When young Icelander, Gylfi Sigurðsson arrived in RG2 as a teenage scholar back in 2005, his talent was clear to see from the very beginning.
He worked his way through the youth ranks under the guidance of Eamonn Dolan in something of a golden era for the Royals’ Academy towards the end of the last decade. This run saw the introduction of Sigurðsson to senior football alongside the likes of Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan and Simon Church at a similar time, all in the blue and white of Reading.
After a 20-goal season alerted Sigurðsson to potential suitors elsewhere, the prolific playmaker was allowed to leave Madejski Stadium for a club-record fee back in 2010.
Since then, his career has gone from strength to strength. Sigurðsson, now 29, has lit up the Premier League and played an integral role for his country alongside his club exploits, helping lead Iceland to Euro 2016 and to the World Cup this summer, and recently scored his 50th goal in the top tier of English football.
Our Academy is still producing plenty of young talent to this day, with Liam Kelly, Andy Rinomhota and Danny Loader all heavily involved with our first team, alongside our Under-23s having a very successful season so far on all fronts.
Following a weekend when we honoured the success of the Reading FC Academy, The Royal was granted exclusive access to catch up with arguably its most well-known graduate! From his professional beginnings in our famed youth system, all the way through to scoring at the World Cup, it was all covered in a wide-ranging chat at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground…
Arriving at Everton’s training facilities was an indicator of the heights of the Icelander’s career progression after graduating from the Royals’ youth ranks. A walk through Finch Farm sees England’s current number one goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford going through his paces before training, with a hive of activity as the Toffees prepare for the weekend’s Merseyside Derby against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Gylfi Sigurðsson, though, seems unfazed by it all. He strolls into the on-site café after a contractual photoshoot, with a relaxed yet focussed demeanour that could make you forget he scored the winner in Everton’s clash against Cardiff a few days earlier.
But this is the company he now keeps. Having made a splash in the Championship with the Royals, he has since become one of the Premier League’s standout players – but he certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots in the professional game. After explaining the context of our chat, Gylfi smiles, “It was quite a long time ago now!”
But as he revealed, his connection with the Royals is still strong to this day, departing in 2010 after a five-year stint in RG2. Despite his faux-forgetfulness, he carried plenty of memories from his time as a young player making his way in the professional game for the first time.
Sigurðsson’s countrymen, Brynjar Gunnarsson and Ivar Ingimarsson were already firm Royals heroes at this point – with Reading well on their way to Premier League football. With all that was going on around him, Sigurðsson recalls his first months as a Reading scholar.
“It was a very good time, but a tough time when I was coming over and going straight into professional football,” he said.
“I just remember being so tired after training – the tempo and the physicality of training was much more than I was used to.
“I wasn’t the biggest, physically, when I was 15 and I was training with the Under-18s. A lot of the boys were two or three years ahead of me physically, it was very tough.
“It was nice to have two senior boys from Iceland there, especially Ivar – I still spend time with him and keep in touch with him today, he’s actually coming over for our game this weekend!
“It was good for me, especially as a 15-year-old coming over, not really knowing what I was getting into and it was nice to have someone help me, and I could ask them questions about everything.”
Following his beginnings in Iceland, Sigurðsson flew over to England to sign for the Royals as a teenager. This was thanks in no small part to Eamonn Dolan, the man at the head of the Academy at the time, who is now honoured with his name attached to the North Stand at Madejski Stadium.
As with pretty much every player Eamonn helped develop in his time at Reading, Sigurðsson attributes a significant part of his success to the late Academy Manager.
“Eamonn was amazing. He was one of the guys who brought me over and he’s probably one of the reasons why I’m here today.
“He was very good, very tough and took a different approach to bringing players through – that’s why I think he was so successful.
“But he put everything into getting the best out of the players and giving us the best chance of succeeding.
“There were so many things. He worked us so hard, but he wanted everyone to be low maintenance. I think those two things [stick with me], working as hard as you can and being low maintenance – being humble, whatever happens. If you speak to most of the boys, I think a lot of them would say similar stuff.
“He was massive, I was at Reading for five years and I met him every day at the training ground, worked with him for three or four years. He had a massive influence on me and being with him gave me a better chance of becoming the player I am today.”
After working away at becoming a senior footballer, Sigurðsson was awarded his senior debut in a 5-1 League Cup demolition of Luton Town in the League Cup in 2008.
He then learned his craft away from Reading with successful loan spells at Shrewsbury Town and Crewe Alexandra, before returning to Madejski Stadium with one thing on his mind – breaking through to the first team. And it wasn’t long before he made his mark in the blue and white hoops, as he reminisced.
“I didn’t really play my first season until I was 19 or 20,” he mused. “It took a while, but it was worth the wait. Of course, I wanted it to happen sooner, but it was probably a good thing to wait for it.
“As a team, we weren’t playing too well in the first half of the season, but we really kicked on in the second half. I was surprised, I wasn’t expecting to get 20 goals in my first season in the first team, that’s for sure!
“I really enjoyed my time there, and it’s a season I’ll never forget.”
At the weekend, we officially unveiled our new Academy Honours Board – which details all 47 of our Academy graduates since its modern-day setup took shape when the Royals moved stadia in 1998.
