Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Former Player Remembers: Arnar Gunnlaugsson (Part Two)

Leicester City supporters will recall Arnar Gunnlaugsson for his work-rate and an array of extraordinary goals from distance.
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The Icelandic former striker sat down with Club Historian John Hutchinson to discuss his pre-Foxes career, which took him around the continent before eventually ending up in England.

Today, we pick up the story at Filbert Street, as Arnar recalls spells with Leicester City, Stoke City and Dundee United. He then explains why he returned to Iceland, where he finished his playing career, before becoming a very successful manager, winning six major trophies in the last five years with his team Víkíngur Reykjavík.

In part one of the interview, Arnar described how he began his career in Iceland, when he made his debut as a 16 year old for Íþróttabandalag Akraness (ÍA) in the Icelandic league’s top flight known as the Úrvalsdeild, before playing in the Netherlands, Germany and France for Feyenoord, FC Nürnberg, and FC Sochaux-Montbéliard.

He went on to remember his time at Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League and in the Championship before joining Premier League outfit Leicester City in February 1999. He also talked about his international career playing for Iceland.

When he signed for City for a reported fee of £2M, Martin O’Neill’s side were in their third season in the Premier League. The Foxes had won the League Cup in 1997 and competed in the UEFA Cup the previous season.

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

His time at the Club was blighted by injuries.

“Leicester was a top-10 Premier League club at the time,” Arnar recalled. “They were competing well in League Cups. Martin was one of the Premier League’s iconic managers and I was really proud to move there. It was an interesting time. Leicester had a really good team, individually and collectively.

“It was just an amazing group, not only as players but as lads as well. I think the strongest point of the group was that there was a lot of camaraderie. I enjoyed the fact that, when I arrived at the Club, it was no problem because I was immediately accepted for who I was.

“It was different in France and Germany, where there were maybe small groups of players in the club. At Leicester, it was always a given that the team came first. There was a great friendship among the guys. I have nothing but good memories from my time at Leicester. I would like to have played more games, but you can’t have it all, and I was really proud of my time there.”

Between signing for Leicester and the end of the season, Arnar played four more times for Iceland, including UEFA EURO 2000 qualifiers against Andorra and Ukraine.  

In Arnar’s second season (1999/2000) at Filbert Street, he was hampered by injuries but he will always be remembered for his role in three penalty shootouts in the space of five weeks in December and January.

These were all at Filbert Street – two were in the League Cup against Leeds United and Fulham, when the final scores were 0-0 and 3-3 respectively, and one was an FA Cup replay against Arsenal, which both finished goalless. Even though he had hardly played due to injury that season, for each penalty shootout, Arnar stepped up first. On each occasion he scored – helping Leicester to win all three.

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

In action at The Valley near the conclusion of the 2000/01 Premier League season.

“It’s correct to say that I had some problems with my body that season,” he recalled. “I remember in the first penalty shootout against Leeds in the League Cup, I felt obligated and responsible to do something for the team because the Club had paid a lot of money for me and I hadn’t been playing.

When Martin O’Neill asked the players who wanted to take the penalties, I sheepishly raised my hand. I thought: ‘Why not?’ Then I immediately thought to myself: ‘What am I doing?!’ It was a nervous occasion! So obviously I took the penalty. It was a good one against Nigel Martyn.”

Leicester won that shoot out 4-2 and, the following month, Arnar repeated the feat from 12 yards against Arsenal, and seven days later against Fulham. 

Two months on, in March 2000, Arnar went on loan to Stoke City, who were playing in the third tier and he helped his recovery by playing in 18 games for the Potters before the end of the season.

“Stoke was owned by an Icelandic consortium,” Arnar continued. “And there was an Icelandic manager there, together with Icelandic officials and two or three Icelandic players. I needed game time and it was really enjoyable.”

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Celebrating scoring the winner at Villa Park during the 2001 FA Cup Fourth Round.

At the end of that season, he returned to Leicester and, in June 2000, O’Neill left the Club to become manager of Celtic. He was replaced by Peter Taylor.

“To start with, it was really good with Peter Taylor,” Arnar remembered. “We were top of the Premier League in October and were fourth in the table when we beat Liverpool in March. In the FA Cup, I scored what I think was the Supporters’ Goal of the Season when we beat Aston Villa. Then we lost to Wycombe Wanderers in the quarter-finals.”

Wycombe’s winner was scored in the 90th minute by Roy Essandoh, who had signed on a two-week contract after the Chairboys had discovered his talents on the internet.

He added: “I know we had a few injuries that year and the squad wasn’t the biggest, but that defeat was one of the biggest disappointments in my whole career, especially after our really good stuff earlier that season. We missed out playing in the semi-final and at Millennium Stadium in the final.” 

