Walsall Web-Fans track down former Icelandic Sadder Sigurður Ragnar Eyjólfsson and get the opportunity to remember his time at Bescot and discuss his career progression since leaving The Saddlers.
Zidane – Hi Siggi, thanks for taking the time to Firstly can you let us know about how you got into the football system in Iceland, and how your football education continued in America where you studied at the University of North Carolina?
Siggi – I played for the biggest club in Iceland when I was playing at youth level and we were very successful, many times Icelandic champions. I played from 1992-1998 in Iceland in the top 2 leagues. My best season was 1998 where I scored 7 goals in 12 matches in the top flight before going to University of North Carolina at Greensboro to play the college season there. I played from 1995-1998 in college and was very successful over there. I was selected All-American 3 years in a row from 1996-1998 which is team of the year in 1.st division college football. I scored a lot of goals over the 4 years and did well enough to be approached by professional teams in USA and went into the MLS college draft.
Zidane – You arrived at Walsall in January 1999 from IF Akranes, can you let us know the detail of how the transfer came about, how were you noticed and approached by Walsall and how were you enticed to join the club?
Siggi – In one of the matches I played in college there was a football agent watching, his name was Graham Smith. He thought I was good enough to play in England so he got in touch after I graduated and asked me if I was interested in playing in England. I said yes and he got me a trial at Walsall. I trained with them for 2 or 3 weeks and they decided to sign me after I had a great game playing with the reserves against Birmingham´s or West Brom´s first team who were being punished after a poor league game and had to play against Walsall´s reserves. I think I scored 2 or 3 goals in the match, one with a header from outside the box and it was one of my better games in a Walsall shirt. They subbed me at halftime and the day after I had signed. I was under contract in Iceland so Walsall had to pay Akranes for my services. Walsall did not want to pay much but I think they ended paying enough so Akranes could get a player of my ability instead of me.
When you arrived in Walsall, what were your first impressions of the club? How did you settle into the area and did it help having many foreigners in the dressing room?
The football was very high tempo. Technically I was more than good enough. I thought I was the best finisher at the club. Walsall played very organised and disciplined football, rigid 4-4-2 which most of the teams played in the league. I think almost every single club we played that season played the same type of football – English style. It is not the only way of playing football though! Walsall had an Icelandic player Bjarnolfur Larusson and that helped quite a bit. My best mate at the club however was Jorge Leitao when he came over. He lived next door to me and is a great person as well as a great player. The football in England was fantastic, I loved the experience and it has proved to be a vital experience for me today as a head coach/manager of the Iceland team. I got just as well on with the English players as the foreign players but I can´t say I was really good friends with anybody at the club, it is more like a professional atmosphere rather than a „friends“ atmosphere. What struck me at Walsall was the dedication of the fans and their support. Their love and support for the club is their way of life.
I read an interview once you were struggling to determine who our goalkeeper was in the dressing room, when you arrived at Walsall, unbelievably Jimmy Walker is still at Walsall, sandwiched by a spell at West Ham, what were your memories of the player?
I was sat in the Walsall dressing room and I was looking at the body shapes of the players and turned to Bjarnolfur Larusson and asked who on earth is the goalkeeper? Bjarni pointed to Jimmi Walker who at the time was carrying a few extra pounds, and I said no chance! He´s too small and chubby to be a goalkeeper! I soon found out however that Jimmy Walker was a great goalkeeper and for sure the the best goalkeeper I have ever played with. His reflex saves and his ability to read into where the ball would go before the shot was made unbelievable and I have never experienced that from any other goalkeeper I played with. He was never very fit during his time with me at Walsall but that didn´t stop him from being an outstanding goalkeeper who then went on to achieve bigger things. On top of that he is one of the funniest guys you´ll ever meet, I loved training and playing with him.
You arrived at Walsall during a time which was pretty much a dream roller coaster for Walsall fans, the 1998/9 in particular was the most unexpected season I think we will ever experience. When you joined you were eased into action with reserve games and substitute appearances. Was you happy with how you were introduced into the English game?
