Ex-Peterborough United star Gaby Zakuani on love at first sight when he joined Posh, what he learnt from Serie A, tackling on concrete, flattening CMS, signing disclaimers when he played injured and why the last day of the 2012-13 season is hard to talk about

Gaby Zakuani is one of the most popular Peterborough United players of recent times.
Gaby Zakuani roars his approval.Gaby Zakuani roars his approval.
Gaby Zakuani roars his approval.

He played 253 times for Posh in two spells and every appearance was full of passion and commitment.

He spoke today (May 11) to Posh press officer Phil Adlam.

On the art of defending...

Gaby Zakuani celebrates one of his nine Posh goals.Gaby Zakuani celebrates one of his nine Posh goals.
Gaby Zakuani celebrates one of his nine Posh goals.

“It was said I learnt to tackle on concrete and it was true.

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“When I joined Orient at 13 we did train on concrete and I used to do slide tackles.

“Defending was always my passion. I used to watch Serie A on Channel Four and all those great Italian defenders used to do was tackle. I loved it.

“I could play a bit better than many people realise though. If I had time on the ball I could do bits, but when I was young I used to get caught in possession and that put me off.”

Gaby Zakuani would often play through an injury.Gaby Zakuani would often play through an injury.
Gaby Zakuani would often play through an injury.

On signing for Posh (for the first time) in 2008....

“I was at Fulham, but thinking about going back to Stoke on loan (Gaby had enjoyed a successful previous spell there) when Darren Ferguson rang.

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“I was sceptical at first as I enjoyed it at Stoke, but I was going away on international duty so I had time to think.

“Then Aaron Mclean, who I knew very well as we were at Orient together, started hassling me so I had to block him for a couple of weeks.

Gaby Zakuani before his first Posh appearance at Northampton in September 2008.Gaby Zakuani before his first Posh appearance at Northampton in September 2008.
Gaby Zakuani before his first Posh appearance at Northampton in September 2008.

“I did some research on Posh while I was away as I didn’t know a lot about them and when I spoke to Darren again I knew it was the right move to make.

“He had an aura about him. You believed everything he said and you believed his promises would come true.

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“Aaron was also telling me I was just what Posh needed and I knew he wouldn’t lead me up the garden path so I signed.”

On early Posh impressions...

“I signed on loan with a view to making the move permanent, but I soon knew I would be staying for much longer.

“it felt like home straight away. It was like joining a really close family and I hadn’t experienced that before. It really was love at first sight.

“Mind you I had one training session with the team before my debut and I smashed Craig Mackail-Smith which upset Darren. “He was forever asking me to chill in training after that. I was only allowed to perform at 70% so I didn’t injure anyone.”

On the 2008-09 season and promotion from League One...

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“I was thrown straight into a derby at Northampton for my debut, but in a way it was the perfect game for me to start.

“It was a big game and very intense and I thrived on that.

“The season obviously went very well after that and we ended up winning promotion to the Championship at Colchester.

“Charlie Lee took all the glory by scoring, but we defended really well that day. It was a perfect defensive display.

“That day is one of the best moments of my career. It’s very close to being top and I sensed we were on the verge of something special.

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“I signed permanently eventually. Barry Fry kept moving the goalposts, but we got the deal done.

“I didn’t use an agent. I only ever used an agent once in my career and that’s when I moved from Orient to Fulham when I was young and it was new to me.

“I was confident I could look after myself and I never had a problem with money or terms at Posh until right near the end.”

On the 2009-10 season and relegation from the Championship...

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“Strange things went on that season, but the lads kept working hard and trying hard.

“There were just too many changes of manager after Darren went and we found the standard hard.

“I was determined to keep enjoying mself though. These experiences stand you in good stead. The key is not to let them get you down.”

On the 2010-11 season and promotion through the play-offs...

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“There were a lot of goals in games when Gary Johnson was managing us.

“We weren’t in a bad position at Christmas, but as a player you can sense when a manager’s time was coming to an end and that was the case with Gary.

