An English man abroad is a novelty these days, gone are times when top English players would look to broaden their horizons. Lineker making waves in Barcelona and Waddell in Marseille were a part of a plethora of Englishmen to test waters abroad. Nowadays the idea of it is a lot more far-fetched, Wayne Rooney running out at the San Siro clad in the colours of the Rossoneri seems like something that would only occur in a video game.
So when it occurs it’s noteworthy. In terms of British players abroad at the moment, there are a few former Premier League players flying the Union Jack across the continent; Matt Derbyshire is plying his trade in Cyprus whereas Jay Bothroyd is in Japan. Some youngsters have also moved to other big European leagues, with the likes of Lookman, Sancho, Oxford and McGuane making the brave move.
Intriguingly a Swedish third-tier side, Ytterhogdals IK, host a huge number of English players in their ranks. Ytterhogdals IK have always placed their eggs firmly in the foreign basket when it came to transfer strategies. The team was formally dominated by Soviet Union players but in recent years has switched to pick up young English talents and offer them a chance to rebuilt their careers before selling them off for profit. Other Swedish teams have copied this strategy and Sweden has become somewhat of a home away from home for young English talent.
With more English talent than ever out there, it has become more of a mainstream option for young English players to move out to Scandinavia instead of dropping football altogether. But this is mainly due to a large constituency of English players making it seem like home.
As a whole, we are reluctant to move from our shores, especially if it’s the complete unknown.
In 2013 David James did just this. The former England No.1 who made a name for himself at Portsmouth and Liverpool ventured to Iceland, ‘The Land of Ice and Fire’ to turn out for Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja, (often shortened to IBV). At 42 years of age, James had accomplished just about everything in English football, with an exception for the Premier League itself. James, then at Bournemouth, looked northwards towards the horizon for a new challenge.
The former England International was now in the twilight of his career and as most players did speak about his desire to enter management after his career came to a close. James took the bold decision to move to Iceland when the management opportunity arrived. He would only be part-time, however, with IBV still needing a backup at the keeper position.
The key factor in this decision was current IBV manager and James’ former Portsmouth team-mate Hermann Hreidarsson. Hreidarsson, like James, was brought in on a player-management basis to the club that he represented as a youngster before moving to Europe.
IBV themselves are not a mainland team, instead located off the southern coast of Iceland on the archipelago of islands called Vestmannaeyjar. These islands are cold and desolate, despite housing the Eldfell Volcano, which erupted in 1973 causing months of evacuations for the residents on the islands.
James’ debut for IBV came in the Urvalsdeild against IA at home. He lined up with fellow Brits; Matt Garner, Ian Jeffs and Bradley Simmonds with coach Hreidarsson on the bench. IBV ran out 1-0 victors thanks to a 24th-minute winner from Gunnar Már Guðmundsson. The opening weekend victory was followed up by a 4-1 humiliation of Breidablik. At the end of the game, the players grouped into a huddled in front of the home support. The home fans sang chants at them with the team jumping up an down in celebration of the victory at the centre of this huddle is James. He doesn’t look like a tired old veteran that’s seeing out the last of his playing days, he looks hungry for victory again, like his brief trip so far has reignited his love for the beautiful game. My favourite part is the background, a small stand that could seat around 100 away fans is slowly emptying and behind that is nothing. A green field that leads steady uphill and yet the passion, for football, is there to be seen in this remote archipelago of islands.
In fact, the island is so remote that when a fellow Urvalsdeild team came to face IBV they were stranded on the island for three days following the fixture.
IBV would yo-yo in terms of form, they didn’t struggle for wins but rather to put a run together was proving problematic with draws seeping in between victories. As a result, IBV were finding it hard to gain any sort of momentum that would propel them towards the head of the table. For IBV, and James, it would be the return fixture of Breidablik that would start a poor run of form. IBV entered the game after being knocked out of Europa League qualification by Serbian side FK Crvena Zvezda Beograd. Hreidarsson would have been hoping that the knock of confidence the team took from the defeat would be erased by memories of the previous time these two sides meet. IBV were outclassed on the day and James conceded three goals as IBV slumped to defeat. It was their fourth game without a win and tough run of fixtures featuring the top two sides FH and KR.
It wouldn’t be until IBV travelled to mid-table rivals Fylkir, over a month later, that the poor run of form would come to an end. A 14th-minute goal through Vídir Thorvardarson would secure the victory. In post match interview James described himself as “buzzing, absolutely buzzing”. For James, this victory held more than the end of the bad run. It was his 1000th competitive appearance, a feat he had only found out a couple of days prior.
It was later revealed that James hadn’t been receiving his full paycheck and was only still in Iceland to gain experience in management. This is far from the truth, James was there because he loved it there and the people of Vestmannaeyjar loved him. His immortal moment coming in an Icelandic Cup game where a corner is whipped in from the left-hand side of the pitch a near post header later James is diving down to the bottom left of his goal, scooping the ball off the line. The save was reminiscent of a teenage James, not a 42-year-old veteran.
James left in the summer where he took a career hiatus as a pundit before reprising a management role in India shortly after. James would be pushed to the forefront of English media once more when he declared bankruptcy in 2014 after he left the game for good.
His time in Iceland was both a success and a failure, James came face to face with the Icelandic Viking spirit where players would often work 12 hour days before training at night whilst at constant battle with the elements. ‘The Land of Ice and Fire’ has moulded one of the most extreme landscapes in the world, where else can you see volcanic ash erupt onto a glacier? It’s an island full of surprises, as James found out in IBV and the world would see at the Euros in 2016.