'Sugar daddy' Anton Zingarevich gives Reading sweet dreams
Zingarevich rides in to colonise the M4 corridor and pave the way for success
There was a time when the Berkshire entrepreneur who founded Auto Trader, then sold his publishing group for £174 million, was quite a big enough fish to finance Reading Football Club. Those were the days when they played at Elm Park in between the terraced houses, normally in the third tier of English football, and were known as "The Biscuitmen" after the principal local industry, Huntley & Palmers.
Now, however, with the "Royals" from the handsome Madejski Stadium just off the M4 having become Championship-winners for the second time, Sir John Madejski has handed on the baton – and with considerable relief.
"Unless you've got a sugar daddy with really deep pockets, you're wasting your time" he told The Independent almost three years ago. Like Bill Kenwright at Everton, he has been seeking such a figure for some time, the irony being that the new Russian owner, Anton Zingarevich, might easily have been preparing to start the new season next weekend at Goodison Park against Manchester United instead of Stoke City at the Madejski.
Eight years ago this week, a Sunday newspaper led its front page with the story "New Russian tycoon to buy Everton". The "secretive" figure was named as Boris Zingarevich (Anton's father), who would inject £20m into the club, enabling them to keep the young star Wayne Rooney and "become a fourth force in the Premiership behind Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea".
Poor Kenwright is still waiting. Rooney was sold a week later and nothing came of the proposed deal, but the possibilities had clearly intrigued Zingarevich Jnr, who in May became the official new owner of Reading, citing his local connections and the potential of a club near Heathrow Airport with the whole of the M4 corridor to colonise.
"He's a nice fella," said the manager, Brian McDermott, on Friday at a training ground currently being upgraded to match regained Premier League status. "He's 30 years of age, loves his football, and has got good ideas. He was at a local college and was in London doing business studies, so he knows the area well, and he wants to do well for the club."
McDermott first met the new man in January, just as Reading's season was taking off after a shaky start. Was he not apprehensive about his own position? "I don't get apprehensive because I've been in the game a long time, so what- ever's gonna happen is gonna happen. I said to him, 'If you want someone else, then work with someone else, you've got to make that choice'."
Zingarevich appears to have chosen wisely. Suffering a hangover after losing the Championship play-off final to Swansea, Reading had been in the relegation positions early on, but after he provided funds for three new signings, including the talismanic striker Jason Roberts, they went on an extraordinary run of 15 wins in 17 games to take the title.
If fans thought, however, that the club were now in the hands of a new Abramovich, who would spend with similar abandon, they were quickly put right. "It was always a myth that a guy's gonna come in like that," McDermott said. "That was never the remit. It was always going to be run a certain way, certainly this season. That's not going to change.
"Supporters should be happy because we've signed a good calibre of players, kept good players from last year and got ourselves in the Premier League. We've got to be proud of the job we've done financially here. We had to keep the club washing its own face and we've done that over the last five or six years."
Six newcomers cost only £5m in total, the highest profile among them being that of Pavel Pogrebnyak, the Russian striker who produced a brief flurry of goals for Fulham in the second half of last season. Other than Danny Guthrie and the returning Nicky Shorey, the others have little Premier League experience; but then nor does McDermott, which did not prevent his team winning cup ties at Liverpool and Everton.
When Reading were last in the Premier League, for two seasons, he was Steve Coppell's chief scout. "The day we got promotion at Leicester I was sat in a lay-by coming back from Brighton listening to the radio. The first game of the Premier season I was in Switzerland, when we were 2-0 down after 20 minutes against Middlesbrough and won 3-2, which was important to give them that belief. I had a nice meal that night."
A similar start, and supper, after Stoke's visit on Saturday would be welcome. But if McDermott was any more down-to-earth about it all, he would disappear into the ground: "There's always bumps in the road every season," he said. "I don't know how we're going to do. All I know is we're going to be ready and we're going to enjoy it."
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