Chris Lakey: How Iceland was attractive shopping for Norwich City

Against The Elements cover

Against The Elements cover - Credit: Archant

Recruitment is hugely important for clubs like Norwich City – it’s their job to find rocks and stone and polish them into gems.

Isak Thorvaldsson in FA Youth Cup action for Norwich City Picture: Archant

Isak Thorvaldsson in FA Youth Cup action for Norwich City Picture: Archant - Credit: Nick Butcher

A new book called Against the Elements, The Eruption of Icelandic Football, by Matt McGinn, does what it says on the tin - and there’s relevance to City, who made inroads into the island a few years ago.

In an extract from the book, McGinn writes of his conversation with Gregg Broughton, who became head of academy recruitment at Norwich in 2012:

When Gregg expanded academy recruitment to Europe, Iceland rose to the top of the spreadsheet for producing professional footballers.

It didn't work out at Norwich for Atli Barkarson Picture: Archant

It didn't work out at Norwich for Atli Barkarson Picture: Archant - Credit: Sonya Duncan

A report from the Football Observatory vindicates his methodology. It found in 2018 that the country with the highest rate of expatriate footballers per million of inhabitants was Iceland (180). Montenegro (134) was the only other country with a figure above 100. The use of ‘per capita’ has become wincingly clichéd as a framing device for Icelandic sporting achievement. But, in this instance, it is the clearest way to articulate Iceland’s flair for football husbandry. This is why scouts flock to Reykjavík.

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Gregg added further criteria to the study of Europe: how many players from each country returned home shortly after joining a foreign club? How many signed contract extensions? Again, Iceland performed well. When Icelandic players move abroad they tend to assimilate. Relatively few fail to adapt or suffer from insurmountable homesickness.”

“Our scouting network and budget were small compared to other clubs,” he said. “If we wanted to find the best player in France it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack. And if we did find him, we would be fighting with PSG, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. In Iceland we didn’t feel we would face the same competition.”

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Norwich were in the market for 14- and 15-year-old players who could sign after their 16th birthday. The going rate was between £20,000 and £50,000. Gregg had to persevere. Norwich missed out on his targets from the 1998 and 1999 groups – in reference to their year of birth – to Reading and FC Twente, clubs with deep roots in Iceland. Agust Hlynsson, a playmaker from Breidablik, was the breakthrough. Ajax, Stuttgart and Cologne had identified him. Agust’s father had concerns about his son’s suitability to the hard running and hard tackles of the English game.”

Broughton adds: “We felt our major selling point was Norwich’s geographical isolation. The training ground is very rural. Going from Reykjavík to London, or even Birmingham, can be a huge culture change.”

Norwich was a bigger pond than Iceland. But not too big, not overwhelmingly big.

Two more midfielders – Isak Thorvaldsson and Atli Barkarson – arrived in Norwich the following year. “All of a sudden we felt we were ahead of all other English clubs in the Icelandic market. Norwich had a really big name in the area.”

The signing of Atli Barkarson reveals much about the astonishing range of Norwich’s network. He is from Husavík, a town of 2,000 souls on the northern shores of Iceland with a far stronger reputation for whale watching than football. Atli played in the Third Division for his local side, IF Volsungur, before he joined Norwich.

Agust left Norwich without making a first-team appearance and is now back in Iceland after a spell in Denmark. Broughton acknowledges that the club did not create a clear pathway for him to progress, as fellow youngsters James Maddison and Todd Cantwell occupied his favoured position behind the striker. Atli left for Fredrikstad in Norway, while Isak joined Fleetwood Town on loan in January 2020 after consistent performances for Norwich under-23s.

The Icelandic contingent in Norwich have come and gone. But they leave a template for how Norwich, even as a Championship club, can think outside the box to find the next hero of Carrow Road.”

Against the Elements, The Eruption of Icelandic Football by Matt McGinn, published by Pitch Publishing on July 27 at £12.99. To pre-order a copy go here.

It’s not all bad...

There’s little doubt that Project Restart hasn’t been kind to Norwich City – although it does need to be emphasised that things weren’t particularly good before football was suspended.

Not since Boxing Day have City been anywhere but rock bottom of the Premier League, and the expected survival fightback never got off the ground.

It’s led to some fascinating opinions, on social media in particular. Blame has been apportioned to every Tom, Dick and Harry, but the truth is, someone has to be the worst team. It just hurts that it is Norwich City, made more painful because the memory of last season’s Championship title win is still very fresh.

But that is one of many reasons City fans should not be too down in the dumps. It’s time to let it go and perhaps to look at a few positives.

I am indebted to The Independent’s Miguel Delaney for this gem: “A total of 49 clubs have competed in the Premier League, across 101 different spells. Only 20 of those – naturally – have not yet ended in relegation, with eight of those clubs never having been relegated at all. The brutal reality of the Premier League is that you can’t come up without generally going down. It has happened in over 86 per cent of cases, a proportion that will inevitably increase as time goes on. The average length of those cases is a mere 3.84 seasons.”

So, City fans: you perhaps don’t belong. Yet. But you have club that is realistic and whose vision is not blurred by the thrill of watching Premier League football and expecting it to be played on a level playing field. You have a football club with financial stability. Read the story of Wigan’s dip into administration and think yourselves lucky. And you have a ridiculously high number of good young footballers who are worth many millions of pounds. And you have a plan to make that happen every season.

And you have a team that plays in front of full houses, no matter what.

It isn’t all bad.

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