And That’s Why Wales Shop at Iceland

Los Boyos: Aron Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson

 “It is the dream of every Icelandic football player to become a professional player abroad, and the dream carries them on. The Icelandic boys have a different attitude from the boys abroad. They are willing to work harder to succeed” (Teitur Thordarson, Icelandic football coach )

I was shocked to find on googling the word ‘Iceland’ that the top search is actually the famous frozen food store rather than the country; although I guess I am as guilty as anyone of this, as on thinking of the two Icelandic footballers described in this article I immediately came up with a pun on the store’s famous marketing catchphrase (see humorous title). Perhaps this is a fair representation of the size of the country that the store is more synonymous with the word ‘Iceland’ than the country. The country is 39,756 sq. miles, about one-third larger , and has a population of 300,000 with over half living in the capital city of Reykjavik.

Iceland has made very little impact on the world football scene having never qualified for any major tournament. In fact, some might think that Iceland’s biggest contribution to football in the past few years has been the YouTube phenomenon of Icelandic club Stjarnan FC and their brilliantly well-choreographed team celebrations. That would be very harsh though considering English football has enjoyed several Icelandic exports over the past 20 years: Hermann Hreidarsson, Eidur Gudjohnsen Ivar Ingimarsson, Brynjar Gunnarsson, Joey Gudjonsson, Gudni Bergsson, Heidar Helgusson and Gretnar Steinsson have all featured in the top flight as well as numerous others in the lower leagues and across European football. (On writing this I actually got thinking, is Iceland one of the most efficient countries, considering its size and population, at producing talented footballers? – a debate for another day.

There is very little history between Wales’ national team and Iceland’s national team with both teams only squaring up against each other on 6 occasions with Wales winning on 4 occasions, drawing 1 and Iceland winning 1 of the fixtures back in September 1984. Recently, two bright young Icelandic footballers have graced South Wales: one wearing the blue of Cardif fCity; the other wearing the white of Swansea City. Both are young and upcoming footballers, and although both ply their trade in the centre of the pitch, they are very different types of players.

Aron Gunnarsson signed for Cardiff City on a free transfer this summer after a three-year spell in the Championship for Coventry City. Gunnarsson signed for the club at only 22 years old, but comes with a vast amount experience after Coventry travails in the Championship over the past three years.

Gunnarsson was born on the 22nd April 1989 in Akureyri. Akureyi is the second largest urban area of the country and is known as the ‘Capital of North Iceland’ with a population of over 17,000 inhabitants. The town was the base of Allied Units during World War II because of its location and its ice-free harbour. Since the war, the town’s population has increased significantly. Gunnarsson began his career at his local club,  Þór Akureyri.  After playing 11 games for the club, the young Gunnarsson departed the club for Louis van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2006. Gunnarsson only made 1 appearance for the club in two seasons, a 15 minute cameo against NEC which AZ lost 5-2.

The lack of game time lead to Gunnarsson making a switch from the Dutch Eredivisie to the Coca Cola Championship with Chris Coleman’s Coventry. Supposedly, there was a lot of interest from Premier League clubs for the Icelandic midfielder, still only 18 years old at the time, but the young Gunnarsson was told by Coleman that he should join him in the Championship where he promised him game time to develop him as a player. Gunnarsson reflected:

 “I owe (Chris Coleman) a lot for steering me in the right direction. That was the right move for me at the time in terms of my development at the age of 18. Chris promised me a regular spot in the team and that’s exactly what I wanted and needed. I was with Coventry for three years until my contract expired and enjoyed my time there.”

 Gunnarsson did get the game time promised to him by Coleman and was a revelation in his first season at the club playing in 47 games and starting in almost all of them. The fans knew very little of the young Icelandic midfielder on his arrival, but he soon became a fan favourite because of his all action performances. Gunnarsson made the defensive midfielder role his own, as he patrolled ahead of the Coventry defence delivering displays that were far beyond his experience and soon enough interest from the Premier League began mounting. Coventry offered the 18 year old an improved contract offer in March 2009, only 8 months into his first contract at the club to ensure he remained with the club for the foreseeable future. Gunnarsson finished his first season at Coventry as Supporters’ Player of the Year and with Coventry avoiding relegation to League One.

