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A SPOTTED HISTORY OF ICELAND’S UNIQUE CONNECTION WITH ENGLISH FOOTBALL

Going through the relationship between Iceland and the Premier League and how it has paved the way for aspiring footballers from the Nordic country.

Iceland is home to 355,000 people in the Arctic region of Northern Europe and the land of fire and ice. It is also the home to many successful Premier League stars of now and the past. Icelandic footballers have become something of a revelation in recent years after their international success in the European Championships in 2016 and their World Cup campaign in 2018.

However, they have always had an impact in the top flight of English football, with the biggest names to date being Gylfi Sigurðsson and of course, ex-Chelsea star Eiður Guðjohnsen. The Northern European country is about the size of Kentucky in the USA. So how is that a country so small can produce such talent?

Let’s not forget that Icelandic players are plying their trade all across the European continent not just in the Premier League. English football has seen plenty of talent from the Nordic nation – with Sigurdsson and Guðjohnsen being the headliners.

The likes of Guðni Bergsson, Joey Guðjónsson, Brynjar Gunnarsson, Heiðar Helguson, and Hermann Hreiðarsson have also plied their trade in the English top flight in the past. Current players who are making a name for themselves are Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson for Burnley and Aron Gunnarsson for Cardiff City – the captain of the national team.

THE CURRENT CAPTAIN OF THE ICELANDIC NATIONAL TEAM, ARON GUNNARSSON, PLAYS FOR CARDIFF CITY IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE

The country’s main platform of success has come from a long line of powerful strong men. The physical attributes are something that has created a stereotypical view of how the footballers of Iceland are perceived to operate. Football fans will know that although they possess strength and height, they have extremely talented technical ability that has made the world of football applaud the underdogs of the sport.

Iceland’s unique relationship with the English Premier League came with the transfer of Guðni Bergsson.

Bergsson came from top Icelandic club, Valur, to Tottenham back in 1988 (that would not be the last sale made by Valur to England). Bergsson was a solid central defender who saw his chances limited with manager Terry Venables preferring Gary Mabbutt and Neil Ruddock over the Nordic player. His spell at Tottenham was long-endured, making less than 100 appearances in six years at the club.

This would make him reconsider his career as a footballer, however, the Bolton Wanderers manager in 1995, Bruce Rioch, became intrigued by the Icelandic international as a player who had plenty of professional experience at international level.

Ricoh took a gamble on Bergsson and in his eight-year spell at the Lancashire side, he became a club legend. His immense status at the club came after being with Bolton throughout their turbulent time. In his first game for Bolton, he came on as a substitute in the Football League Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium in April of 1995. His heroic assist in the second half gave Wanderers a glimmer of hope. They went on to lose the game 2-1, but as an introduction that wasn’t half bad for the Bolton fans to see.

That same season they secured promotion to the Premier League in the First Division play-off final in May. The 1995-96 campaign was not a good season for Bolton as they saw relegation back to the First Division, but Bergsson showed consistent performances and even chipping in with four goals.

The next year saw them return to the top flight and Bergsson was a part of an impressive Wanderers side that only lost four games all season in the league, finishing first to gain automatic promotion.

Bergsson’s impressive impact in the side was influential when the club made another Icelandic signing, bringing Arnar Gunnlaugsson to the club for the 1997-98 season in the Premier League.

However, despite Bergsson’s best efforts, Bolton were once again faced with the drop in a turbulent few years for the club that saw them move into the Reebok Stadium. The eventual turning point for the club was the 2000-01 season. Bolton, led by Sam Allardyce saw their return to the Premier League with Bergsson at the centre of their efforts. He made an incredible 47 appearances, losing only seven games in the league.

GUDNI BERGSSON WAS THE FIRST ICELANDIC PLAYER TO PLAY IN THE ENGLISH TOP FLIGHT

His remaining time at the club saw him gain his legendary status. A consistent performer week in and week out epitomized a true Sam Allardyce defender. Despite Allardyce’s best efforts at keeping him from retiring, Bergsson returned to his native Iceland as a lawyer and is currently the President of the Iceland Football Association.

He is fondly remembered by the Bolton supports for his bravery and persistent attitude which spurred them on to many successes. In the final game of the 2002-03 season, they beat Middlesbrough to avoid relegation, and Bergsson was crucial to that victory, putting on one of his finest displays.

Eiður Guðjohnsen is a name many will remember very well.. His extraordinary attacking style as a forward makes him the best Icelandic player to grace the field. His elegant technical ability, as well as his goalscoring prowess, was just a small snippet of the player he really was. While Bergsson was a pioneering figure for aspiring Icelandic footballers, Guðjohnsen was the dream all youngsters chased.

His career, like Bergsson, started at Valur in his native country where, at the tender age of 16, he showed great composure in front of goal. He broke onto the scene at a young age, which led to his move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven. His time in the Netherlands was more of a learning experience than a breakthrough as injury issues and competition with the great Ronaldo limited his time on the pitch.

