In recent seasons a handful of Icelandic players have relocated to play their club football in the United Kingdom. The likes of Tottenham’s former Swansea and Reading midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, Wolves duo Eggert Jónsson and Björn Sigurðarson and League Two Rotherham United’s Kári Árnason are all currently playing in the top four divisions, but more importantly for everyone at Cardiff City, two natives of the Nordic European island country have been doing the business in CF11 this season.
Heiðar Helguson’s trademark header against Nottingham Forest on the weekend moved him one goal above countryman Aron Gunnarsson with 9 strikes so far this season. Alongside Peter Whittingham, it is these three who sit atop of our goal-scoring charts for 2013/14. Manager Malky Mackay has shown his confidence in the ability of his two Icelandic assets by handing Gunnarsson and Helguson forty-one and thirty-eight League appearances this term respectively.
THE YOUNG WARRIOR: The free transfer acquisition of Gunnarsson from Coventry City, one of Malky Mackay’s earliest signings following his own arrival in South Wales in the summer of 2011, was an example of the kind of recruitment masterstroke that has characterised the Gaffer’s first two years at the helm. After one hundred and twenty-three appearances for the Ricoh Arena club, the fans of the Sky Blues were very concerned about the departure of the midfielder, their Player of the Year in the 2008-09 season. Coventry were relegated to League One the following season, and many felt that the lack of bite in their midfield was the main contributing factor to their downfall. If anyone needs any reminding of how popular Aron was during his first season with Cardiff, they need look no further than Cardiff City Stadium’s exterior.
On numerous occasions this season, Gunnarsson has got goals that have crucially changed games in Cardiff’s favour. His late header past Manuel Almunia completed a come-from-behind victory over Watford at Cardiff City Stadium in October, while he has also scored winning goals at Oakwell against Barnsley and against Crystal Palace at home on Boxing Day. One of Aron’s strongest attributes this season has been his heading: four of his eight goals in all competitions have seen him rise to nod home a cross. Not being the tallest player in the Cardiff ranks by any stretch of the imagination at five-foot-ten might have worked in Aron’s favour as opposition defences allocate their big men to mark the likes of Mark Hudson, Ben Turner and Matthew Connolly when it comes to dealing with a set-piece.
There is more to Gunnarsson’s game than just converting goals though. We have become used to seeing him drying off the ball in preparation for one of his deadly long-throws into the penalty area, and he’s managed four assists this season in that fashion. Ever since Rory Delap popularised the practice while playing for Stoke City in the Premier League, the long-throw has become an important attacking outlet for the sides that are able to execute it, and Aron has mastered the technique to a tee.
Twenty-three years of age may seem very young for an international captain, but Aron has firmly established himself for ‘Strákarnir Okkar’ (translated from Icelandic as ‘Our Boys’). Handed the captain’s armband last summer for the match against the Faroe Islands, Iceland’s World Cup Qualifying campaign is looking in good shape under his leadership. They sit second in the European Group E after five games having beaten Norway, Albania and Slovenia in the last twelve months.
THE HARDENED GENERAL: Having retired from international football, Heiðar Helguson has not been a playing part of Iceland’s route to Brazil 2014, but has very much been part of Cardiff’s promotion push this season. Helguson got the first of his eight goals in his debut season as a Cardiff player by winning and converting a penalty in his first competitive appearance for the club at Northampton in the Capital One Cup season opener, and has since developed a reputation for sticking himself in where it hurts for the City cause. His opening goal at home against Hull City saw him collide with the post and end up flattened on the floor, symbolic in a strange way of Helguson’s fearless style of play.
He has displayed the same poacher’s instinct this season that brought him to the attention of the likes of Watford, Fulham, Bolton and Queens Park Rangers earlier in his career – opportunistic goals at Derby, Bristol City, Nottingham Forest and Charlton plus a double at Portman Road against Ipswich are the evidence of that. With his senior career starting in 1993 at UMFS Dalvík in his native Iceland, twenty years of experience later Helguson has an innate ability to find himself in the right place at the right time. In what was arguably his best performance of the season so far, at Ipswich he was perfectly-placed to capitalise on two errors by Tractor Boys goalkeeper Scott Loach.
Despite being top in the scoring charts, Helguson can also be considered one of the most selfless players in Malky Mackay’s squad. With five assists, the only players that have more than City’s number twenty-two are those you would consider as the club’s key playmakers: Craig Noone (eight), Craig Bellamy and Peter Whittingham (both seven).
The second half of the season has seen Helguson playing a new role as an impact substitute for Cardiff, and with the more restricted game-time he has gone longer than he would like without finding the net. Regardless, in a squad that includes such established goalscorers as Peter Whittingham, Nicky Maynard, Craig Bellamy and Fraizer Campbell, seeing Heiðar lead them all in terms of goals-scored proves that at even the age of thirty-five, Helguson can still cut it in a division in which he received a winner’s medal two seasons ago.