I arrived at a time when the team had been doing very well and many said the team was overachieving. I therefore did not expect to play so much for my first season. To play in the English game is a learning curve and I was satisfied playing reserve games and getting substitute appearances with the first team, even in important matches while I adjusted to the tempo and tactics of the first team. I managed to score a few important goals for the first team in this first year as well as a bunch of goals for the reserve team and I had signed my first professional contract so I was really pleased after my first year. I thought I was improving as a player.
For me when I remember you in a Walsall shirt, my first memory is of course the game against Oldham in which thanks to your goal helped us get the win in which we secured automatic promotion behind big-spending title winners, Fulham, leaving Manchester City behind us to battle their way through the Play-Offs. What are your memories of that season, the players you played alongside, the manager Ray Graydon, that great game at home to Oldham and the celebrations after?
I only have good memories from that remarkable season. To achieve automatic promotion was a fantastic achievement. Ray Graydon was a great football coach and did very well to get the team organised. He taught me a lot even though I do not agree with everything he did. I was surprised to find that at a professional club like Walsall they were far behind Icelandic clubs in things like nutrition, physiotherapy, sport science etc. After matches we got fish and chips to eat, that was not very professional. If players got injured they had to go and find help elsewhere or receive treatment from the kit man. Having said that, the club operated on a very low budget and did extremely well with the resources they had. I also thought Walsall brought in way too many trialists.
The following season Walsall despite relegation, we went down with our heads held high, the local derbies against Wolves, Birmingham, West Brom … they’ll never be forgotten. What are your memories of the campaign that eventually saw us relegated on the final day of the season? Did you feel on a personal level you were given your chances?
I was a late developer and got into the english game at age 25. I can understand that the manager will go for someone who has proven himself playing in the championship. It was difficult for me to break into the team. I always believed in my ability though and knew I could score goals. I was never going to be as good as Andy Rammell in the air or as good with my back to goal as Mark Robins, but I had other abilities, I could score goals. I don´t think Ray Graydon used my abilities the way he could, instead he focused on working on my weaknesses rather than building on my strengths as a player. I never got the impression that he believed in me as a player and he never gave me the chance I deserved in my opinion. No hard feelings though. I had a great time at Walsall.
During the campaign you were loaned to Chester City, as a former player, how does it feel seeing them in their current plight?
I went on loan to Chester for 2 months, I thought the level was low and the team was struggling. They had 1-2 good players and a good team atmosphere. I managed to score 3 goals in 9 matches there and I was quite happy with that because we were a struggling team and I did not get much service up front. I don´t keep track of how they are doing, Walsall was always my club. I keep in touch with my old manager Ian Atkins who is international scout at Sunderland at the moment, and he is always looking to scout Icelandic players.
For me I was sad to see you 2000, you were off to Belgium before returning to Iceland where you would win Icelandic League titles. You also became Football Association Technical Director for Iceland in 2002. Have you drawn from your experiences at Walsall and your short stay in Belgium during this role, and what is your vision for the foundations of the game in your country?
Yes I think you always draw from your experiences and bring them to the table when youtake on a new role. When I played at Walsall I experienced very good coaching from Ray Graydon and Mick Halsall, that inspired me. When I became Technical director for the Icelandic Football Association and then took over the women´s national team of Iceland I decided I wanted to become an outstanding coach myself. So on top of having completed a Bachelor´s degree in Exercise and sport science and doing my Masters degree in Sport psychology from USA I decided to do my coaching badges as well.
I finished the English F.A. Pro licence course in 2007 with top people like Roy Keane, Brendan Rodgers, Gary Ablett, Dean Smith etc. I then managed to establish a strong coach education link between the two associations and I have since brought over to Iceland many of the greatest teachers in the game from the English FA to help develop Icelandic coaches. My vision is to make Iceland the place for other countries to learn from when developing football talent. This is already starting to happen as you can see here:
Sam Allardyce once said “When you consider the fact that the population of Iceland is similar to the population of Bolton, it becomes astonishing how many good footballers come from Iceland. Icelandic players are playing all across Europe”, I have asked if you have drawn from your playing experiences in this country, but what do you think England can take from the Icelandic practices in their youth player production line? This is a common talking point within this country, how we can turn the many players we produce, converting them into World Class players which given our financial resources and population we have to draw from, I personally think we don’t produce anywhere near enough.
