He’s played alongside some of the best strikers in recent memory – Ronaldo, Gianfranco Zola, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Hernand Crespo, Didier Drogba, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry to name a few. He’s scored some spectacular goals (THAT bicycle kick for Chelsea v Leeds and a thrilling solo goal for Bolton against Wimbledon in the League Cup). But his favorite memory? “My dad giving me a kiss on the cheeks as I came on for him to represent my country”.
Unfortunately the father-son duo were never on the same pitch together, even though their careers overlapped for two years. A chance to get into the history books (and pub quizzes) was lost as first, the Icelandic FA president refused to let that happen, and then Eidur got injured. By the time he made his international comeback, his father had already retired.
Early in his career, during his time at PSV Eindhoven, a series of recurring injuries saw his participation limited to just 13 games over a span of 2 years. As happens at the elite level in any sport, a fear of never playing again sets in when you see your club and the players you shared a dressing room with, move on and progress ahead while you feel like an outsider looking in into your neighbour’s drawing room wondering what might have been. The diagnosis he received from the club’s doctors was bleak – “You’ll probably never play again at a high level”.
Gudjohnsen had broken his ankle, had complications with his bone growth and had undiagnosed tendinitis in the same leg. But looking back on those dark days, he says he never really gave up:
“When you’ve been on and off for two years you do start to wonder, but there was something within me that knew that wasn’t the end. I didn’t succumb to fear; I just needed time.”
Bolton Wanderers had been alerted to his talents and despite his injury fears, took a gamble on him in 1998 which heralded the start of a long and fruitful relationship between Gudjohnsen and the English leagues. The following season, he had scored 21 times in all competitions as Bolton reached the semi-finals of both the League Cup and the FA Cup and made it to the Division One play-offs (being eliminated in the semi-finals there as well).
Chelsea snapped him up for a bargain fee of £4.5 million in June, 2000, and even though he was used as a substitute for the majority of the season, he still banged in an impressive 13 goals. Chelsea had also signed a certain Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink that summer, and the following season (2001-02), saw these two form a truly formidable two pronged attack for the Londoners. Then-manager Claudio Ranieri was able to successfully pair the sheer power of Hasselbaink and the intelligence and composure of Gudjohnsen to devastating effect. They scored a combined 52 goals in all competitions (Hasselbaink had 29 and Gudjohnsen scored 23), dovetailing beautifully to elude the opposition defence.
That 2003-04 defeat to Monaco in the Champions league semi-finals still rankles him. The other two teams in the semi-finals were Deportivo La Coruna and a certain Jose Mourinho-managed FC Porto. Chelsea were widely considered favorites to go all the way and lift the trophy for the first time in their history but some questionable tactics and head scratching decisions by Claudio Ranieri meant they took a 3-1 deficit back to Stamford Bridge, which eventually proved insurmountable.
When Jose Mourinho arrived to much fan fare as Chelsea manager in 2004, the English media had rated Gudjohnsen’s chances of continuing at Chelsea as extremely slim. They felt he was not a “Jose Mourinho player” and would be shipped off to a lower league team in the inevitable exodus that followed. An exodus did follow, but Eidur stayed put as Jose saw his footballing intelligence as a vital cog in his Chelsea machine. According to Gudjohnsen, Mourinho called him up a day after his arrival at Chelsea and told him:
“Eidur, I’m your new manager. Don’t even think you’re leaving Chelsea. I want you here and need you at your best. Be prepared to start work on July 5.”
That was good enough for him.
Chelsea won the Premier League for the first time in 50 years during Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge and the fact that they clinched the title at the Reebok Stadium made it all the more sweeter for the Icelander.
“I do remember some Bolton fans singing my name, so that made it even more of a moment. I love Bolton and the people there. I had two great spells up there.”
Real Madrid had shown an interest in signing him but they were going through their infamous election process at the time and did not even have a manager in place so when Barcelona came calling as the reigning Champions League winners in 2006, Gudjohnsen did not need to think twice.
It took him a bit of time to realise he was filling in the considerably large boots of the departed Henrik Larsson at the Catalan club. Coming from a Nordic country and wearing the same shirt number as Larsson, his words betray a hint of frustration with the situation he encountered in his first season.
“I’d come off the bench and score the winner, but speak to the people in Barcelona and it’s like Henrik Larsson came off the bench and scored the winner in every match. That’s how they remember him, and I couldn’t get away from that comparison.”
He admits it took him a little while to adjust to the training regime at Barcelona after joining from the Premier League:
“Our Chelsea training was at a high level but they [Barcelona] took it up another few notches. No matter how hard you drilled a pass to a player, their touch was perfect. If you were on the side without the ball, you couldn’t get it back.”
Fans familiar with Pep Guardiola’s brand of football would understand where Gudjohnsen was coming from. Speaking of Pep, Eidur is one the very few players to have played under both Pep and Jose and admits that while both have that winning personality, their styles are entirely different.
“Guardiola is more timid and doesn’t like confrontation. Mourinho is more chest-out ‘come and get it if you want’.”
After his departure from Barcelona in 2009, Gudjohnsen had spells with Monaco, Tottenham, Stoke, Fulham, AEK Athens, Cercle Brugge, Club Brugge, a second spell with Bolton, Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and FC Molde but has not hit the heights of his spells in England and Spain.
He also announced his retirement from international football in 2013 only to reverse his decision in 2015 during Iceland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. He appeared twice as a substitute at the finals and was also given the captain’s armband for the last ten minutes of their 5-2 defeat to France.
He has since signed for Pune City in the Indian Super League and will be appearing as their marquee player in the league’s third season starting in October.
His open-palmed goal celebration at Chelsea became a cult classic at Stamford Bridge but the origin story of the gesture might surprise a few people:
“I think it might have been something from the television show Friends. I used to watch it a lot. In one episode, Joey came in, wearing all of Chandler’ underwear, and asked: ‘Could I be wearing any more underwear?’ Then he did something with his hands which I thought was quite cool, so I copied it.”