“Roy Keane’s about to take the Iceland job…unless a better offer comes in from Lidl.”
Perhaps ‘the best’ of a predictable bunch of jokes I got on my mobile phone, as it emerged the former Manchester United captain was a candidate to replace Olafur Johannesson, who is due to step down next month after four years in the role.
To some it would seem like a very strange career move for Keane, but look a little deeper, and it could actually be a great way for him to gain much-needed managerial kudos, following a tough time at Ipswich Town, where he won just 28 of his 81 games in charge.
If you’ve recently looked at Group H of UEFA Euro 2012 qualification, you probably think I’m a complete lunatic – at the time of writing, Iceland sit bottom with just one point from six games.
Throw in the fact that Iceland’s senior side have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament and I can totally understand people thinking the job looks about as attractive as shares in several Icelandic banks did a few years ago.
But while the nation’s finances floundered, football in Iceland flourished, boosted immeasurably by a huge investment in indoor training facilities, allowing practice to continue at all times, in a country with a notoriously cold climate and only five-hours of daylight in mid-winter.
It all culminated in their U21s appearance at this summer’s UEFA Euro finals – the first time that any Iceland side had qualified for the finals of a major competition.
Their participation in Denmark was preceded by unprecedented interest in football back home – a country in serious need of good news found itself a big ‘pick-me-up’ in the shape of a talented group of young footballers, described by many as a potential ‘Golden Generation’.
Known as ‘Our Boys’ in Iceland – senior coach Olafur Johannesson has described the squad’s development as “the start of an exciting era” – and the public have really bought into it.
More than 7,000 people came to Iceland’s national stadium for the first-leg of their play-off match against Scotland last October – a fantastic attendance when you consider the country’s entire population is approximately 320,000.
The vast majority of that crowd in Reykjavik was sent home happy too, with Iceland winning 2-1 on the night and repeating the feat at Easter Road in Edinburgh, to go through 4-2 on aggregate.
It was the climax to a quite astonishing qualification campaign under Head Coach Eyjolfur Sverrisson, which saw Iceland finish above reigning Champions Germany in their group, and score more goals than any other nation in qualification – averaging three per game.
To put all that in context, Iceland’s U21s had only won one game in each of their previous two attempts to qualify for the tournament.
Eyjolfur Sverrisson was so impressed with the talent at his disposal that he claimed it would have been easy to pick two 23-man squads, a comment backed up by the fact that he left out the Icelandic league’s top-scorer at the time, Kristinn Steindorsson.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was one of those who did make it to Denmark, after scoring 18 goals in 37 appearances for AZ Alkmaar last season, another stand out name was Gylfi Sigurdsson, who was voted fans player of the season at Hoffenheim, after a £7m move from Reading.
But neither of them were involved when Iceland recorded a 2-1 away win against England in March, courtesy of goals from Smarason and Eyjolfsson.
It really was a squad brimming with confidence that travelled to Denmark, but Iceland ended up being perhaps the tournament’s biggest disappointment – eliminated in the group stage after losing their first two matches – it was a huge anti-climax, despite the consolation of a 3-1 win over the hosts in their final game.
Some, including the notoriously difficult to please Roy Keane, would probably call it an excuse, but perhaps some of Iceland’s below-par displays could be put down to a chaotic few days before the tournament, which saw their journey to Denmark delayed by airline strikes, a bout of flu in the camp, and very heavy rain that caused a training session to be called off.
No doubt the Icelandic FA discussed all of those things in their post-mortem, but top of the agenda has been the process of identifying the man capable of capitalising on the unprecedented level of talent currently being produced in Iceland, to take the senior national side to the next level, namely qualification for a major tournament.
A task eased by the fact that 9 of the 23-man squad that travelled to Denmark this summer already had senior international experience, with 14 also having experience of playing outside of the Icelandic league in countries like Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Germany, England, Norway, Scotland and Sweden.
For the right man it could be an incredibly exciting and rewarding job, at the forefront of an emerging football nation, with the added bonus of a rumoured £400,000 salary – that said, Icelandic football is a world away from the riches and facilities of England and the Premier League.
Even so, if it is Roy Keane who’s chosen to try and reach Brazil in 2014, I personally think he’ll have landed a great opportunity, and he may even have the last laugh on those currently asking why he’s chosen a career in frozen food retail.