Old fires burn in the Iceman

Eidur Gudjohnsen has become a member of the old guard at Chelsea. Having lasted four years, he is among an elite few whose memories stretch as far back as the days when Gianluca Vialli was manager and Ken Bates owned the Bridge.

As Chelsea, in the first years of the 21st century, have transformed themselves from bankrupt to bankrolled major players on the international stage, they have dispensed with dozens of Gudjohnsen’s former teammates.
The great survivor, though, recently signed a new four-year, £55 000-a-week contract. The new Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, has praised him like a favoured son, calling Gudjohnsen ‘special” and ‘intelligent”, essentially indispensable. Is he, though?

With Mateja Kezman and Didier Drogba joining the squad, what are the chances of the Icelandic forward lasting another four years? Kezman’s statistics are enough to send even the most confident of strikers whimpering into a corner: 105 goals in 112 appearances for PSV Eindhoven. Gudjohnsen is happy to acknowledge the achievement. ‘Wow! You have to admire that,” he says.

But he is not intimidated. ‘Look at it this way, the first year I signed for Chelsea there was Tore Andre Flo; there was [Gianfranco] Zola, the best-ever Chelsea player; Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink signed in the same week for £15-million; and then there was me, a young, talented boy coming from Bolton.

“I took that challenge. Last year it was me and Jimmy, and then Adrian [Mutu] and Hernan [Crespo] came in and I still ended up being first choice towards the end of the season. I might not always be in from the start, but I always seem to grind out my place in the team.”

Gudjohnsen started ‘grinding out” his place from a remarkably young age. He was top scorer at his club, Valur Reykjavik, at 15, and signed for PSV at 16, where he partnered Ronaldo.

Then, suddenly, it looked all over. In an Iceland youth international against Ireland, Gudjohnsen suffered a career-threatening injury, shattering his ankle. But, as he has shown at Chelsea, Gudjohnsen is a survivor.

‘The doctor at PSV told me he thought I’d never play at a high level again. It was a very frustrating time. I found it hard mentally and I could feel people around me starting to lose faith.”

A morose Gudjohnsen returned to Iceland and pondered his future. He was 19 years old.

Having once been a hero in his native country, Gudjohnsen shakes his head at the memory of his homecoming. ‘When I returned I wasn’t the player people remembered. I was overweight, it didn’t look like I would play professionally again.”

Oskar Thorvaldsson, sports editor for Iceland’s daily newspaper Dagbladid Visir, recalls Gudjohnsen’s early days and the impression he made on the public.

‘He was like a prodigy. He played his first game in the league when he was 15 and he instantly became one of the best players. He became a celebrity that year, in 1994. He was the future of Icelandic football, no one had had such an influence on the league before.”

In that doleful year of his return in 1998, the Icelandic public would hardly have recognised him.

Released from his contract at PSV, local club KR Reykjavik agreed to sign him. With the help of doctors and physiotherapists, he embarked upon an excruciating and at times frightening journey.

‘They said try to work through the pain barrier. I was in unbelievable pain. I was chewing painkillers, but gradually I just got through it. Like someone said it’s either that or go and try to get a job. Well, I left school at 16 ...” he shrugs as if to say: ‘What else was I going to do?”

He thinks the long recovery might have been a blessing in disguise. ‘I never stopped believing. Belief is a major factor in whatever you do. I thought I’d just go for it and run with the pain, shoot every ball with pain. I started getting fitter and I played 10 or 12 games for Reykjavik. Then I signed for Bolton on a free.”

A single day of training on a pre-season tour of Ireland was all it took to convince the then Bolton manager, Colin Todd, to sign the young forward. Even Gudjohnsen’s agent at the time, Peter Harrison, expressed his surprise, saying: ‘I don’t know what you did in training today but they want to sign you straight away.”

Todd describes his first impressions of Gudjohnsen: ‘He didn’t look like a star. But his natural talent shone through, his overall movement, his quality to bring people into the game and his ability to get into the box and score goals.”

Talent is one thing, but fitness is entirely another and it took Gudjohnsen a further seven months to break into the Bolton first team as a regular.

Gudjohnsen’s first major appearances came towards the end of his first season and immediately he made an impression. Scoring the equalising goal in two successive games earned his team two vital points in the race for the play-offs.

