Yes, you did read the headline right. There really is an English footballer who plays for Zenit Saint Petersburg. His name is Jacob Gardiner-Smith, he was born in Cambridge and it turns out life in Russia really is actually quite good.
“Russia is beautiful,” says the 20-year-old. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the country unfortunately but St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to and lived in!”
It may be slightly surprising to learn that Zenit have an Englishman in their ranks, I was surprised myself when I first found out about Jacob, but his footballing talent should certainly come as no surprise. His granddad John Gardiner played more than 150 games for Scottish side Queen’s Park and represented Great Britain at the 1936 Olympic games. Jacob’s father is also a prominent figure albeit Labour MP Barry Gardiner and not a sportsman.
Despite his pedigree, Gardiner-Smith never played professionally in the UK although he did attend various soccer academy programs when he was younger. His break came in Russia as a 17-year-old following a tip off from an agent.
“When I was 17, I went on trial at CSKA Moscow and was successful. After a year as a CSKA player, I signed my first professional contract at Zenit.
“My trial was with Zenit B to Spain where we played Real Betis and Sevilla and from then I was offered a contract, which was later extended for another season.”
The move seemed an unusual one but who could turn down two of the biggest clubs in Europe, let alone Russia? Add that to the fact that Gardiner-Smith was willing to throw himself straight into the Russian way of living and it seems like a match made in heaven.
“The standard of living is great here. I have an apartment to myself in the northern suburb of the city next to the training ground. My best mates and I all live on this estate which is really good.
“In terms of language, before I was allowed to work and play in this country I had to pass immigration tests in which there was a language test. I initially studied for that with a tutor but I’d like to say I’m fluent now.”
The defensive midfielder has made a lot of friends since joining the club thanks to his willingness to embrace the language and it is now paying dividends with his spare time full of activities as well as earning the nickname ‘English Bulldog’ thanks to his high work rate in the middle of the pitch.
“In my spare time, Daniil Lesovoy, Kirill Kaplenko (fellow Zenit players) and myself tend to hang out together. We live on the same block so we always knock for each other.
“We do extra training together, go to eat together and play FIFA, standard things really. We are a very, very competitive trio though so everything ends up being a competition!”
The Cambridge-born midfielder moved around a lot as a youngster, not allowing himself to become attached to each relocation but with Russia it seems like he has found himself a home. He has already made his debut for Zenit’s first team in a friendly and is a regular for the club’s U21s side as well as appearing for their B team who play in the Russian second-tier.
He speaks particularly fondly of the club’s U21 side who he ranks as one of the best in the world as well as Russian football as a whole.
“The standard of football in Russia is very strong and I don’t say that lightly. On our day, I’m going to put it out there, that I believe my U21 side are a match for any other U21 side in the world. Give us Barcelona, Arsenal, whoever, on our day we will win!
“Our team has everything, very technical players, strong and powerful players and very good goalkeepers. Since most of my teammates are internationals, training is very competitive.”
Speaking of training, playing for one of Europe’s best sides sees the Englishman regularly compete alongside world class players and he includes his U21 teammates in that!
“I’ve played with a lot of world class players. Dominico Criscito the Italian international centre-back does unbelievable things in training and Guliano, the Brazil winger, was also brilliant.
“But for me, players that I can call real teammates, I’d say three stand out: Yuri Bavin (who’s now left Zenit), Daniil Lesovoy and Kirill Kaplenko. Danil has the quickest feet I’ve ever witnessed, Kapla plays like Vieira and Bava is like Verratti. All really talented players who I’m privileged to play alongside.”
Although it seems Gardiner-Smith is enjoying his new life in Russia playing alongside such great players, there is of course still his family back at home to think about but there is one benefit to playing in Russia when it comes to that aspect.
“Being away from home is hard,” he says. “I miss my family and my friends but you grow accustomed to it. I see my teammates here now as my family and St. Petersburg as my second home.
“My family have been over a couple of times but it’s a long way for them to come and visit. The winter break helps because I can go home and see family at Christmas which is a luxury in this industry!”
The 20-year-old is currently injured and his contract is up at the end of the season so his future remains uncertain but he has experienced life in Russia for three years now so would he recommend it?
“I think a lot of players live in comfort zones. Everything is nice and easy for them so they don’t see the incentives of moving abroad but I’d definitely recommend it.
“There are no distractions abroad and I can put sole concentration into improving my game. It’s also made me really mature and tough mentally.”
Still only 20, Gardiner-Smith has a long career ahead of him and his time in Russia has no doubt improved him as a player and a person. Time will tell if he can reach the level of his granddad all those years ago but he’s certainly put himself in a great position to continue the family legacy.