'We Had To Drag Gylfi Off The Training Ground'

by Paul McNamara

Gylfi Sigurdsson will be rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s finest footballers on Saturday afternoon. Although the man who handed Everton’s Club-record signing his first start in the English game is tempted to turn that motion on its head. Paul Simpson would suggest Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria et al will be sharing a pitch with Gylfi Sigurdsson in Russia.

Either way, Iceland’s World Cup debut against Argentina at Moscow's Spartak Stadium is a galaxy away from Shrewsbury Town v Bournemouth at the New Meadow. In measurable terms, the matches are separated by roughly 10 years and 2,000 miles.

Sigurdsson had not long turned 19 and was the veteran of two substitute outings for Reading when he completed a loan move to League Two Shrewsbury, managed by Simpson, who would go on to be the architect of England Under-20s’ World Cup triumph in 2017.

“You want to see the best players on the planet at a World Cup and I am sure Gylfi will shine,” Simpson tells evertonfc.com. “He belongs in that company and so do Iceland. When you look at some of the teams who have not qualified, it shows it is not that straightforward to get to a major finals. I think we sometimes overlook that in this country.

“Gyfli and his teammates are there on merit and I am sure they will put on a right good show against Argentina.”

If Sigurdsson does indeed deliver the elevated level of performance Simpson anticipates, then it will represent the continuation of a theme.

The player's Shrewsbury debut in October 2008 doubled up as his first professional start. The match was 22 minutes old when he opened the scoring, Sigurdsson's strike coming against a robust Bournemouth side, still two months away from Eddie Howe getting his mitts on them and featuring a handful of uncompromising competitors in the likes of defenders Jason Pearce and Warren Cummings and forward Lee Bradbury. Bournemouth’s stardust was sprinkled by former Tottenham Hotspur and England attacker Darren Anderton.

But for Simpson and his players, there was no sense of shock when the precocious Sigurdsson stole the show.

“He was quiet and a really intelligent lad – he was still studying at the time,” says Simpson.

“It was clear how intelligent he was, not just academically but in terms of his football as well. You could tell he was a ‘thinker’.

“He was young and coming into a new environment. And in a football changing room, if you are quiet then you are judged on your football. The minute he started training everybody could see he was a class player. Once you have shown you can play, you receive an enormous amount of respect.

“He was a really good lad to have in the squad and showed us the ability he possessed.

“Even at that age, you could tell he had the potential to go on to be a top player. He already had a lot going for him.”

Simpson originally spied Sigurdsson’s rare ability on scouting missions to watch one of the midfielder’s Reading teammates.

The Shrewsbury manager routinely waded back through his notebook to find it filled with jottings on the fair-haired playmaker in Reading’s side. Mentions of the striker initially in his sights were scarce.

“Watching academy and Under-21 games at that time, Gylfi stood out as a class act with the potential to go on and do well if he was given the opportunity,” says Simpson.

“I spoke to Kevin Dillon who was on Reading’s coaching staff and he told me, ‘If you are looking for a midfield player… take him. He has everything and just needs the chance to go and play, he is a top, top player’.”

Dillon’s advice came with a rider, one which reflected well on Sigurdsson and pointed towards a player intent on maximising his in-built talent.

Sigurdsson, counselled Dillon, possessed a frightening work ethic, characteristic of a single-minded man who had left his homeland for England and Reading’s academy before his 16th birthday, when most of his peers in this country would still have been living in the family home, badgered by parents to swot up for their impending GCSE exams.

Sigurdsson had to grow up quickly, something which perhaps translated into his willingness to stand up and be counted on the field.

“Kevin had told me that Gylfi was always wanting to do a bit more and we would struggle to get him off the training pitch,” says Simpson.

“We didn’t want him spending hours and hours out there, we wanted to get him inside to conserve his energy, because it is a big step from academy football to the hurly-burly of League Two.

“It was a case of trying to educate him about looking after himself – doing a little bit extra but not that much you end up being shattered on a matchday, especially in League Two when games come around every few days.

“He was a good size, height-wise, but I don’t think he had grown into the physical shape he has now.

"League Two can be unforgiving physically but he had a very good football brain so he could see somebody coming in to try to smash him and shift the ball, or step out of the way.

"He had exceptional quality on the ball and could produce something whenever he had it. His quality from set plays – free-kicks and corners – was exceptional, he could put it where he wanted.

“He was still finding his feet because he was a really young lad but he was confident in his ability and prepared to go and show it.

“A lot of young players would shy away from that responsibility but he was certainly not one of those.”

Simpson’s lone regret over Sigurdsson concerns the brevity of the player’s stint in Shropshire. He stayed for one month, featuring in five matches, winning two and drawing two.

The manager’s plans to select Sigurdsson for an FA Cup first-round clash with Blyth Spartans alerted Reading, who recalled the player with a view to fielding him in a later round of the competition.

Sigurdsson ultimately played the final 12 minutes of his parent club’s third-round 2-0 defeat at Cardiff City, before spending the final three months of the 2008/09 campaign in League One with Crewe Alexandra.

Reading’s faith in the player was handsomely rewarded the following season when he responded to being granted a spot in the team by scoring 20 times in a veritable breakthrough campaign.

Sigurdsson quickly moved on to German club Hoffenheim where he scored nine Bundesliga goals in a stellar first top-flight season. He returned to the English game with Swansea City on loan in 2012 and joined the Welsh club permanently in 2014 following two years with Tottenham Hotspur.

“I follow the careers of all the players I have worked with, most weekends I will sit and look through the teams that have been selected to see how they are all progressing, who is playing where and how many minutes they are getting,” says Simpson.

“I thought Gylfi would get another chance with a really big club after Tottenham and he has played for fantastic clubs right through his career.

“Whenever I saw him at Tottenham he produced something, whether he created a goal or scored himself.

“It is a case of finding the right club, where they have faith in your ability and want to give you that responsibility of being a key figure in the team, and I think he has that at Everton.”

Sigurdsson, by his own verdict, was playing his best football since arriving at Goodison Park from Swansea last August when his season was curtailed by a knee injury eight games out from the finishing line.

He scored four goals and assisted another three in 27 Premier League starts and added excellent strikes in the FA Cup and Europa League, the latter an improvised 57-yard effort on his full Everton debut at Hajduk Split.

Sigurdsson’s immediate attention is directed towards his country’s historic Moscow date with Argentina this weekend – when the 28-year-old will win his 58th cap – which will be followed by further Group D matches against Nigeria and Croatia.

If Iceland are to repeat their European Championship exploits, when England were high-profile victims on the underdogs’ run to the last eight, then Simpson is certain his former charge will have a pivotal role to play.

“A lot of matches are so close now, so if you have somebody like Gylfi who can change a game in a single set play, or with one pass or shot, it is a fantastic weapon to have in your locker,” says Simpson.

“It will be very tough for Iceland. Croatia have some really, really good players. They always threaten to do well at major tournaments but have seemed to lose their way for various reasons.

“But Croatia will be dangerous and you have to expect Argentina to get through. Nigeria are a young and unpredictable team.

“I think playing Argentina first is a good thing, Iceland might just be capable of nicking something. Then you never know what will happen in a World Cup.

“Iceland have to believe they can be the ones producing the surprise results which a World Cup inevitably delivers.” 

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