The following season (2001/02) was Arnar’s last at Leicester. “We didn’t start well,” Arnar explained. “Peter Taylor was sacked quite early on and Dave Bassett took over. I still had some physical difficulties, as I’d had throughout my time at Leicester, and I had some operations that season. I was in the last year of my contract and I needed to play and so (in February 2002) I went for my second loan spell at Stoke. My time at Leicester was up.”

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Into his final season with the Foxes.

Arnar made 18 appearances for the Potters before the end of the season.

“I had a really good time at Stoke,” Arnar said. “We got promoted to what is now the Championship after beating Brentford in the play-off final in Millennium Stadium.”

That summer, a TV deal fell apart and caused financial problems for Football League clubs, including Leicester City, who went into administration the following season.

Reflecting on this, Arnar continued: “I was released by Stoke at the end of the season and my contract at Leicester had finished. It was a strange time in the English football landscape, apart from the Premier League. Some clubs were uncertain and struggling a little bit, so they wouldn’t take on any unnecessary players.

I decided to go to Scotland and sign for Dundee United (in July 2002). I was only 30, but I’d had a lot of injury problems and I went to Scotland to see if I could keep playing a little bit longer, but I didn’t enjoy myself there. Six months later, I decided to pack my bags and go home to Iceland.

“Iceland’s football season runs from May until the end of September or the beginning of October. I signed for KR Reykjavík (in March 2003). I played for the first year there with my brother and we won the Úrvalsdeild and the Icelandic Cup that season and I played my last match for Iceland.

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Arnar Gunnlaugsson

Featuring for Stoke against Brentford in the 2002 Division Two Play-Off Final.

“I was at KR for three years and, after that, I went back to my hometown club (Íþróttabandalag Akraness) for a couple of short spells. In the first year we were playing back there (2006/07), the coach got sacked and, being a senior player, I took the chance to coach. In the second spell back there (2008/09), they also sacked the coach, so me and my brother said we’d help our home town club by coaching.

“I actually continued playing until I was 38, but the game in Iceland wasn’t at the level of the Premier League or the Championship in England. I could manage to play about 10 games a season, or something like that, just to keep fit.

After the second spell back at Akraness, I played for a few clubs in the Úrvalsdeild (FH Hafnarfjörծur, Valur, Haukar and Fram). My last club was Fram, which was managed by Thorvaldur Örlygsson, who used to play for Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.

“After 2008/2009, I kind of went away from football for five or six years and decided to go into business. I was a bit fed up with football. But the game always calls you back. So, by 2016, I decided to return and took on an assistant coach’s job at KR Reykjavík to try to go all the way as a coach.

“I missed playing. Every player does, but I have to say I’m enjoying football more as a coach.  You have a lot responsibilities, you have a lot of players with different issues and you are involved with the community too. It’s a really good experience. I had it all as a player, and then when you think that football is over, you have a second chance as a coach, which I feel is a privileged situation.

It was really nice to meet Matt Elliott, Gerry Taggart and Matt Piper. I haven’t seen them for about 25 years, and it felt I’d only missed one day.

Arnar Gunnlaugsson

“I took over as head coach at Víkíngur Reykjavík in 2019 after I’d had a year there as assistant head coach. They are an historic club which has won titles in the past but hadn’t won anything for well over 30 years. We’ve now managed to build it up and we’ve had a lot of success.

“We finished our season in October, and we managed to win the Icelandic league title and the cup, so we’re double champions. We’ve won six titles in five years (two league titles and four Icelandic Cups) and five in the last three so it’s a real upward curve.”

Arnar was also voted Iceland’s Coach of the Year for 2023. When asked about this, Arnar said: “That’s a really good honour. I received it on 4 January. We have this thing in Iceland like the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year and the Coach of the Year Award covers all sports, not just football.”

Asked if he saw his long-term future as a coach, Arnar replied: “Yes, definitely. I’m ambitious and want to go as high as possible.”

Arnar was recently in Leicester with an Icelandic TV film crew. “They are doing a TV series about me and my brother, just about our life really,” he explained. “So we’ve been to all the clubs we played for in England and then we go to Holland in March. It will be released maybe in about a year’s time. When I was in Leicester, it was really nice to meet Matt Elliott, Gerry Taggart and Matt Piper.

“I haven’t seen them for about 25 years, and it felt I’d only missed one day seeing them. You achieve something together and then lose touch but when you meet up it’s the same old jokes and the same old camaraderie because you share such a strong bond in the football community. It was really enjoyable meeting them again.”

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