Gunnarsson’s time at Coventry would be largely spent dealing with relegation scraps, but Gunnarsson honoured his 3 year contract and remained with the club until the end of his contract in 2011 with Coventry finishing 18th in the Championship under caretaker manager Andy Thorn. Some of the fans had begun suggesting that Gunnarsson’s form had dropped in his last season at the club as some began claiming that he was believing the hype around himself and already pondering his next move. However, following the sacking of Aidy Boothroyd and the appointment of Andy Thorn to see out the close of the season, Gunnarsson entered some terrific form to ensure that the club retained its status in the second tier of English football.

In June 2011, Gunnarsson flew out to Denmark to play for Iceland’s U21 team in the European U21 Championships; Gunnarsson had become a regular feature in Iceland’s senior squad by now, accumulating 20 caps, but with Iceland appearing to be strong contenders for the championships he went along to bolster their chances. Gunnarsson refused to discuss his future until he returned from the tournament. The club refused this deadline and told the player he needed to decide the week before leaving for the tournament; Gunnarsson and his agent told the club they would do things on their terms or walk away. Iceland did not get past the group stage and Gunnarsson arrived back at Coventry and rejected their contract offer and by the next month he was signed up to Malky Mackay’s new look Cardiff City on a 3 year deal; Cardiff would have to pay compensation for the young Icelandic midfielder due to him being under 24 years old and having been trained by the club for a number of years.

Gunnarsson made an immediate impact at Cardiff and after being asked to play a number of positions at Coventry – right back, right midfield, defensive midfield, attacking midfield – he settled into his favoured role in centre midfield for Cardiff. Gunnarsson’s agent claimed one of the reasons Gunnarsson wanted to leave Coventry was a lack of stability at the club, including the repeated switching of his role in the team, although he did laud the efforts of caretaker manager (now current manager) Andy Thorn. Although Cardiff were in the middle of a transitional period under Malky Mackay with a massive player turnover at the club,  Mackay’s new look club gelled together quicker than many expected with Gunnarsson proving to be one of the standout performers in the early stages of the season.

When talking of Gunnarsson as player there is one attribute that must not be ignored: his Delap-esque long throw. In an interview in preseason Gunnarsson jokingly claimed that he hoped Mackay had not just signed him for his long throw.

Gunnarsson stated that his long throw was developed from his days playing handball in his native country, which lead to him practicing throwing tyres (check out the Coca Cola advert at the bottom of the page) – something he claimed he used to do to show off:

“I used to play handball when I was younger and that’s the reason why I have the long throw. I used to throw tyres when I was younger. I used to chuck around all sorts of stuff like tennis balls to strengthen my arms. I think I was an arrogant and annoying kid, to be honest, by throwing stuff around.”

“I don’t want to just be known for having a long throw because I think I can play football” and Gunnarsson has certainly shown he is far more than just a long throw merchant. Gunnarsson, similar to how he did at Coventry, has won the affection of the Cardiff crowds with his all action displays in midfield. On the return of Cardiff’s experienced midfielder Stephen McPhail, his role could even be described as slightly more offensive than his time at Coventry thanks to the presence of McPhail alongside him in the midfield. It must also be noted that as well as on the pitch, Gunnarsson comes across as a friendly character off the pitch as he can regularly be found doing interviews with the media and generally being a good spokesman for the club – a great trait for a new player at the club, especiallyfor one that is only 22 years of age.

As well as the club enjoying Gunnarsson presence, it seems that Gunnarsson is loving life in Wales’ capital, even comparing it to his hometown:

“Cardiff reminds me of my home in the north of Iceland. There is just something about this city which brings back memories. Both Cardiff and my home town are near the sea, maybe that’s part of it. I had a good time in Coventry, but that is in the centre of England. Perhaps I needed to be closer to the sea, but whatever it is I am enjoying life and football in Cardiff and have settled really well.”