Sigurðsson’s name proudly sits on that list, with dozens of other players to have found success in a Reading shirt and elsewhere after graduating from the Academy.
“I’m very proud – it’s fantastic,” Gylfi says of his place on the board. “I think if you look at each Under-18 group, there aren’t many that go on and have such successful careers. The chances are so slim these days, there are so many kids who want to make it, so it’s fantastic to have actually come through the Academy and had a successful career.
“Eamonn came in and changed a lot of things, brought very good people in and a lot of them are still there today. I remember him speaking about how he was going to change everything when I came in and he certainly did.
“There are a lot of players who were with me that are still having good careers today. With six players coming through last season, that’s a high number for an Academy so the work is still being done in the right way, which is good.
“I still speak to a few people, I was speaking to Simon Church this morning! He obviously had to retire because of his hip injury, but we lived together when we were younger. I still speak to some of the other boys as well.
“There are so many people you meet along the way, it’s nice to keep in touch, see people are still in football and doing these things.”
Alongside his club record in his career, Sigurðsson has been instrumental in the success of the Iceland national team, with eye-catching runs in the World Cup and the Euros putting Iceland on the football map as contenders for major tournament success.
Alongside current Royal, Jón Daði Böðvarsson, Iceland famously beat England on their way to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 and overcoming a very tough qualification campaign to reach the group stages at the summer’s World Cup – at which Sigurðsson scored an equaliser from the spot against eventual finalists, Croatia.
This success has been in the making for a long time, says the Royals Academy graduate.
“It’s been fantastic, something which we always wanted to happen – that was our goal. It wasn’t easy, we had to beat a lot of teams who were very good, but it’s been an incredible last five years or so.
“Hopefully we’ll start on another qualification for the Euros. Hopefully we’ll get an easier group this time because we seem to get the tough groups every time we play! We’d like to make it to another final, that would be very good for the country.”
In the last decade, Icelandic players have enjoyed a superb degree of success with the Royals and become popular figures among the RG2 faithful.
Böðvarsson currently represents the first team, with compatriot Axel Andrésson also having made his senior debut out of our Academy – recently winning the league title on loan with Norwegian side, Viking – Iceland holds a unique standing in the hearts of Reading fans. But could Gylfi pinpoint the reason behind Iceland’s success with the Royals?
“I don’t know, it’s a good question! I think you saw with Brynjar, Ivar and myself that we were hard-working, with a good mentality and there’s a good connection there, I don’t know why!
“It’s similar with the Irish players there too, there were a lot of Irish players like Shane Long, Hunty – both of them – Kevin Doyle and so on. It’s just something about the Irish and Icelandic!”
As a player who has first-hand experience of coming through the Royals’ Academy, Sigurðsson offered his advice for those currently looking to pave their way into the Reading first team.
“I think you’ve got to keep your head down, work hard every day and make the most of the facilities and everything you’ve got, because it’s different to other places,” he explained.
“When you come to a Premier League or Championship club, you’ve got fantastic facilities and if you keep your head down, with a lot of hard work and some luck with injuries, you’ll probably have a good career.”
Looking back, Sigurðsson spoke of the pride he felt representing the Royals from a young age. Such was the impact he made during his breakthrough season at Madejski Stadium, he has also been inducted into the Supporters’ Trust at Reading Hall of Fame!
Gylfi speaks with great fondness of his time making his first impression in professional football, with no regrets over the decision to learn his craft in our Academy.
“It was fantastic, it was 100% the right place for me to go. Coming from Iceland, it had the right stuff. It was much better than I was used to in Iceland, you’re able to be on the grass 12 months of the year here.
“I definitely chose the right club, we had the right people around the players and it was fantastic.”
“The Hall of Fame nomination is great, I think it was Ron Grant who told me about it all. I spoke to him at the beginning of the season, it was something I wasn’t expecting after one [senior] season there but I’m very proud of that.”
Fast-forwarding to this season, Sigurðsson has enjoyed a productive first part of the campaign with Everton – with the eyes of the city on Sunday’s fight for local bragging rights against fierce rivals, Liverpool, at the time of our interview.
A hard-earned win against Cardiff in the match before, thanks to Gylfi’s winner, put Everton 6th in the Premier League table as it stands at the time of writing, with the Icelander hoping for plenty more to come in his remaining time at Goodison Park.
“It’s been really good, a very good season so far. We started off slowly with a couple of draws, we could have won a few more points but I think we’re in a very good place. Obviously, we’ve got a very big game coming up this weekend, but all of us are very excited for the rest of the season.
“Hopefully I’ve got a few more years [ahead of me], with Iceland I’d like to make it to the Euros or the World Cup, hopefully both.
“I’d like to stay in the Premier League for as long as I can, help the team finish as highly as possible each season.”
With Gylfi having spoken of the influence of the Royals in his playing career to date, he finished with a message to those who supported him during his time at the club.
“I’d like to thank them for the support they had for me and the team when I was back there, I still look out for the results. Not just because I played there but because the manager is there, Jón Daði as well, I’ve still got a very good connection with the club.
“It’s a club that’s still very close to my heart, it was my first professional club and hopefully I’ll be down soon to watch a game.”
The Long Read is a series of extended feature interviews running throughout this season, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal. Pick up your copy on a Madejski Stadium matchday for just £3!