“His team-talks were getting less passionate so it wasn’t a great surprise when he left.

“And for me Darren was only possible replacement so I and the rest of the team were pleased when he came back.

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“Darren isn’t the sort of bloke to just say ‘we’ll just see what happens.’ He told us he expected us to win promotion. He set standards on the pitch high and he set tough targets, but he made you think it was possible.

“We started to play consistently well and by the time we reached the play-offs we felt unstoppable.

“I damaged my shoulder in the first leg of the semi-final at MK and came off early.

“It felt like a bad one at the time and no-one gave me a chance of playing in the second leg. In fact I had to sign a form to say I was playing off my own back! It was my decision and no-one else’s.

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“The doctors were dead against it and the physio was having heart attacks, but I was desperate to play and Darren wanted me out there.

“He told me just to follow Sam Baldock all over the pitch and that’s what I did. I took my pain-killing injections, went out there and did my job and we won.

“I was still sore ahead of the final. I remember sitting on the medical bench at Old Trafford taking tablets and having injections, but adrenaline and the fact my family were in the stand got me through it.

“They put a lot of balls into our penalty area, but I won my headers and we finished strong to win the game.”

On other injuries...

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“I had a few. My shoulder would pop out so often I’d just pop it back in again myself before the next game.

“I also had a broken toe one season. I was a size 10 foot, but the toe was so swollen I had to wear a size 12 on my left foot. I could have had an op, but I turned it down so I could keep on playing.

On the 2011-12 season in the Championship...

“We were much better prepared for it this time. We played well, we were solid and we enjoyed some great awaydays. We had learnt our lesson from the last time.

“There was a time early in the season when we were a win away from the top six and if we did lose we didn’t get too down, unlike the last time in this division.

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“The gaffer was very good at taking pressure off the players.”

On the heartache of the 2012-13 season...

“This was the unluckiest thing I’ve ever been involved in.

“It’s still hard to take now. It’s still hard to look back on that game at Crystal Palace.

“I do look back and I still think ‘what if?’ as if we had stayed up that season I am sure we would have kicked on to become a successful Championship side.

“We had been in unbelievable form since the start of the new year and we had built up a points tally that should have been enough to stay up.

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“But losing like we did (two late goals) was heartbreaking. It’s so hard to talk about it.

“It was a massive blow for a lot of people especially the gaffer. He didn’t deserve that.

“It really took the wind out of our sails. That summer was a really long one, although Darren did his best to keep everyone positive.”

On leaving Posh and coming back...

“I was in the last year of my contract the following season and it was club policy to go on the transfer list if you didn’t agree new terms.

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“My talks dragged on and then I had a great offer to go and play in Greece. Barry Fry knew I was unlikely to sign a new deal at Posh so we agreed I should go abroad and I loved it.

“It was a short contract, but after four matches the club (Kelloni) offered me a two-year deal as things had gone so well on the field.

“I was tempted, but off the field I wasn’t convinced. My son had an accident while I was out there and the facilities to treat him weren’t great so I couldn’t commit to staying there.

“I came back to England and watched the Posh play-off games against Orient and the result broke my heart.

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“I still cared so much for Posh. It was my home and Barry Fry told me Darren would have me back in a heartbeat. When I spoke to Darren he told me he thought we would have beaten Orient with me in the side, although that was the first time I’d seen Jack Baldwin play and he was excellent.

“I could have gone to Scotland or France, but I wanted to come home.”

On his special relationship with Posh fans...

“I’m very down to earth. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. I will talk to anyone. I loved to engage with fans and I loved doing community work around Petreborough.

“Once I was having a coffee with my wife in town and I saw some people secretly taking photos of us so I invited them to sit with us.

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“I have seen anough to know there are people in the world who need the opportunity to have a better life. There are a lot of people in need and if I could help I would.”

On his toughest opponent...

“Andy Carroll was tough, but whenever I played against Steve Howard (Luton, Leicester), one of us would end up bleeding!”