Gunnarsson’s biggest opportunity in a Cardiff shirt so far was obviously his opportunity to play at Wembley in the Carling Cup Final against Liverpool. In the build-up to the final, once again Gunnarsson was speaking regularly for the team, boasting of how all of Iceland would be behind teh Bluebirds. Gunnarsson spoke with relish at the prospect of taking on Steven Gerrard, especially since he had grown up supporting Mamchester United. Unfortunately for Gunnarsson and Cardiff, the game would end ith disappointment as Cardiff were denied silverware after losing a penalty shootout.

Gunnarsson has been a great success at Cardiff City and judging by the affection he has developed for the club – and visa-versa – it looks the relationship may continue beyond his 3-year contract. Despite his success at the club so far, many would argue that there is a bigger Icelandic success story happening just 30 miles away from the Cardiff City Stadium at the club’s arch rivals, Swansea City.

I will not talk about how Swansea have been lauded by the media over the past Premiership season as that has already been done to death, but as many people were putting up their Christmas Trees, the press were describing Swansea as a passing team with no bite; the word ‘blunt’ was used repeatedly to describe their attacking prowess.

On New Year’s Eve, Swansea took on an in-form Tottenham team who were playing devastating attacking football. Brendan Rodgers decided to fight fire with fire unveiling an attacking team of his own with the (who many fans considered) underused Stephen Dobbie featuring in the starting XI for the first time since the opening fixture at Manchester City. Once again, Dobbie failed to impress Rodgers in the Premier League, but despite his lukewarm performance his positioning further up the field transformed Swansea into a more attacking force. The Swans would draw the game after out-playing Spurs for long periods. After quite defensive performances against Everton and Newcastle before Christmas, a switch in style was apparent – now Brendan just needed to find a ‘Stephen Dobbie 2.0’ that could deliver in the Premiership.

The January transfer had barely creaked opened and there was already word that Brendan Rodgers had found the answer to Swansea’s bluntness: Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson had made a name for himself as a classic playmaker with the capabilities to open up tight defensive units. Sigurdsson is also well-known for his ability to score from long-range, with either foot, and also included pinpoint accuracy from set pieces in his repetoire, particularly with slotting free kicks into the top corner.

Rodgers was more than familiar with Sigurdsson having given the Icelander his debut whilst managing Reading. Sigurdsson had always been seen as a player that had immense talent, operating in an attacking midfield role behind the striker and many were surprised that he did not join a bigger club after his phenomenal season at Reading. Sigurdsson had featured sparingly throughout the 2008/2009 season and impressed on loan at both Shrewsbury and Crewe. It would be under Rodgers’ in 2009/10 that he would get his chance as Rodgers put his trust in many of the club’s young players.

Gylfi Sigurdsson Gylfi Sigurdsson (L) of Reading celebrates scoring his team's first goal from the penalty spot with team mate Brian Howard during the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON 3rd Round Replay match between Liverpool and Reading at Anfield on January 13, 2010 in Liverpool, England.

Despite Sigurdsson’s impressive individual displays, Reading struggled in the first half of the season and by December Rodgers had parted company with the club, leading the way for Brian McDermott to take the managerial reins (McDermott had numerous roles at the club and his role as Caretaker Manager would lead to him getting the job full-time.) After a slow start, McDermott lead Reading onto a four game winning streak in the league in January along with victories in the FA Cup against Premier League Burnley and more famously against Liverpool at Anfield. The FA Cup games are arguably where the mass football public became aware of Sigurdsson, having scored in the 1-0 victory over Burnley and excelling in front of the cameras in Reading’s triumph over Liverpool at Anfield. Reading were losing the game 1-0 until the 90th minute when they won a penalty; Sigurdsson, just 20 at the time, stepped up showing no nerves whatsoever and calmly rolled the ball past the wrong footed Diego Cavalieri to send the game to extra time. Reading won the game in extra time through a Shane Long goal (assisted by a pinpoint cross from another Icelander, Brynjar Gunnarsson).

At the end of the season, Sigurdsson was awarded Reading’s Player of the Year and was coveted by many top clubs. Despite having signed a new 3-year contract for the club in March, Sigurdsson opted to join Bundesliga club Hoffenheim in the summer for £6.5 million. Amazingly, the transfer prompted one young Royals fan to sue him having got Gylfi’s name and number on the back of his shirt assuming he would remain at the club following his contract renewal.

