Iceland's famous victory over the Netherlands last night marked the completion of something that’s been coming for a while now – their rise to the forefront of European football. And it’s this author’s hometown club that should take a lot of credit for the country's progression over the last decade.
Ever since John Madejski took over Reading in 1990, the club has always been sensibly run, especially on the financial side of things. And in the mid 2000s, much of their scouting for promising but affordable players took place in Republic of Ireland (Kevin Doyle and Shane Long being prime examples) and a tiny little island to the north west of our shores.
Back then, Iceland were one of those European nations with too small a population and not enough football history or infrastructure to ever have any hopes for progression. Accordingly, and conveniently for Reading at the time, it meant that their players were cheap to bring in.
The first arrival was Ivar Ingimarsson. He first came to England during a loan spell at Torquay United in 1999 and made a permanent transfer to Brentford later that year, eventually spending three years in red and white. Signed by Reading from Wolves in 2003 for £175,000, he went onto become the lynchpin of an inpregnable Reading defence that helped them achieve a record-breaking promotion season in 2006.
The towering centre-back also earned the fans’ Player of the Season Award for the club’s debut Premier League season. Former Reading captain Ady Williams said that the defender would 'go down as a Reading legend' and he wasn’t wrong.
Gunnarsson follows suit
Brynjar Gunnarsson arrived in England in the same year as Ingimarsson with a permanent move to Stoke City. Signed by Reading in 2005 from Watford for an undisclosed fee (thought to be fairly nominal) like Ivar, he proved crucial to Reading’s promotion from the Championship and stayed at the club for eight years.
And it wasn’t just the local football club that was getting involved with Iceland. Several schools in the Reading area had set up student exchange programmes with kids in the country and given that Reading wasn’t all that much smaller than the island, the Berkshire town became almost a household name amongst Icelandic youth.
So by 2006, Reading were fairly well established as a big name in Iceland with two of their country’s big names plying their trade at the Madejski and both of them excelling and becoming fan favourites too.
And so not surprisingly, the Reading Academy began to see a massive influx of young Icelandic talent making the journey to England eager to follow in the footsteps of Ivar and Brynjar – and one of those kids went by the name of Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Having spent four years rising through the academy and going out on loan, by 2009 the 20-year-old had finally earned his place the Reading first team and hit the ground running. During the 2009/10 season he was a pivotal part of Reading’s scintillating FA Cup run which included historic victories over Premier League sides Burnley, West Brom and, most importantly, Liverpool where he scored the match-winning penalty in extra-time.
His season was so impressive that at the end of the year he earned a club-record move to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. Since then, he has worked his way more and more into the British public eye, rounding it off last night with two goals against the Netherlands that pushed his national side to the top of Group A.
Strong team spirit
Much like many of the underdogs who overachieved at the World Cup, Iceland make up for a lack of quality individuals with a hard-working team spirit which in my opinion was inspired by the pioneering careers of Ingimarsson and Gunnarsson.
Of course, many could argue that the world famous talent of Eidur Gudjohnsen probably helped accelerate the process for Iceland, especially as far as inspiration was concerned. But Ivar, Brynjar and Reading provided a precedent and platform for young Icelandic players to make the journey to foreign shores and work hard to develop their careers.
When you look at the Icelandic squad now, their starting eleven are all based in top European leagues and only three in the current squad ply their trade at home. Those that made the journey to England in the mid 00s must have helped encourage their compatriots to leave the island and make a name for themselves in European football.
And with this transition for the country, the domestic infrastructure can only improve as the Icelandic population is now inspired by just more than just three former Reading players – it’s a whole squad. So expect to see Iceland’s progress only continue in one direction as they continue to make history and hopefully qualify for their first major tournament in 2016.