Tonight Gylfi Sigurdsson’s Iceland face France in what is indubitably the Nordic nation’s most significant ever game. It is probably also the biggest game of the attacking midfielder’s career – after seamlessly overcoming England last Monday, the 26 year old is finally and deservedly achieving recognition on the international stage.
England fans who follow Reading supporters on Twitter will have no doubt seen honourable mentions to Mr Sigurdsson over the course of the tournament and possibly after England’s loss to Iceland. This may seem slightly surreal to the neutral, especially given that Sigurdsson only spent one season in the first team at the Madejski. So why is the Icelandic emblem so popular in Berkshire?
Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it is more than just ‘he’s one of our own’. Sigurdsson has was signed by Reading in October 2005 and spent over three years in the academy, yet he symbolised something more than being just a homegrown talent. Granted, he does fall into the category of ‘academy graduate’ but that term was fairly redundant to Reading fans. The likes of Nathan Tyson, Jamie Ashdown and Simon Cox preceded Sigurdsson as academy graduates but never excited like the Icelandic did. With Sigurdsson, the Royals finally had a graduate who possessed talent in enough abundance to penetrate the first team for years, perhaps decades to come.
With goals like those featured in the above video, it may seem like a mystery as to why Gylfi didn’t come into the first XI sooner. However, there is some context to the delay in his rapid rise to the top at the Madejski. Reading had enjoyed the greatest successes of their history when Sigurdsson came over from Iceland. They were promoted to the Premier League for the first time ever in 2006, subsequently revelling in a stellar first season in the top flight before being relegated in 2007/08. Steve Coppell infamously only ever played younger players in the more trivial cup fixtures – in fact, the only young player to break through to Coppell’s record breaking teams in this three year period was Shane Long.
Sigurdsson made his debut in 2008/09 in the League Cup against Luton Town but failed to ascend to the starting eleven in the Championship that season. Coppell was still in charge and did blood young centre back Alex Pearce and the defensively minded Jem Karacan into his team, albeit infrequently. However there was no room for Sigurdsson who had Marek Matejovsky, Brynjar Gunnarsson and James Harper all ahead of him in the pecking order.
When Coppell did leave in May 2009, it signalled the end of an era. The likes of Glen Little, Kevin Doyle and Dave Kitson would finally end their tenures at the club, making way for the next batch under the perennially optimistic Brendan Rodgers. The Northern Irishman naively dreamed of Europe while allowing Hal Robson Kanu, Simon Church and Scott Davies to progress to the first team – a juxtaposition if ever there was one. The Icelandic midfielder scored his first Reading league goal in a loss to Peterborough in September 2009, but it wasn’t until Rodgers was (finally, thankfully) sacked in December 2009 that Sigurdsson really became a sweetheart of many Reading fans, essentially meaning that he was able to create such an affinity with Reading fans in just over half a season – a quite astounding feat.
This was in part due to Brian McDermott’s success as manager. The former chief scout converted Sigurdsson from a limited inverted wide-midfielder into a free and flair-filled central attacking midfielder, forming a bridge between Shane Long and the midfield in a 4-4-1-1 formation. It would be an understatement to say Sigurdsson flourished in this role – his new found freedom meant he developed rapidly, energizing a decaying Reading team which was languishing near the bottom of the Championship. Reading fans, after four years of success of some kind, were back to facing a dreary reality where little old Reading would inevitably stare down the table rather than look up it. The days of Doyle, Sidwell and Little, such exceptional players, seemed to be over until our Icelandic gem arrived on the scene. Sigurdsson had the drive of Sidwell, the finishing ability and goalscoring prowess of Doyle and the sublime ball control of the highly dexterous Little combined into one.
Sigurdsson’s rise was kickstarted by that penalty at Anfield, when he scored the equaiser in a 2-1 win over Liverpool. He was calmness personified as thousands of Reading fans trembled from the stands. It was the smoothest of spot kicks – a fragile, elegant stroke into the bottom corner which symbolised an intelligence and arrogance which had arguably been missing from Reading sides for the previous two years.
The FA Cup win against Liverpool revitalised Reading’s league form. The Royals would eventually finish ninth in the league after relegation looked a serious possibility and Sigurdsson finished with 21 goals in that campaign from 44 appearances, but his most memorable moments came in the FA Cup – fitting, given that originally, Sigurdsson could only get game time in Berkshire through cameo appearances in early season cup fixtures.
One particular moment was the late, late winner at home to Burnley in the FA Cup fourth round. Sigurdsson actually scuffed his effort into the corner but his endeavours were made even sweeter by the fact that Burnley had beaten Reading to a place in the Premier League in the previous season’s play offs. This too was an unthinkable accomplishment made possible only by the genius and determination of the attacking midfielder. His strike was scuffed, but by this point Reading fans would be right to suspect that this was part of Sigurdsson’s game – his ability to succesfully miscue a strike so well that it released an untapped euphoria was not merely coincidence. Legends are born through their ability to create special, unforgettable moments and Sigurdsson definitely had that gift.
Reading’s next opponents in the cup were West Bromwich Albion, a team second in the same league as Reading. The Royals took them to a replay at The Hawthorns and remarkably beat the Baggies 3-2. Sigurdsson (unsurprisingly) scored the winner in this game with a strike that I deem to be my favourite of his. He picked up the ball in extra time with the scores level at 2-2 a good thirty yards from goal. What followed was simply world class. Seamlessly and instantly, Sigurdsson would stroke the ball into the top corner of Scott Carson’s goal, producing a spectacular amount of curve and power and dip. Fundamentally, it was unlike any Reading goal I had previously seen. The team of 2005-2008 definitely had their share of sensational strikes – but this effort had an edge to it. It was a strike that dared Reading fans to dream again after such a downturn in results following 2008/2009, a goal that qualified Reading for the FA Cup Quarter finals for the first time in decades. It was another unforgettable moment.
Reading would ultimately lose the Quarter Final to Aston Villa but the result didn’t dilute the creation of an icon. Reading have since reached the quarter finals and the semi finals of the same competition in recent years and much of that is arguably owed to Sigurdsson’s drive and endeavour.
The Icelandic star would leave Reading at the beginning of the 2010/11 season but at the end of the summer transfer window, leaving time to create two more unforgettable moments with goals against Scunthorpe at home (a 25 yard screamer) and then away to Leicester (a beautiful chipped goal). His departure was heartbreaking and tough to digest for a lot of younger Reading fans. However Sigurdsson’s time in Reading’s first team showcased the fortunes of the club; success, however fleeting, would surely come around again with the right amount of flair, endeavour and skill.
Reading fans have an endless affinity with Gylfi Sigurdsson because we never got to see him peak – or fall – with us. Sigurdsson was ultimately a beacon of hope and expectation for many Reading fans. He represented the future, and still does to some extent. Reading have had their worst two finishes in the league for over a decade in the last two campaigns yet there is still a Sigurdsson-shaped hope an expectation that success is only around the corner, waiting to embrace Reading Football Club.