Gylfi continued where he had left off the season before, as he had an immediate impact on the Bundesliga delivering excellent performances and chipping in with a couple of goals, including a couple of free kicks. Sigurdsson finished the 2010/11 season as Hoffenheim’s Fans’ Player of the Year, despite only making 13 starts for the club. Sigurdsson was injured throughout Hoffenheim’s 2011/12 preseason and on returning from injury fell down the pecking order dramatically. Sigurdsson was desperate to play again and was more than willing to join his old mentor, Brendan Rodgers, when he came knocking.

Since his signing, Sigurdsson has been nothing short of brilliant with his manager claiming he is as good as anyone on his day, citing Frank Lampard as an example:

 “He is in the Frank Lampard mould, he gets into the six-yard box, is willing to get his shot off with his left or right foot and can score with his head like he did at Fulham. He is a goalscoring midfield player and you don’t get too many of those. But he has that instinct, he was born with it and he works very hard on his shooting and finishing.”

Sigurdsson has made 11 appearances for the Swans so far and has already netted 6 times, strangely all away from home. A sumptuous double, a dipping long-range shot and a trademark free kick, against Wigan in March just one of the highlights of Gylfi’s time with the club so far. Undoubtedly his finest hour came in Swansea’s 3-0 hammering of Fulham at Craven Cottage. The Icelander contributed 2 goals in that fixture, but completely run the game, delivering one of the best performances in a Swansea shirt this season. He recenlty collected the Premier LeaguePlayer of the Month award for his fine displays throughout March and some (including myself) have even cited him as a candidate for Swansea’s Player of the Year award despite his short time with the club.

Unfortunately for Swansea, Sigurdsson’s stunning form for the club has alerted much bigger clubs to him as well as new Hoffenheim’s new manager Markus Babbel saying that he wants Sigurdsson back at the club for next season; Babbel seemed incredulous on arriving at the club that Sigurdsson had been allowed to leave in the first place. Arsenal, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan to name a few have been linked with wanting Sigurdsson, but so do Swansea – do they have any chance? Well, Sigurdsson seems a down-to-earth character so there is a chance that money might not be a priority and perhaps working in a team where he is so vital, with a manager he loves working for and at a place he loves living in – there is a chance. Sigurdsson has already spoken in glowing terms of the area and the club but he seems to doubt whether a permanent transfer will ever materialise. The stumbling block will inevitably be the player’s price tag with many estimating it will be at least £7 million– Swansea’s record signing is half this with the £3.5m paid for Danny Graham.

Sigurdsson and  Gunnarsson have featured alongside each other for the Iceland national team, but, surprisingly, considering that they are a similar age, Sigurdsson only has 7 senior caps to his name with one goal (compared to Gunnarsson’s 25caps), although he has much more caps at U17, U18, U19 and U21 level. Sigurdsson also went to the U21 Championships along with Gunnarsson last summer; Sigurdsson was instrumental in getting his country to the finals thanks to two stunning individual performances against Scotland U21 in the two-legged play-off qualifiers. Sigurdsson was seen as Iceland’s main threat for the tournament and was made the poster boy for Iceland’s campaign (once again, see the Coca Cola advert at the bottom to watch Gylfi practicing his free kicks).

It is clear that Wales’ adopted Icelanders are excelling at both South Wales clubs. Perhaps more clubs need to delve into the talent coming out of Iceland, especially when you look at the line of talented Icelandic players that have graced these shores. It looks like Gunnarsson is in South Wales to stay for the near future as he tries to aid Cardiff in their quest for top flight football, but Sigurdsson’s future in South Wales is a lot less clear.  Both have excelled on the pitch and both are popular figures off the pitch amongst the fans and players – perhaps both clubs should shop at Iceland more often.

Also check out Football Follower’s brilliant article on how Gylfi Sigurdsson has become a ‘potent weapon’ for Swansea here.

You can follow Aron Gunnarsson on Twitter – @AronGunnarsson1

2 thoughts on “And That’s Why Wales Shop at Iceland

  1. Pingback: April/May Round-up: European domestic leagues end « Lost Boyos

  2. Pingback: A Killa Story « Lost Boyos

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