This is a great question and I have strong opinions on the matter. England like most big countries can perhaps do a better job of developing players from age 8-12 which is the crucial stage to develop technical skills. They started 1-2 years ago to employ technical skills coaches across England which is a good step. The key person in developing good players is the coach. So you need to equip the coaches at all levels with knowledge and the know how. You also need to provide quality coach education at the lowest levels of the game, make it affordable as you are investing in the future of the game and bring coaches in in big numbers to the courses or provide them with the knowledge. Then you enlarge your base of young talented players. England is doing a good job in many ways, your U-17 national team were European champions a couple of years ago under John Peacock. Last year the Iceland U17 beat England´s U17. Remember we are the size of Bolton so what are we doing to stay competitive? Our focus is on developing coaches, training a lot at the children and youth level, providing good facilities for football and make coach education mandatory at all levels of the game.
As you are the man in the know, who are the up-coming talents in Icelandic football? Are there any names we should be passing on to current Walsall manager Dean Smith!?
Iceland has close to 60 professional players playing abroad in England, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Netherlands etc. We only have around 14.500 players at all levels and ages. Names you should be familiar with are Gylfi Sigurdsson at Swansea who might go with Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson who is our top striker and plays for Dutch champions Ajax. Of the older players Eidur Gudjohnsen, Hermann Hreidarsson, Ivar Ingimarsson, Brynjar Gunnarsson, Heidar Helguson, Arnar Gunnlaugsson, Gudni Bergsson are all Icelandic and have done well in England.
The exciting prospects are everywhere in Iceland as you can see from our U-17 national team who were Nordic champions and our U17 B team also took part to fill up the numbers in the Nordic tournament last year and finished fourth after beating some of the other A-teams. Players from that team are signing professionally all over Europe to clubs like PSV Eindhoven, AGF in Denmark etc. Look out for Bjorn Bergmann who is likely to sign for Wolves soon. He will bang in the goals next season hopefully. Very exciting striker. Dean Smith was on my Pro licence course and we went on a study trip together at Valencia so he has my contact information if he is looking for talent!
Additional to being Technical Director, in 2007 when you acquired your Uefa Pro License in England you took charge of the Icelandic Women’s football team and two years later you became the first manager to lead a national side to a competition finals. Can you describe what an achievement this was and how much of a learning curve were the finals for yourself and Icelandic football, how can you build on this?
Women´s football is at a high level in Iceland. I have managed to take the team from 21st place in the FIFA rankings to 15th place. We have overachieved as a team perhaps over the last 5 years. We have managed to beat very strong teams like England, France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, China etc. The highlight was obviously qualifying for the EURO 2009 in Finland where we were placed in a very strong group with Germany, France and Norway. It was a great achievement as Iceland has never qualified for a major tournament at the full national team level. The players became national heroes. When I took over the team we hade only 3 professional players playing abroad, now most of the players are playing abroad professionally or in America on a scholarship. In the finals we played some of the best teams in the world in top class stadiums in matches televised live all over Europe and watched by millions. The media coverage was much more intense and more at stake then normally. It was a great learning experience to measure ourselves against the best at the highest possible level of playing football. It will serve us well in the future as we are now trying to qualify for EURO 2013 in Sweden and we are close to reaching that goal. Qualifying was the highlight of my coaching career and a great achievement.
And finally what are your ambitions left in game? Do you have any aspirations to manage in the Mens game at either club or country level?
My ambitions are to reach my goals at the Icelandic FA and I would enjoy at some stage to go full time into coaching. I am wearing two hats at the Icelandic FA now both as technical director and as the head coach for the women´s national team. I can perhaps see myself working abroad in the future as a manager, performance director or technical director at a club or a national association.
I have had offers to take over at clubs in Iceland in the men´s game and also to take over a top women´s team abroad but the closest I got to leaving my post was to take over as performance director at prestigous national association abroad, but if fell through at the last moment. I would love to have the opportunity of managing or coaching at a high level. I am very good at what I do and I know I can become successful. Very few managers in the game have background as professional players as well as my type of education credentials and experience on top of having found success as coaches. Whether the opportunity arises remains to be seen.
Siggi, thank you so much for your time, we have greatly enjoyed finding out about you, your experiences and opinions on the game, we wish you all the best for the future, we will continue to follow your progress from afar.
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