Icelandic influence takes root in Stoke

Potteries backwater revitalised by injection of investment from an unusual source
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The Independent Online

This is the saga, as they might say in Gunnar Gislason's home country of Iceland, of a business proposition that became a consuming passion. Of how a chairman steeped in lump sums learned that a football club can give you a lump in the throat.

This is the saga, as they might say in Gunnar Gislason's home country of Iceland, of a business proposition that became a consuming passion. Of how a chairman steeped in lump sums learned that a football club can give you a lump in the throat.

Last April, within months of heading the takeover of Stoke City by an Icelandic consortium, Gislason found himself joining 36,000 fellow devotees at Wembley in serenading the Auto Windscreens Shield winners with that strangely spine-tingling anthem "Delilah".

"The whole experience," he recalls, beaming at the memory, "was beyond words."

On the eve of a new Second Division campaign, which Stoke launch at home to Wycombe Wanderers tomorrow, the optimism is almost tangible - and not just within their traditional catchment area. Iceland has adopted the club, economically and emotionally, unsurprising given that the country has provided the manager, Gudjon Thordarson, five players (including the £600,000 club-record signing, Brynjar Gunnarson), a physio and two of Gislason's fellow directors.

But, to paraphrase Tom Jones' contribution to the football canon, why Stoke City? True, the Potters have known days glazed with magic, especially after the second coming of Stanley Matthews.

Yet only one major trophy, the League Cup in 1972, had ever been won. Managers came and went like Italian prime ministers. Debts crippled their capacity to build a side capable of escaping the third tier of English football. And many of the fans who had not deserted were disaffected with the club's owners, Peter Coates and Keith Humphreys.

The deal had its origins in the trips Thordarson made to the late, lamented Victoria Ground in his role as coach to Iceland's national team. Having come to watch Toddy Orlygsson and Larus Sigurdsson, he heard about the Britannia Stadium rising nearby. While noting the strife afflicting Stoke, he also detected a fervour behind the frustration of the faithful.

"Gudjon recognised the potential and brought the idea to us," explains Gislason, 34, who was involved in a family firm with two main strands, fruit importation and an investment portfolio, but followed the English game on television.

His fellow Icelandic investors, who include eight principal shareholders and over 350 smaller backers, bought control last autumn. There had been times when it looked as if the deal was dead in the Trent, and Gislason remembers a colleague's mobile phone ringing on a train after one disappointing meeting. It was Stoke's local rivals, Port Vale, wondering whether they might like to talk terms with them.

Instead they re-opened negotiations with Stoke and persistence paid off. "What we paid is confidential but the sum invested and injected now stands at £8m."

Ending the stewardship of Coates and Humphreys ought to have guaranteed the new regime instant acclaim. First, though, Gislason had a harsh decision to make, terminating the popular Gary Megson's three-month tenure as manager to accommodate Thordarson. "Gudjon was an integral part of the plan from the start. The investors regarded him as one of our hidden assets - we would not have entered into this without him."

Thordarson, who had guided Iceland to a draw against the world champions France during Euro 2000 qualifying, wisely retained Stoke's "football executive", John Rudge, tapping into the former Vale manager's encyclopaedic knowledge of players. He also kept Nigel Pearson, best known as captain of Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough, as coach.

The Icelanders' credibility was further enhanced when Stoke re-entered the transfer market as buyers after a lengthy absence. "The main reason for the hostility (to the previous board) was a lack of investment over the years," Gislason says. "The club had been selling players to keep it running."

The Wembley win over Bristol City sparked a surge into the promotion play-offs. Stoke lost to Gillingham, but their followers were already convinced that the future looked bright. Throw in a summer recruitment drive which has netted Derby's former England defender Tony Dorigo and Bayer Uerdingen's Stefan Thordarson (no relation), and it is easy to understand why seasonticket sales are 50 per cent up on last year.

"The fans should have great expectations - we certainly do, now that the manager has had a full pre-season. We believe we belong in the Premiership. The potential is there, in the history and the supporter base. If you look at the crowds we can generate (last season's average was 11,500) we're up with the smaller clubs from the top flight.

"But we have to take it one division at a time. Our plan was to reach the Premiership in five years. That's four now, which is a tall order. We'll try to win the Second this season and take it from there."

Any remaining reservations Stoke's followers may have centre on the question of identity: are they still a North Staffordshire club or a North Atlantic one? It could be argued that, if Matthews were an up-and-coming teenager at the club today, he might find his way barred by a cheap import.

"This is a very sensitive issue," acknowledges Gislason. "Stoke may be wealthier than many at our level but we're not rich. We have to aim for value when we buy. If we find it in Iceland and Scandinavia, so be it. As long as the players give everything I don't think we'll have a problem.

"When we hold our regular fans' forum, or when I'm just walking round on match-days, the reception is excellent. It would be easy for people to complain about 'foreigners buying our club' but everyone's been very welcoming."

The hospitality was reciprocated when Stoke toured Iceland last month (before returning to beat Liverpool in front of 16,000). The red and white stripes now dominate the window displays in Reykjavik's sports shops, asserts the chairman; Manchester United's shirts are at the back.

All of which is helping Stoke move towards profitability, with Gislason confident that his backers will soon see a return on their outlay.

For him at least, though, purse and heart strings are inextricably entwined. "The investment," he declares through another smitten smile, "has become an adventure."

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