Brian Kerr: Miracle on ice an example to us all
Thirty-three years after falling in love with this remote, forbidding country, I'm now besotted by football's most romantic story
It is May 1983 and the flight from Glasgow touches down in this strange but beautiful place. Trees are scarce here. As are people. Just over 325,000 people live on this island, which must be the most remote place in Europe, but also the most scenic, with its rocks and its water and its multi-coloured, freshly painted houses.
It is cold and rainy and windy and when we train on the pitch the day before our youth international, the scarcity of grass is evident. Liam Tuohy is the Ireland manager; Noel O’Reilly and I are his assistants.
And as we work the players through the pre-match training session, these lovely, polite group of blond boys and girls, dressed warm and snug and colourfully, smile sweetly and speak in a strange tongue, mimicking the drills, wanting to jump in and join us, all the while being too shy to ask.
Read more: Iceland humiliate England: As it happened
Eventually, as the session draws to a close, Noel brings the kids in and they play with the lads.
This land they’re from may be one of the most inhospitable in the world with regards to developing football yet every kid there was up for it.
Real winter was still a bit away and you knew then this distant place was also a special one, where the people cling to summer and to the outdoor life, all the while knowing what is coming down the line, those months of darkness, those storms, that seemingly endless winter. We play the match on the edge on Reykjavík, with just the Icelandic players’ parents and a few wind-battered officials for company, scraping a 1-1 draw, thanks to this young man called Niall Quinn – who Tuohy selected at right-back that day – scoring a late equaliser.
Three days and three very bright nights we spend there. There was no darkness which was why we took photographs at midnight to prove to people back home that the light never went away. Did I know then it was a special place? Undoubtedly.
But did I think then, that 33 years later, they’d beat England to set up a quarter-final date with France in the European Championships?
I’d be a liar if I said I did. Yet by the time I made my next trip there, I could see that things were changing.
If Icelandic football was in its infancy in 1983, it was definitely starting to mature in 1997, when the Irish U-18 side I was managing finished fourth in the European Championship, while Iceland narrowly failed to make the third-place play-off, drawing 1-1 with Spain and 2-2 with Hungary before losing 1-0 to Portugal.
That was the tournament Damien Duff, Richard Sadlier, Richard Dunne and Stephen McPhail emerged – the Evening Herald advising the Irish public, and Mick McCarthy, to keep an eye out for “wing-wizard Duff”.
We played four matches in a week, frantic days spent in a calm place. Fourteen years had passed since I was last there and in the meantime pitches and players had improved.
I remember Noel having a laugh at my expense when I analysed them. “They’re tough, not very skilful but their spirit is admirable,” I said. “Coming from an Irishman,” he teased, “isn’t that a little patronising?”
Maybe the whole of Europe didn’t respect them enough. On the second of my trips there in 1997, the day Kevin Kilbane made his debut for Ireland in a 4-2 win, it was noticeable how calm and civil the home crowd was as they battled for victory.
There was no booing, jeering or taunting. Even when they were winning that game, when they worked themselves up into a kind of excitement, you sensed they never expected to go on and win. But that was then.
Things were changing – something I gathered by the time I was next there, with an U-17 team for a competition called the Nordic Cup. This time I’m on the other side of the island, a place called Akureyri.
In geographic terms picture the island of Iceland and imagine this place as their Donegal. Getting there isn’t easy. You need a flight from Keflavík in a little plane that takes us over these ice-top mountains and volcanoes and I briefly wonder how a community manages to live, never mind thrive, in somewhere so remote.
Yet they do. Thordur Larusson, a former player and manager with Reykjavík club Fram, is our liaison guy. He tells us how the community revolves around its football clubs, how sport matters, and you get the sense that, via football, they are clinging on to the outside world, even here in Saudarkrokur, which is a couple of hours away from Akureyri, the place that I’d originally thought was the most remote town in the world.
