuda, from the island of Jamaica and God knows where else. Would you say that Reading is a cosmopolitan club?
On the whole, Reading is built on good relationships within the team. Everybody is very polite, they say "Good morning" and "Thank you" to each other. But this isn’t enough to get results. When Steve Clarke arrived he said "I don't want you to be the nice guys". I agree with him absolutely - we lacked toughness. As for my team mates, I have a great relationship with them. For example I chat a lot with the Jamaican, McCleary, he’s a strong player.
The season is over - so what’s next? What’s the plan - Russia, the Championship, the Russian Premier League or the English Premier League?
It’s hard to say how Reading will develop next season. There’s been a change of ownership and it’s not clear if there will be much financial investment. It’s obvious the team needs better players. It’s great that we can get players on loan from Chelsea, but we need players on permanent contracts, which costs money. My contract has another year to run, but I don't want to have another rubbish season. I'll see what fate brings. The only thing I can say for sure is that I want to continue to live in the UK.
Rubbish season is a strong description. What do you think was the reason for that?
We started the season under a different manager and Steve Clarke only came in for the second half of the season. It was already difficult for us to shift our position in the table. The season would have been better if we'd beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final, but that wasn't to be.
Well, you still managed to make an assist at Wembley in front of 80,000 people.
The FA Cup semi-final was a historic moment for the club. We'd waited for this game for so long. When we beat Bradford City in the quarter final, the fans were so happy they even ran onto the pitch.
We were losing to Arsenal, then we equalised. At that moment I thought we would win and we could actually do it. Arsene Wenger said after the game, "Reading were ready to die to reach the final". And it’s true. But sadly we missed a chance in added time. Of course I'm happy to have made an assist. But I also had two great chances which I missed. I lacked composure. That’s why I have mixed emotions.
Can you describe the Championship in a couple of sentences?
It’s the hardest league I've ever played in all my life. It’s like gladiators fighting. They fight to the death. The teams are very strong physically, and well run. And some teams have very good players in their line-up. Maybe the Championship lacks a bit of flair compared with the Premier League. But playing in the Championship is the hardest challenge of my career. It is extremely hard to get out of here and get back to the elite.
Why’s that, it’s just 24 teams competing?
Because not one of these teams sets an objective to get into the Premier League in the same way as regularly happens in Russia with clubs like Tom Tomsk and Anzhi Makhachkala [presumably referring to the unbalanced nature of the Russian second tier where only a few clubs have realistic ambitions of promotion]. The best example is Brentford. They only got to the Championship this season and now they're in the play-off for promotion to the Premier League. Clearly, they can’t have set this as their objective.
A hat trick for Fulham against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Do you remember it often?
To be honest, yes. It happens – you play in the Championship and you remember what it was like in the Premier League. By the way, I've still got a video of that hat-trick. Sometimes I look at it and feel nostalgic for those days. I haven't given up on the idea that I can get back to my previous level, but that all depends on me.
Who is the main star at Reading nowadays?
The manager, Steve Clarke. A job on José Mourinho’s staff speaks for itself. Both in character and in training, there’s no doubt Clarke’s a coach of Premier League quality. When he first arrived it was a bit uncomfortable. We made every effort to meet his standards. We tried to show that he could get somewhere with us. In the end he got exasperated with us. For example, in a seven-a-side exercise to retain the ball, he made it clear he didn't think we were up to the job.
I appreciate Clarke’s sincerity – he always tells it how it is. Somehow we managed to lose 0:2 and he said "Lads, are you still questioning your position in the table? The table doesn't lie, and you deserve to be where you are."
You'd hardly call a manager like that a modest man?
It’s not about him. As it happened, teacups were flying around the dressing room that day.
This season Reading were slaughtered by Bournemouth, a club that’s owned by a Russian businessman. What do the English think about Bournemouth?
I know Bournemouth’s owner, Maxim Demin, a great guy. Bournemouth deserved to win the Championship, although right up until the last match it looked as if they would be second. But that would have been unfair because Bournemouth played the best football in the Championship, and I really wanted them to be champions.
Bournemouth’s widely admired. It’s a team that plays a passing game with excellent ball control, unlike most of the others. You could call them the Barcelona of the Championship. I don't know what they'll do about their stadium though, because it’s very small (the stadium seats 12,000 people).
Mortal Kombat: Anton Zingarevich (Reading’s former owner) vs Maxim Demin - who would win?
Zingarevich acted rashly when he sold Reading because things were getting difficult. Zingarevich versus Demin, and before you know it Abramovich will be getting his act together. (He laughs).
In your opinion, who are the very best players in the Championship?
One great player’s just gone back to Chelsea after being on loan to Middlesbrough – the centre forward Patrick Bamford was Championship Player of the Year. The Reading player I’d single out is young Michael Hector, a strong defender. What surprised me most, looking at the other teams in the Championship, was that Derby couldn’t even make the playoffs, despite having a cool striker like Chris Martin, who scored 18 goals in the course of the season.
Reading’s nickname is the Royals. Maybe you should change your nickname from the Great Pog to the Royal Pog?
I don’t deserve that accolade. What would be good to change before the start of next season is my team number. I’ve already agreed a trade-in with Hal Robson-Kanu. He plays as number 9, I'm number 7… Incidentally, I’ve never changed my number before, as I’ve never stayed anywhere more than three years. Reading will be the first club where I break this tradition.
A little bit about your life outside football: the wife, the kids?
It’s cool. The kids go to a local school and speak in English, even at home. Sometimes you have to walk through the apartment with a dictionary in order to understand them (he laughs). My wife’s a successful fashion designer. At first she just drew sketches, and then later she began to make things for real. On the whole, she is doing well in the fashion business.
Your three sons have reached the age where they can begin to prove themselves as footballers. Any success?
The eldest started first in the Chelsea academy, but then we moved to Fulham. It seemed as if everything was rosy, and then quite rightly they hinted to us that the kid wasn't quite up to their standard yet. No offense taken, I’d realised it myself. You'd be amazed what some Academy kids as young as six can do – they can handle the ball like Messi. So there’s a bit of room for improvement there. In the meanwhile my son plays football at school or in a park near our home.
Are the kids addicted to football?
I want the kids to be associated with sport. The youngest is keen on tennis, and both the older boys are mad on football. They know all the players in the Premier League off by heart. Surprisingly, by the way, the eldest wants to become a goalkeeper.
Is life good in the UK?
Everyone says living in London is chic. Recently, I began to think about it and I realized that London’s the perfect place for someone in my profession. I'm just sorry that I didn't make the move earlier.
Was there any chance of that?
Yes, even when I was playing for Zenit scouts came to watch me in a couple of matches. However, I didn’t impress them. For example, Blackburn’s Sam Allardyce came to St Petersburg to see me play in a goalless draw with Spartak. Representatives of other Premier League sides came too. But whenever I was told that someone was coming, the matches didn't work out for me. As a result I was a bit late in moving to England.
What was the last event in London that impressed you?
I regularly drop in on Chelsea and Fulham matches, and these days I can even see the champions’ blue from my balcony. Wembley stadium’s a bit further away, but I can see that too from my window. It’s a pity I only had one chance to play there this season, and I hope that wasn't my last chance.
This interview originally appeared on championat.com on 8 May 2015. It has been translated with the help of Google Translate and my Mum's 40 year old GCSE Russian.