I remember first meeting Aron Gunnarsson one evening in the beIN SPORTS studios. I had been put in charge of producing our coverage of the Carabao Cup, and saw that the Icelandic midfielder, who currently plays for Al-Arabi in Qatar, had actually sat himself down much earlier than expected on the comfortable-looking white sofas on set.
Even the camera crew had not all arrived, but here was our guest and pundit, sitting calmly and looking around, trying his best to be unobtrusive. Quite difficult to do being an almost 6-foot tattooed gentleman with a beard that would feel right at home at a ZZ Top concert. I introduced myself to him (painfully aware of my own inferior facial hair) and found he was thoughtful, polite, and humble, more than happy to listen to the thoughts of a junior television producer’s thoughts on how to best speak about what the competition should mean to Everton and Leicester City.
As the conversation moved away from the obvious - James Maddison, Marco Silva, his own League Cup Final appearance - what I really wanted to ask him about was being part of Iceland’s famous Euro 2016 triumph over England in Nice.
I elected not to, a part of my brain screaming about how this was surely something the man has had to recount every time he was accosted by a football fan, journalist, or reporter. So naturally, I blathered about my wanting to visit Iceland, to which his face lit up and he spoke fondly of his homeland and how everyone should do all they can to travel and visit the Nordic country.
Gunnarsson himself is rather well-travelled, the midfielder having left Iceland when he was just 17 to move from Akureyri to Alkmaar to sign for AZ, a journey of almost 2000 kilometres. While he did not feature much for the Dutch side, Gunnarsson was part of a squad that featured Sergio Romero, Gaziano Pelle, Mousa Dembélé, and Mounir El Hamdaoui.
“It was extremely hard looking back at it, even though at the time it was exciting and new. I knew I was leaving my friends and family behind going into the unknown at 16 or 17, but it was a good learning curve for me and my development going forward, which I had to remind myself of plenty of times when things weren’t going my way.”
Successful spells at Coventry City and then Cardiff City in the Championship followed, with Gunnarsson going from strength to strength and establishing himself as an important player for both sides in the gruelling English Championship.
“I did play in the championship 9 seasons out of 11 when playing in the UK and the league is extremely demanding. Lots of games, high tempo, and competitive. In my opinion, one of the hardest leagues in the world at the moment but I thoroughly enjoyed it at the same time.”
Helping Cardiff to the League Cup Final in 2012, Gunnarsson was ultimately unable to secure an upset win at Wembley, as a Liverpool side that included Luis Suarez beat the Bluebirds on penalties. He was able to gain promotion to the Premier League, scoring his side’s first goal in the 2013-14 season.
“We played the first game away against West Ham which we lost 2-0, the second game was this game against City, first home game in the Premier League at the Cardiff City Stadium and it was absolutely bouncing, so you can imagine how my first impression of the Premier League was, incredible, most talked about league in the world and most-watched league in the world, so it was special to be finally there amongst the big teams.”
Unfortunately, that campaign was an ultimately unsuccessful one. Cardiff finished bottom of the table though manager Malky Mackay was eventually replaced by a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and a side that boasted the likes of Wilfried Zaha and Craig Bellamy was unable to save them from relegation.
“Craig Bellamy is one of the best professionals I have come across. He made a huge difference in training and everything involved with the club. Zaha came to us on loan from [Manchester] United and I felt like his confidence was shattered, he needed to play and got some very good football at times. I think the move back to Palace did him good and he is one of the most exciting players in the premier league right now in my opinion.”
Going back to the Championship, Gunnarsson buckled down once again and played a key role in Icelands qualification to Euro 2016.
Here is where I confess that given another chance to speak to Gunnarsson, I did indeed ask him about the tournament in France, and presented him with the most obvious of questions, that of his favourite memory of that summer.
“Most probably the easiest question of them all, it has to be beating England 2-1 in last 16. We just went about our business and nothing interrupted us leading up to that game. The pressure on them was incredible and we felt it as soon as we got into the tunnel. Our performance didn't get enough credit in my opinion, it was more about how England had lost to small Iceland.”
Being non-English myself, but working in a department filled with Englishmen, there was a certain schadenfreude as Joe Hart let that shot slip into the net. The 2-1 win was easily my moment of the tournament and while Iceland was later outclassed 4-0 by France, there was little debate about how well they had done, from our perspective, with even the England fans grudgingly accepting the quality and graft from the minnows. After slamming the England players and staff, of course.
Gunnarsson was later able to make his way back to the Premier League and now plays in the Qatar Stars League. His journey from Akureyri to Al-Arabi is one filled with many stories, tinged with home-sickness and heroism, relegations and cup finals, grit and glory.
It was an informative and enlightening chance as ever to meet and greet the man, and hopefully, the next time I get the chance I will find it in myself to quiz him less about career highlights, and more about the Northern Lights.