Next stop is Greenland and it is here where Andy Reid scores the winning goal straight from the kick-off in a five-goal thriller against an England side including Jermain Defoe.
That gets us the Nordic Cup but for me the bigger prize is seeing this incredible town, populated by just 2,572 people, seeing how their pitch, surrounded by a mountain on one side, and the main street of the town on the other, becomes the focal point of the community.
Briefly the local club are a top division team, fully professional. And then the money went but the enthusiasm stayed and the graph continued upwards.
Around the turn of the century, this nice, pleasant people in this beautiful, remote land decide to come up with a real plan that was practical and attainable.
Facilities needed to improve. They live in the harshest climate imaginable, where ice and snow cover their pitches for large periods of the year.
So, to deal with this, they build indoor halls – 13 of them. In addition, they construct 30 full-sized artificial pitches, 154 mini pitches, 148 grass pitches, all to serve a population of 335,000 people. And things start to get better.
So does their coaching. They have 90 clubs, 700 coaches with UEFA licences, more than 200 with an UEFA ‘A’ licence, the remainder with ‘B’ licences.
Yet, even though coaching and facilities make them better, it isn’t enough – not when you are from a place with just 325,000 people, out of whom, about 50-60,000 are of the eligible age to pick a team from.
To succeed – as they have done in this tournament – you need something else. What is that? Heimir Hallgrímsson has the answer. “People in Iceland are tougher than other nations,” the current Icelandic joint manager said.
“There is something special about them that makes them tougher, makes them able to come through the storms, the rain, the snow and just get on with it. Iceland can be tough place to live – plenty of things are not possible because of weather.”
Yet some things are possible. Like beating England in the round of 16 in the finals of the first major tournament for which they have qualified.
Think about that. England – their players honed in the richest league in the world – having been brought through the heavily-funded academy system, losing to Iceland, whose squad players are spread throughout 11 different European countries, who have left such an isolated, protected community and adapted to new surroundings.
To have that resilience is admirable and you get the sense the Icelandic footballer is not a big-head with big ego who expects someone else to hine and polish his boots, but who has to scrap for everything he has got.
It’s a remarkable story, this journey to the European Championship quarter-finals. It’s like Leitrim winning the Connacht Championship in 1994, Connacht winning the Pro12 this year, this adventure by the smallest-populated country to ever qualify for a leading tournament.
Looking at the way they have played has engrossed so many of us, because their style of football – a kind of Irish style with its mixture of skill and passion, an up and at them approach, based around graft, hard work, togetherness, team spirit – is so admirable.
They are not trying to do something they are not terribly good at. They have a clear plan and are sticking to it.
You could say the same about the plan they forged off the field from the start of this century.
Everyone from the town councils to the Icelandic FA have bought into the idea of having an outdoor league in the summer, an indoor one in the winter, where clubs identity with their community.
I saw as much in 2010, when I was back in Iceland; I again noticed how everything had improved – pitches, stadiums, training facilities, indoor facilities, coaching standards, playing standards.
By now I was managing the Faroe Islands and – the day before an indoor international against Iceland – we were due to train on the pitch we were playing on.
One problem. Our slot was from 5-6pm and the U-9s were scheduled to train beforehand.
It was 5.0 on the dot when they vacated the pitch and, even though I’d have loved to have had extra time for my own session, every part of me was enthused by the sight of the session going on before my eyes.
You just knew then something special was happening in Icelandic football, just as you knew the guy who played midfield the next day for Iceland, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, would go on to have a career. Last Monday, he scored their winner against England in Nice.
Tomorrow it is France. Tomorrow it is the quarter-finals. They will draw confidence from what they have achieved thus far in this tournament – the wins over Austria and England, the draws with Hungary and Portugal, not to mention the home and away victories over Holland in qualifying.
Add in the considerable influence of Lars Lagerback, their other joint manager, and you have to ask why wouldn’t they have belief? You have to give them a bit of a chance even if deep down I don’t think they’ll do it.
In my mind, though, they’ve done enough already.