How did you get started in coaching?
Now there’s a story. My wife was studying at university in 1981 and one of her classmates was a member of a small sports club in Vopnafjörður in eastern Iceland, called Einherji. At a party that winter, he approached me and asked if I was willing to come back east and coach his club. I had never coached before, not even kids, but I told him I was ready to do it. He got back to me the next day and asked, “Remember what you said last night?” That’s how I started coaching.
So you actually started coaching on a drunken promise?
Yes, you could say that. But, yes, I went east to Vopnafjörður to coach and spent three years there, and now I’ve been coaching for over 20 years.
In 1996, you took on another small club when you moved to Borgarnes (pop. 2500) to coach the Skallgrímur team, and you took that team to the top division. I want to ask what you think is more of an accomplishment: taking a big club like FH, full of good players and with a lot of resources and turning them into champions, or taking a small town club like Skallagrímur to the top division?
That is a very interesting question and it’s difficult to answer because being a champion was a lot more fun. That is the biggest accolade. But at the time, when Skallagrímur went to the top division, that was huge accomplishment. Nobody expected anything from that team and it was not filled with “great football talent,” but there was great chemistry in the group. It’s difficult to compare, but I think I would have to say that becoming an Icelandic champion stands closer to my heart.
From a coaching standpoint, I have a feeling that taking Skallagrímur to the top might be more of an accomplishment.
Well, like I said, that team did not have the same level of football talent, but the players played with their hearts and, back then, nobody was receiving a lot of money for playing football. It is true, that was a very big accomplishment.
You quit as coach of FH this spring, and it only seems fair to ask, were you already preparing for the national team position then?
No, many people have mentioned this, but there is no correlation. I had been coaching FH for five years, it was a great time, but I think I had managed to squeeze everything out of them that I possibly could and vice versa. I was invited back, but I thought this would be a good time to move on. I think both parties were kind of relieved when I made that decision actually. After I announced my resignation, I was determined to take a year off and not coach at all this year. I was returning back to normal, physically, and I felt great about the decision. But when this came up, I simply could not say no.
Did you ever have any doubts?
About taking this job? No, never. Of course I had seen my name suggested as a replacement if [former national team coach] Eyjólfur’s contract was not to be renewed, so I had given a little thought to what I would say if the call came. When it came, I never had any doubts.
Did you expect the call?
I hadn’t really thought about it previously, but when the media discussion started I thought I was just as likely to be asked as the other coaches mentioned. But it never kept me up at night.
There is often debate about whether the Icelandic national team should focus on using its own tactic, or play reactionary and adapt its approach to that of the opposing team. Where do you stand on this question?
I am still thinking about this issue. The thing is that Icelandic football fans only demand one thing: results. If you don’t get results, you will be heavily criticised and ultimately ousted. The key to getting good results is to defend. I will stress defence heavily – playing good defence the right way and defending with many players. I will stress this a lot, but at the same time I realise we need to have a plan when we have possession. You can’t just defend and then kick the ball forward and wait and hope for the best once you get it. I will emphasise defence, but I want us to play a certain type of football when we have possession. I don’t want players to be afraid of receiving the ball and playing football when we attack.
Are you thinking of making any changes in the group?
Of course I’m keeping a close eye on a lot of players. But I’m not looking at making many changes for the next game. I think Eyjólfur selected most of our best players in our group. I don’t see myself adding many new names for the game against Denmark. But a new generation of good football players is surfacing here in Iceland.
What is a realistic goal on the football field for Iceland? KSÍ [the Icelandic Football Association] has stated that they expect the team to qualify for the finals of a big tournament in the next 10-15 years. Is that realistic?
Look, it’s difficult to say that it’s realistic, but the fact is that few nations are as demanding of results as the Icelandic people. The demands are high, but what I will demand is that when we go into games, the players will work hard. I think they usually do that, but when they leave the pitch, I want players to feel good about having done everything they can. That is all we can ask for, really. If players do that every single game, I am certain that we’re capable of achieving great things. I believe that the gap between us and bigger nations is diminishing.
Do you think we could reach the same level as the other Nordic countries then?
Yes, I believe that is a realistic goal. We have more players turning pro so we have more players that are training more regularly and in better conditions and that should result in better football players. However, many young players leave for the pros in other countries, just to go pro, and end up riding the bench or even fail to make selection.
I was going to ask you about exactly this point. It seems to be engraved in Icelandic players’ minds that they want to play in England, and many of them go there. Do you think it’s better for players to aim for the smaller professional leagues where they get to play, rather than focus on the big leagues where they might not get an opportunity to play?
Of course everybody wants to go to England. It is the Mecca of football with the most money and the most attention. But there’s no point going to England if you’re not playing. You will not improve as a football player by sitting on the bench. You will only improve by playing competitive football on a regular basis. I think it’s better for them to go to smaller leagues where they will get an opportunity to play. If you do well there, you will undoubtedly get a chance to play in a bigger league. Many players are looking at the pay check, but hopefully your first contract won’t be your last contract. If it is your last contract, you are not a football player. Good football players will get paid. There’s a lot of money involved, so I believe they should take smaller steps. If they do well, they will be offered bigger deals with bigger teams.