There are a few two-word phrases that send shivers down the spine of Reading fans: playoff final, penalty shootout... Anton Zingarevich. Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Russian’s permanent, official departure from Reading Football Club, but his legacy still weighs heavily on this club.
Zingarevich would only be involved with the Royals for just over two years and five months, taking in the second half of the 2011/12 title-winning campaign, relegation from the Premier League and the unsuccessful attempt of returning there at the first time of asking. Despite the brevity of his time at the helm, it’s a period that profoundly changed this club for the worse.
Sir John Madejski had made no secret of his desire to sell up in the years following Reading’s first relegation from the Premier League. An increasing number of billionaire businessmen were coming onto the scene to bankroll other clubs’ success and, after the financial crisis of 2008 had hit his own wealth, he couldn’t afford to keep pace. The next stage in the Royals’ development was clear:
We needed a billionaire of our own.
Finding one that would bankroll Reading’s return to the Premier League, while not doing anything recklessly stupid like changing the home shirt colours to bright red, wouldn’t be easy. As Sir John himself put it rather bluntly, they’d have to have some serious cash reserves:
“If some rich bastard wants to buy it they can. They have to be billionaire status.”
However, in January 2012, it appeared that Sir John had finally found his man. Enter Anton Zingarevich, a 29 year-old Russian billionaire and football enthusiast who had previously been in talks to buy a minority stake in Everton. He even had a personal connection to Reading Football Club of his own, having studied in the area during his youth and gone to games at Elm Park. Who better to maintain the ethos of the club while funding its return to the Promised Land?
In Zingarevich’s introductory press conference, Madejski was gushing in his praise for the soon-to-arrive Russian:
“This is why I feel this is so good - most foreign buyers come on and they pick off one of our elite, Premiership clubs as you well know. They haven’t done that, they’ve come to a Championship club.
They have the onerous task of getting a Championship club into the Premiership. That speaks volumes as far as I’m concerned. It speaks ambition and it speaks of a body of people that want football for football’s sake. They are not just here for the glory times, they are here to be down in the trenches with the rest of us seeking the promised land.
“For me that is the key thing, and I tell you what I am so delighted this has happened because this is the dream ticket that I’ve been looking for for the past 21 years.”
The dream ticket.
The timing of Anton’s arrival could hardly be better. Despite a recent wobble in the league, Brian McDermott’s high-flying side were in strong contention for a play-off finish even before the takeover. But five January additions - most notably that of veteran striker Jason Roberts - only added to the Royals’ momentum as they pipped Southampton to the title - and Zingarevich had played his part.
On May 29, his takeover was finally ratified; Sir John’s 21-year tenure in charge coming to an end with his successor purchasing 51% of Reading Football Club. It had been the perfect start to life at the Madejski Stadium for the new kid on the block, but the next season brought the Royals crashing back down to earth.
A lack of investment, which seems obvious in hindsight but was looked on more in frustration than worry at the time, ultimately did for Reading’s survival chances. The team’s need for an injection of quality was obvious to everyone - including, of all people, Jimmy Kebe.
“It’s not the manager who decides who he can buy or not. Right now we are in big trouble so you should ask if (Anton) wants to spend any money to make the team better so we can compete in the Premier League.
“Someone bought the club last season. We won the Championship – so surely we need to add decent players? We have some good players, but it wasn’t enough and we knew it. “People will talk s*** about us like we are s*** and the manager needs to leave, but that’s bulls***.”
“We’re behind the manager and we are trying our best. There is no miracle in football. We are all trying our best and you have to ask the owner if he wants to spend any money in January to make the team better otherwise there is nothing to expect.”
A mediocre January of transfer activity - Nick Blackman, Stephen Kelly and Hope Akpan anyone? - did nothing to change Reading’s fate. On April 28 2013, in hilariously pathetic fashion, Reading and Queens Park Rangers relegated each other in a dire 0-0 draw at the Madejski Stadium.
And yet, going into the summer, optimism levels were still high. Reading now had a bright manager in Nigel Adkins who coached attractive football, a strong squad by Championship standards, and of course an owner with deep pockets. What could possibly go wrong?
At first, seemingly nothing. Three high-profile signings in the shape of Danny Williams, Wayne Bridge and Royston Drenthe were the business of a wealthy, ambitious side, and the acquisition of Category One status for the academy showed a respect for the future of the club.
But it wasn’t long before the wheels started to come off. Anton, who wouldn’t be seen at a Reading league game after August 2013, had been expected to finalise his complete takeover of the club by the end of September, but that deadline came and went. Chris Samuelson, one of Zingarevich’s right-man men, would later say:
“Anton is very disappointed. He is still a big supporter of Reading Football Club. However, circumstances change, but he still feels a great warmth to the club and is very sad he did not deliver and let the stakeholders down.
“Anton told me he had some issues of his own back in Russia and that is why he found himself in the awkward position of not having the money for the remaining 49 per cent and the money to finance the team. There was a compromise agreement reached with his father Boris Zingarevich to help finance the club.”
In other words, Anton had run out of his dad’s money. Reading Football Club was left to fend for itself with Sir John Madejski given the task of finding a buyer. However, despite serious interest from Omani investors, no deal was forthcoming and Nigel Adkins had no funding for the crucial January transfer window.
The season dragged on, and so did Sir John’s search for a new owner. “I will try not to make the same mistake again - a buyer who does not see the whole thing through,” he told BBC Berkshire in February. But the club’s situation grew gradually worse. The end of the 2013/14 season saw Reading miss out on promotion back to the Premier League, without new owners in place, and only avoiding a tax bill from HMRC in the nick of time by selling Adam Le Fondre to Cardiff City on May 28.
But Zingarevich wasn’t one for clearing up his own mess. On June 2 it was bluntly announced at the bottom of a statement from Madejski that Anton had left the board and 11 days later - five years ago to the day - the Russian’s official exit was finally ratified by Companies House.
Epilogue: a chaotic summer
The summer of 2014 was one of the more chaotic periods in Reading’s recent history, with the club desperately searching for new ownership. Although that had originally been tasked to Sir John, the Royals’ fate was soon handed over to Vibrac, a company based in the British Virgin Islands that were owed £1.5 million in interest on a £10 million loan. They passed on the job of finding an investor to Begbies Traynor Group, a corporate restructuring firm.
Vibrac wanted their money back.
Fortunately for them, there was global interest in Reading. After the Omanis’ failure to buy the club in the winter, Uruguayan Richard Iribarne, Italian Francesco Bechetti (yes, the later owner of Leyton Orient) and Galatasaray president Unal Aysal were among those to try in the Spring, before Israeli Teddy Sagi and Indian Mohit Burman went head to head in the summer.
In the end, a Thai consortium (originally including Samrit Bunditkitsada - later investigated by his nation’s authorities for money laundering) were the ones to buy the club. The entrance of Sasima Srivikorn, Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth and Narin Niruttinanon into the Reading history books was the final nail in the coffin of the Anton Zingarevich era.