It also earned him a lot of attention in the national press. Signing Gudjohnsen proved a gamble that paid off for Bolton. Twenty-one goals and two seasons later he was sold to Chelsea for a tidy profit of £5-million, Tottenham and Newcastle also having shown a keen interest.

Rumour has it that even Manchester United had been asking after him.

Although clearly not their biggest signing that year, Gudjohnsen proved a shrewd buy for Chelsea, scoring 10 goals in 17 league starts in his first season. Most eye-catching, though, was his fast-developing goal-scoring relationship with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

The two forwards could not have appeared more different, Hasselbaink with his hulking shoulders and fiery eyes, the power in his strike as fearful as his swagger; and Gudjohnsen with his light-footed touch directing through-balls into the Dutchman’s path.

Gudjohnsen is visibly pleased at the memory. ‘We had great chemistry,” he says, pausing to laugh as though at a private joke. ‘We just seemed to be laughing at the same things, silly or not. Ebony and ivory, we had a lot of names ... fire and ice people used to call us.

“Jimmy’s more the emotional type on the pitch, the fiery guy, he wants the ball all the time and he will shout and scream at everyone. I’d just say, ‘Yeah, relax, I’ll give you the ball, don’t worry’. We respected each other, we complemented each other. I felt at my best when I was providing goals for him.”

An air of nostalgia lurks in this last sentiment, a nod back to a different era.

‘When I look back two or three seasons ago, I thought I was unstoppable. I felt like I could control any ball from any angle, see every through-ball, and that’s to do with confidence. There was a period when I knew my name was going to be on the team sheet, that’s something I’ll work hard for again. When that continuity comes, hopefully I’ll reach the same level and beyond.”

Gudjohnsen and Hasselbaink scored more than 50 goals between them that second season and the Icelander is openly disappointed about the disruption to their work.

Although both players were recovering from minor injuries in the close season of 2001, Gudjohnsen feels strongly that Claudio Ranieri should have been more proactive in getting them back to full fitness.

‘When you’ve got a partnership like that you’ve really got to try to do everything to get it going again. The manager could have done more to get us playing, with Franco [Zola] behind us maybe.”

There are lingering regrets over the Ranieri era, a period of unfulfilled potential as Gudjohnsen sees it. ‘I thought four years under Ranieri was a bit of an indifferent time. We didn’t reach, I thought, the potential of the team or the squad in those four years.”

The arrival of Mourinho clearly excites Gudjohnsen.

‘You have to be impressed by him. This manager is just an out-and-out winner, if he can spread that winning mentality into the squad and into the team it could be our year.”

Whatever the sceptics may think, Gudjohnsen is clear as to what his role will be in the new Chelsea. ‘As long as I’m scoring or setting up goals I feel I’m doing my job. Both Didier [Drogba] and Kezza [Kezman] are out-and-out strikers and if I can be the one helping them to score, I’ll be glad to do that. I’ve still got a hell of a lot to offer to Chelsea. With a bit of luck and a lot of confidence I can really blossom.”

His progress will be watched by his family around him.

‘My mother knows football and she’ll have her opinions, whether I should have made this run or that run.”

And do they see eye to eye? He laughs. ‘I don’t usually tell her if I disagree.”

It is his father, though, with whom he shares perhaps the strongest bond. Arnar Gudjohnsen was a successful footballer before him, one of the best players in the Belgian league in the late 1980s. He, too, was an Iceland international and in one memorable game son came on as substitute for father.

‘I’ve always thought my dad was a fantastic footballer, the best I’ve ever seen. He’s helped me a lot. He’s a great father, a great friend and he’s now also my agent.”

The Icelandic people seem to regard Gudjohnsen junior as a hero. Even when it emerged that he had spent more than £400 000 playing blackjack and roulette in London’s casinos during a five-month period, they stood by him.

‘There were stories flying about that I had nothing left, that I was basically living on the street! Luckily I have never felt any animosity or negativity from the people [in Iceland], they are always amazing to me and that makes me feel very proud.”

Gudjohnsen will eventually return to Iceland. His roots are important to him and he has made sure that his two children are fluent in both English and Icelandic.

‘We have traditional Icelandic meals at Christmas. If we have people visiting they’ll bring something typically Icelandic, such as harfiskur. It’s just dried fish that you eat with a bit of butter, it’s amazing. It’s a terrible smell, though.” —

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