Following in Bergsson’s footsteps, he made the move to Bolton in 1998, and big things were expected of the youngster. They knew the attitude Bergsson brought to the team and hoped Guðjohnsen would bring a similar identity. He certainly did not fail in doing so, as in his second season in a Bolton shirt, he hit an impressive 21 goals which led to Wanderers reaching the Division One play-offs.

After that, he earned his big move when Chelsea came calling in the summer of 2000, paying £4.5 million for his services. At Stamford Bridge, he formed a frightening partnership with the explosive Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, making one of the best duos in Premier League history.

Guðjohnsen was used as a bit-part player in his first season as Hasselbaink and Gianfranco Zola struck a deadly partnership that saw the Dutchman smash an incredible 26 goals. This did not phase the Icelander. Despite his lack of playing time, he managed an impressive 13 goals.

The following season saw something special as Chelsea witnessed the introduction of a magician in Guðjohnsen. Claudio Ranieri, the manager at the time, showed great faith in the Nordic as he, Hasselbaink, and Zola were terrorizing defenders with Guðjohnsen striking 23 goals in all competitions.

The 2002-03 season saw Guðjohnsen remain a consistent figure in the Chelsea side and the game that showed his sheer class was the fixture against Leeds United at Stamford Bridge where his acrobatic effort off a Frank Lampard was a moment of beauty.

The year after that saw a Chelsea transformation as Roman Abramovich took over. With Ranieri still in charge, the pressure was on to win silverware. The Chelsea team saw much change with numerous big signings arrive at Stamford Bridge. Players like Damien Duff, Scott Parker, Geremi, and Hernan Crespo all joined at the Blues.

With all the money spent, it seemed as though Guðjohnsen’s Chelsea stint had run its course. However, his gritty attitude would prove otherwise, as he was a frequent name on the team sheet and would reward the faith put in him with goals. Chelsea finished second that season, behind Arsenal’s invincibles and would also reach the semi-final of the Champions League, but that would not be enough to save Ranieri’s job. In came José Mourinho.

EIDUR GUDJOHNSEN, ICELAND’S BEST EXPORT TO ENGLAND

With more heavy spending in the transfer market, there was added competition, but once again, that did not deter Guðjohnsen. He would go on to become the first Icelandic player to win the Premier League and the English League Cup and his performances were well-revered in one of the greatest title successes in English football history.

In a consisting of stars both local and international, Guðjohnsen was quietly making a name for himself. He was the pride of Iceland – undoubtedly their greatest player – and was having an influential role in London as well. After another successful season winning the league with Chelsea, his career took a dynamic change as he made his move to LaLiga big guns Barcelona where he was rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest players to ever play the game.

Guðjohnsen’s impact in the Premier League encouraged plenty of Icelanders to follow in his footsteps. Gylfi Sigurðsson is one such Icelandic star to enjoy the English top flight. Sigurðsson’s career was a slightly different path to Bergsson and Gudjohnsen as he started in Reading’s youth academy before working his way up to the first team, where he impressed.

This was enough for German side Hoffenheim to sign the Icelandic youngster, where, in his short spell in Germany, he earned the club’s Player of the Year award for his consistent displays.

From there, he made a loan move to Welsh side Swansea City. He made an immediate impact there in the Swans’ first-ever Premier League campaign in 2011-12. In that season, he managed an impressive seven goals in 17 games and also became the first Icelandic player to win a Premier League Player of the Month award – a sign of his incredible talent.

A technically gifted player, he’s a keen dribbler and wonderful on set-pieces. That talent was noted by Tottenham Hotspur, who signed him up after his debut campaign. At the young age of 22, there was hope that Sigurðsson could replicate his form and carry it forward for years to come. However, his time at White Hart Lane wasn’t as fruitful as his failure to adapt to André Villas-Boas’ methods meant that he left without making a mark after two years.

He returned to the place where he made a name for himself. Swansea City were more than ecstatic to bring him back and he made another immediate impact, scoring the winner on the first day of the season to upset Manchester United and claim the Swans’ first ever league win at Old Trafford. His next three seasons were just as impactful, before making a record £40 million move to Everton.

GYLFI SIGURDSSON HAS BEEN THE POSTER BOY FOR ICELANDIC FOOTBALL WITH HIS DISPLAYS IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN RECENT YEARS

At Goodison Park, he would form a partnership with the returning Wayne Rooney and they would be formidable in front of goal. His debut, however, was one to remember. A 50-yard stunner in the Europa League against Hajduk Split was one of the best goals of the 2017-18 season. To date, he is still a vital player for the Merseyside club.

Iceland may be a small country with only a small amount of their players coming to the Premier League, but they have certainly made an impact in the league. Some of the names have been important in improving the sport in Iceland and encouraging aspiring footballers, leading to the tiny country’s recent success in international competitions. The way they are going, there seems to be no doubt that there will be more players incoming – they have a bright future, and England and the Premier League have been fortunate to host it.

BY LIAM HAYCOCK