Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Former Player Remembers: Arnar Gunnlaugsson (Part One)

Arnar Gunnlaugsson played for Leicester City between 1999 and 2002, an era of transformation for the Foxes which included a League Cup triumph and the Club’s final-ever season at Filbert Street.
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Earlier this year, in the company of Club Historian John Hutchinson, the former Iceland forward reflected on a playing career which took him to six different countries and served as the perfect preparations for an emerging managerial career in later life.

Split into two parts, this interview looks back on his time in Leicester – where he played for Martin O’Neill and then Peter Taylor – and his move into management. As a player, he was a striker who played in a total of 366 games, scoring 124 goals for clubs in Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, England and Scotland.

He also starred as an Iceland international on 32 occasions. He is currently the manager of Knattspyrnufélagið Víkingur in the Icelandic top flight (known as the Úrvalsdeild) and led them to the league and cup double in the campaign which ended at the end of last October before the onset of winter.

Arnar was born in 1973, in Akranes, a port town with a population of about 8,000 on the west coast of Iceland, about 30 miles north of the capital Reykjavík.

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Striking for goal against Leeds United in the fourth round of the 1999/00 League Cup. He would later convert a spot-kick as City progressed on penalties.

He began by saying: “It’s a crazy football town. For its size, it produces many players. Ones who have played in England include Sigurdur Jónsson, who played for Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal. Others have played for Stoke City and Derby County and, of course, Joey Guðjónsson for Leicester City. Icelandic players have also played in clubs all over Europe which is a tremendous achievement for a small country.”

Arnar started his career playing for his hometown club, Íþróttabandalag Akraness, a team in the Úrvalsdeild: “I made my debut for them in the summer of 1989, I was 16. I was Iceland’s top scorer in 1992 (with 15 goals in 18 games) and we won the Úrvalsdeild title that year too.”

By this time, Arnar had already represented Iceland at Under-17s and Under-19s level and was currently playing for the Iceland Under-21s team. At the end of 1992, Arnar was named as the Úrvalsdeild’s most promising player.

In November 1992, at the end of the Icelandic season, he moved as a 19-year-old to the Netherlands to play for Feyenoord, who were the KNVB Cup holders and on course to become Eredivisie champions later that season. His twin brother, Bjarki, who had been a team-mate of Arnar’s at Akraness, joined Feyenoord at the same time.

“Feyenoord is a big club,” he explained. “At that time, my football was really progressing. I remember playing against the great Ajax side managed by Louis van Gaal. They were one of the finest sides ever produced on the footballing stage. Between 1993 and 1996, they were an unbelievable team.

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Scoring for the Foxes during a home victory over Charlton Athletic in December 2000.

“We managed to win the Dutch title at the end of my first year there, although I didn’t play many games because of my age. I participated in some games though and it was a good feeling to win the title in Holland after winning the title in Iceland the year before.

“When I was at Feyenoord, I made my full international debut for Iceland in 1993. At the time, it felt like a natural step, but now I appreciate it more than when I was a young player. My debut was against the USA in Los Angeles. At the time, the USA were trying to collect a team together to represent them when they were hosting the World Cup in 1994.

“The match was memorable, but not for the football. It was because we played on an American football pitch. It was probably some American high school pitch or something like that and, as you can imagine, it didn’t have a lot of space. Apart from the fact that it was my international debut, it wasn’t a memorable game.

“Thinking back on my games for Iceland, most of them were before I was 25 or 26. Then I had a few more games when I was about 30 or something like that, because I had problems with my body and stuff like that. In all, I played 32 times for Iceland. My twin brother, Bjarki, also played for Iceland, playing a similar number of games to me.”

Arnar’s next move was to Germany, when he signed for FC Nürnberg in 1994: “Me and my twin brother went to Germany together, and he too signed for Nürnberg. That was a fantastic experience. Nürnberg is a famous German club. They had a big stadium and we played a lot of games there. The Bundesliga is really strong and it was a really good experience for young players.”

