After a two-year stay in South Wales, Freddie Gounongbe seemed to vanish without a trace. Until now. VFTN managed to track him down and caught up with him to look back on his time with the club and get his side of the story.
To start, which do you prefer; Fred, Freddie or Frederic?
My friends call me Fred, but in Wales everybody called me Freddie!
How did your transfer to Cardiff come about? You were coming off an impressive spell at Westerlo in Belgium, where you averaged a goal every other game, until your contract expired. Why did you decide to join Cardiff and what were your other options?
Cardiff was already interested in me during the winter break transfer window, but I decide to stay to finish the season with Westerlo. During the summer break I received three concrete offers. One from a Bundesliga team low in the table, one a big offer from China and the third one was with Cardiff.
As I said, Cardiff were already interested six months before, so it showed me their real interest. One of my best friends, Rudy Gestede, told me only good things about this club and the city. I had always wanted to play in England.
Paul Trollope had just taken over at Cardiff. How did he sell the club to you and what were his plans for you? How did you find working for him?
Paul was really motivated by the idea of leading this team and he told me that I was his priority because my profile was exactly what he needed. Even if it didn’t last long, it was a pleasure to work with him and I was a bit disappointed and felt a bit guilty when he got sacked because it was also my fault, as I didn’t meet the expectation on the pitch.
You arrived at the same time as Kenneth Zohore and were initially preferred to him. How did you find playing in the Championship and how did it compare to the Belgian league?
The Championship way of playing is very different from the Belgian first division. The physicality of the game is much more intense. Also, you have to be able to play every three days. But on the other side, the atmosphere is just incredible. Even for the biggest game in Belgium, you don’t have the half of the atmosphere that you have in the Championship.
Trollope didn’t last long and was soon replaced by Neil Warnock. What did he say to you when he arrived? In public, he was nothing but complimentary about you. What was he like to play for?
Well to be fair, when Warnock arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a big name in England and has a reputation of taking his teams going up. I had a very good relationship with him and I think that is why he has so many promotions because of the way he manages a dressing room. He speaks to everyone, even with those not playing and he treats everyone as equals. Even if it seems a very basic thing, it is not in the football world. Every player wanted to play for him.
I had a very good relation with him. He really liked my profile, also the way I was training and behaving on and off the pitch. He also took the time to listen to me while I was dealing with personal problems. A couple of weeks after I signed for Cardiff, my mother was diagnosed with Cancer at a very advanced stage. It was very difficult for me to deal with this news knowing that I was so far and away from her. I was going back to Belgium every off day.
When Warnock came, I explained him my situation and his first words were “Freddy, football is not important, family is much more important and if you need more days off to be with her, you are free to go.” I am very thankful to him because his way of managing the players allowed me to be next to her when she passed away in April 2017.
You seemed to struggle with a number of different injuries while you were at the club. Can you run me through what injuries you had and how long they kept you out for.
Parallel to these personal problems, I had a big injury during a friendly game in the November. I broke one of my pubic ligaments. Firstly, we tried to heal that injury without going through surgery, but the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for. So I had an operation the following February and another one in April.
The healing process was very slow because of the complexity of this area. Then when the pubic area felt better, I struggled with my lower back. Today I’m still struggling with my back and I don’t know if I will remain in the game or not. I’m following a specific treatment with my GP in Belgium and I hope that it will heal in time.
In your absence, Zohore’s Cardiff career really took off. Is there a part of you that thinks ‘that could have been me’?
Not at all because I received my chance in the beginning of the season and I didn’t perform well. I was very happy for him because he is a good player and a good guy. I like his very calm temper and on the pitch he is a beast. I have never seen such legs in my entire career!
A lot of football fans only think or care about what a player does on the pitch, but it must be hard to move to a new country and not play much, whether because of competition for places or injury. How did you find that?
Well to be fair, my two years in Cardiff were the two most difficult years I have ever experienced. Dealing at the same time with my adaptation to a new country, a new way of playing, then being hit by this bad news and then my injuries… It was maybe a bit too much for me at times. But thankfully, I received a lot of support from the club, the medical staff, from Callum Davies, our team manager and last but not least Bruno Manga, who became a real friend.
Football is like that. We as football players have to be able to put everything aside and perform well on Saturday. This is the way the game is and if you can’t cope with that, someone else will do it. I can’t complain about that because I was already aware of it.
Last season, Cardiff had a brilliant season, but you did not feature. Was that frustrating and did you feel a part of it?
Yes, it was a bit difficult to not be a part of this incredible season, but on a daily basis the atmosphere in the dressing room was amazing. We were all concerned about being in the top two, even the non-squad players and still, even from the stand, the final game against Reading at the CCFC stadium was something very special. Seeing the fans happy and crying because of the promotion, that will remain in my head forever.
It felt a bit like you vanished off the face of the earth last season. As the season progressed, you were rarely mentioned and there was no official confirmation of your departure. Did you leave when your contract expired or was your deal terminated early?
I was still at the club until the last day. I was following my rehab program with the physios.
How have you spent your summer? Are you back in Belgium? Have you undertaken pre-season training and do you have a club for next season yet?
I took one month off to go to Indonesia with my family, far away from football. I’m still injured so I haven’t signed anywhere. I will just take my time to recover and then I will take a decision about my future. I’m also finishing my MBA in Wealth Management because when I will have to call it a day (maybe sooner than expected), I would like to help players to deal with their money and not be confronted with bankruptcies or financial stress.
Now that you have left the club, how do you reflect on your time with Cardiff? Do you have any regrets or bitterness?
It was very difficult, but I don’t regret it at all. I’ve met a lot of people and I really enjoyed my time in the city. I’ve been to many places in my life before, but the Welsh are the most friendly and welcoming people I’ve ever met. They made my time a bit less difficult that it might have been in another country. I grew up as a human being and if I would have to retake the decision to come in Cardiff, I would do exactly the same.