Nostalgia

Eidur Gudjohnsen: Iceland’s Greatest Ever Footballer

Eidur Gudjohnsen during his Chelsea days
Photo: Action Images/Lee Smith

It’s 24 April 1996 and Iceland are playing Estonia in Tallinn. Starring for the visitors is 34-year-old Arnór Guðjohnsen, one of the country’s top strikers who would net 17 times for his country in his career. Sitting on the substitute’s bench is Arnór’s 17-year-old son, Eiður. Rumour had it that, assuming the score line allowed such courtesies, the youngster would be brought on towards the end of the game and play alongside his father. Fate took a cruel hand though and an injury to the father was in fact the gateway to the teenager entering play. The sentimental gesture was abandoned, postponed for another time.

It wasn’t to be. The two would never play alongside each other as an injury to the youngster, shortly afterwards, meant a two-year absence from the game, by which time Arnór had retired. The younger Guðjohnsen though would go on to have a stellar career, eclipsing the achievements of his father and becoming Iceland’s leading goalscorer across a 20-year career and the country’s greatest ever footballer.

After starting out with Icelandic club Valur, Guðjohnsen was signed by PSV Eindhoven in 1994 and would be paired with the prolific Brazilian striker Ronaldo in a partnership that promised so much. Just over a dozen league games into the pairing though, that same cruel fate hit the striker once more. A serious ankle injury meant a period on the sidelines, and then a loan move to KR Reykjavík to recover fitness. By the time he returned to Holland, the brilliant Brazilian had been snaffled away to Barcelona by former PSV manager Bobby Robson. Perhaps with the club harbouring concerns for the long-term fitness of the player, Guðjohnsen would soon also be moved on, but to the much less glamourous surroundings of The Reebok Stadium and Bolton Wanderers. Had such concerns existed, they were proven to be well wide of the mark as Guðjohnsen’s career would stretch into his fortieth year.

Under the promptings of Sam Allardyce though, Guðjohnsen would flourish. It seemed strange that a player blessed with the languid skills that the Icelander had in excess should prosper in the frantic hurly-burly of the English game, but whether due to the astute coaching and tactics of Allardyce, or the player’s ability to adapt it proved to be the case. A two-year spell in Lancashire brought 26 goals in 73 appearances for the club. A record of 51 appearances in his second term there, also illustrated that there were no lasting problems from the injury.

In June 2000, Chelsea laid out £4.5 million to secure his services. The club was very much in a transition phase with new manager Claudio Ranieri taking up the reins for the start of the season and the ‘Tinkerman’ tactics made the Icelander’s first season in West London a bit of a stop-go term. Although he appeared over 30 times for the club, a number of those were from the bench as players were moved around by the manager like pieces on a chess board.

Fortunately, the following season was very different. The arrival of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink provided Guðjohnsen with the ideal frontman partner and the pair flourished, netting 52 goals between them. Guðjohnsen, although often regarded by many as the junior partner, the supporting actor to Hasselbaink’s star, still scored an honourable 23 of those 52 goals. It would be the most prolific season of his entire career.

The arrival of José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich’s riches brought with them an influx of new players but Guðjohnsen’s ability made him one of the great survivors of the era. Indeed, it was the Icelander who opened the competitive account for the new manager, scoring the winner against Manchester United in the club’s opening league fixture to lay down a marker that there was now a new club ready, willing and able to threaten United’s dominance.

Guðjohnsen would feature prominently in Mourinho’s teams, although as time progressed, he would be moved further back into a midfield role. Again the player’s ability to adapt proved key to the ploy of the manager and even though the goals return inevitably diminished, he would still average more than 40 games per season in the most competitive of environments as Chelsea went on a trophy acquiring spree, inspired by Mourinho and backed by Abramovich’s largesse. Back-to-back league titles and a League Cup winner’s medal are evidence of his contributions to the cause. Across his time with Chelsea, he would play 226 scoring 78 goals. As Guðjohnsen himself would remark after scoring against Southampton from his more withdrawn position, “not bad for a midfielder!”

In June 2006, just as then dog days of Mourinho’s time at Chelsea were beginning to play out, Barcelona came calling, offering £8 million for Guðjohnsen. It’s the sort of offer any player would dream of, and he inevitably opted to follow the track of his former PSV strike partner and move to Catalonia. Playing initially under Frank Rijkaard, and then Pep Guardiola, he would stay in La Liga for three years. He would win a Super Cup under the Dutchman, but much as with his time with Chelsea, he would be a part of the wave of success under a new manger when Guardiola was promoted from the club’s B team, ironically, edging out Mourinho who was also up for the top job at the club.

Looking purely at the number of goals Guðjohnsen would contribute to Barcelona’s cause during his time with the club, some may question whether he was worthy of a berth in that all-conquering squad. Much as with Mourinho though, Guðjohnsen would also prove to be the starting pistol for Guardiola’s glorious managerial reign. The manager’s reign was looking like a major trial. A tortuous defeat in Soria to Numancia was followed by a tame 1-1 draw in the Camp Nou against Racing Santander. Doubts began to circulate. Perhaps Pep wasn’t the right man after all. Perhaps the step up from the B team was too much. Perhaps Mourinho was the better option.

Playing their third game, away against Celta Vigo, the Balugrana had been two goals clear thanks to Eto’o, but strikes from Fabián Monzón and José Mari had brought the Andalusian club level. Nerves were fraught in the Barca dugout as time drifted away. Then, with 16 minutes remaining, Guardiola sent Guðjohnsen on to replace Frenchman Ludovic Giuly. Six minutes later, a cross from Alves though saw Guðjohnsen turn the ball into the net for the winning goal. The corner was turned, and Barcelona would go to achieve a clean sweep of all the trophies available to them in that season, including La Liga title, Copa del Rey, Supercopa de España, UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup. Had the Icelander not broken the ice back in Galicia, the future of Barcelona, Guardiola and indeed football itself may well have been very different.

He would score less than 20 goals for the La Liga club, but with teammates of the quality of Messi, Eto’o Guily, Pedro and Thierry Henry, that was less of a factor. Dropping neatly into the supporting role he briefly played in alongside Ronaldo, and then more explosively with Hasselbaink was something the Icelander excelled at.

The years with Chelsea and Barcelona would be the outstanding times in the career of Eiður Guðjohnsen. He would go on to play for Monaco, Spurs, Stoke City, Fulham, AEK Athens, Cercle Brugge and Club Brugge before a brief return to Bolton, and then on to China and Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, before ending his career with a period in Norway at Molde, retiring two days after his 39th birthday. In his career he played more than 650 games for more than a dozen different clubs, scoring 158 goals, collecting nine major trophies along the way. He never did get to play alongside his father, but perhaps his career his none the worse for that.

About the author

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Gary Thacker

Now living in Spain, Gary is the author of two books about football and writes for a number of high profile magazines and websites. He also appears regularly on podcast and had worked for BBC Radio and talkSPORT. In 2017, he was shortlisted for the FSF 'Blogger of the year' award.

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