It was a different time back then. The Bosman Ruling didn’t happen until 1996 so it was more difficult to move. It was also more difficult to scout players.

Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Mention of his twin brother prompted Arnar to say: “We have two younger brothers and one of them played football. Born in 1983, he played a lot of his career in Akraness, but he went abroad and played in Sweden and also for Sofia in Bulgaria. He was a really good striker.”

After a year at FC Nürnberg, during which Arnar and Bjarki both made nearly 30 appearances each, the two brothers returned to Akraness for the last three months of the season in Iceland, which ended in October 1995. They both played in seven games, helping the side to win the Úrvalsdeild. Arnar netted 15 goals which made him yet again the top scorer in Iceland’s top flight.

Later in 1995, Arnar moved to FC Sochaux-Montbéliard, a Ligue 2 side located in eastern France near to the Swiss border.

“It was a different time back then,” Arnar explained. “The Bosman Ruling (which for the first time allowed players to move to another club at the end of a contract without a transfer fee being paid) didn’t happen until 1996 so it was more difficult to move. It was also more difficult to scout players.

“Nowadays you have sites like YouTube to advertise yourself, but coming from a small league like the Icelandic league, you had to rely on playing in international games. My main aim was to go to England, but it wasn’t possible at the time, so I went to France to play for Sochaux and experience the lifestyle there as well.”

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

The Trotters became his first club in England.

For the first time, Arnar and Bjarki were now playing for different clubs, as Bjarki moved to SV Waldhof Mannheim in Germany. Arnar spent two seasons at Sochaux, leaving at May 1997, returning again to play couple of games for Akraness, before moving to England in August 1997 when he signed for Bolton Wanderers.

“I signed for Bolton at the time that Princess Diana had just died,” Anar recalled. “Bolton had just been promoted to the Premier League which had been around for about five years. It was getting bigger and bigger every year. There was a lot of energy in the UK at the time. I remember when I landed at the airport and got my car, I switched on the radio and they were playing Oasis and Blur and groups like that. I loved being in England from the first minute. 

“Bolton’s manager was Colin Todd. He was a really good manager. He was very clever at finding players. Nathan Blake (who later played for Leicester City) was there, as were Andy Todd (Colin Todd’s son) and Mark Fish (a South Africa international).

“There was also a good selection of Scandinavian players. Guðni Bergsson was there and Eiður Guðjohnsen came the following year. It was a really enjoyable time. We got relegated at the end of my first season, but I still think we managed to make a good outcome for ourselves.

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Battling with West Ham United’s Marc Keller during a Premier League fixture at Filbert Street at the turn of the century.

“My breakthrough year at Bolton was in the Championship the following year (1998/99). I liked playing in the Championship. It’s an interesting league with a lot of games and a lot of big, frustrated clubs who feel that they should be in the Premier League, but sometimes you need to take a step back to take two steps forward.”

By February, in his second season at Bolton, Arnar had scored 13 goals in 27 league matches for the Trotters and 14 goals in 34 games in all competitions. This form attracted the attention of Martin O’Neill, the Manager of Leicester City, who were now chasing their third successive top-half finish in the Premier League.

“I think Leicester had been scouting me for a few months,” Arnar said. “Martin O’Neill told me that he’d seen me play in the first game of the season against Crystal Palace, who were managed by Terry Venables. I scored a goal in that match, so maybe I was on some kind of a list of players to watch out for.

“I’d had a really good first part of the season at Bolton in the Championship and there’s always a market for players who do well at that level, to see if they can step up into the Premier League.”

In part two of this interview, Arnar recalls his time at Leicester City under Martin O’Neill and Peter Taylor, followed by his spells at Stoke City and Dundee United. He also talks about returning to Iceland as a player and then as coach and about his impressively successful career as a manager in his home country.

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