Swansea vs Manchester United: Gylfi Sigurdsson living the dream after yearning to play in the Premier League

As a boy growing up in Iceland Gylfi Sigurdsson loved watching the Premier League and yearned to play in it one day. Now he is

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The Independent Football

There will be days long after Gylfi Sigurdsson has retired when his mind will wander back to an August day a year ago and a meeting with Manchester United. Whether he is in his native Iceland or on one of his favourite golf courses in Florida, 16 August 2014 is a date that will always be with him: the day the boyhood United fan hit the winning goal at Old Trafford on his second Swansea City debut. It was, as he recalled on Thursday afternoon, "something you dream about when you are a little kid. Scoring the winner there was something I will never forget".

Afterwards, in the away dressing- room, his phone buzzed with calls and messages from friends and family. “They don’t tend to call me when we lose away to Sunderland or somewhere like that,” he said with a smile. “But they text me when I score at Old Trafford!” And for Sigurdsson, who is almost as passionate about golf as he is about football, the day got better as he bumped into Rory McIlroy outside the ground and had his photo taken with the recently crowned Open champion.

There have been few such days in Swansea City’s history. It was their first League victory at Old Trafford and ruined Louis van Gaal’s debut as United manager. Moreover, it set the tone for an impressive first full season in charge for Garry Monk, the young manager of the upwardly mobile Welsh club.

 

“We got six points against Arsenal and six points against United, which is massive for us,” notes Sigurdsson in English so fluent as to have traces of an Estuary accent.

He is sitting in the smart home dressing-room at the Liberty Stadium, where slogans on the walls reinforce the messages of a manager whose efforts ensured that in May Swansea earned their highest League finish since 1982. Today brings another August encounter with United, this time at home, and the expectation is a little higher.

“The squad is better,” says Sigurdsson, though he might tell you the same about Van Gaal’s squad too, having watched their Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge in midweek. “I’ve been following United for the last couple of games in the Champions League,” he says. “It is nice to make sure you’re just aware of everything and nothing surprises you when you play them.”

With Monk overseeing Swansea’s fortunes, it is unlikely Sigurdsson and his team-mates will be surprised too often. The 25-year-old is well placed to offer an insight into his impact, given they were team-mates during his initial five-month loan spell in South Wales in 2012, before Monk, as manager, brought him back to the club. “It was strange at first. I knew what he was like before. He was a loud character, he was always telling jokes, and now he is very focused on what he is doing. He is really ambitious and serious about his work.”

Monk, he adds, has given Swansea a new defensive discipline, which meant they ended last season with the best goals-against record in their top-flight history. Even Sigurdsson, as Swansea’s second striker, has to put in a shift. “With him being an ex-defender he brought a lot to the way the team defended. That helped us gain a lot of points. We were harder to beat than before.

“We do a lot of training, especially in pre-season, on how he wants the team to defend, from the attack down to the defence, and I am pretty sure all the boys know what to do when it comes to a matchday. Sometimes it does get boring doing the defensive work, but when you get three points on a Saturday it is more than worth it.”

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Swansea Gylfi Sigurdsson

There was nothing boring about Swansea’s opening-day display at Chelsea which earned a 2-2 draw with the champions. Their performance suggested that in the Ecuadoran Jefferson Montero they could have one of the most exciting players of the season. “He is so quick over the first few yards,” says Sigurdsson of a winger who blew hot and cold last season in his first campaign in this country. “It is hard for any defender to deal with that kind of pace. Even [Branislav] Ivanovic struggled against him, and there are not that many players who do that to Ivanovic.”

The Swansea player that Sigurdsson has most to say about is Jonjo Shelvey. He understands from personal experience why the talented midfielder divides opinion, explaining: “Before I came here I didn’t like him, just from the way he comes across on TV and in games, but he is one of my best friends. He would do anything for you and is a top guy.

“I said to him that he is so aggressive on the pitch and some of the things he has done on the pitch haven’t helped him, but as a player on the ball he is fantastic.

“It is really good playing with him. He always tries to pass the ball forwards. He doesn’t take the easy option of going back and sideways. He has a really good right foot and a really good shot on him, so it is nice to have him behind me… on the pitch!”

Sigurdsson’s view is that Shelvey has the ability to play regularly for England. He was talking before news came that Shelvey is almost certainly in Roy Hodgson’s latest squad. Sigurdsson has made 30 international appearances for Iceland. His next comes on Thursday in the Euro 2016 qualifier in Holland where Iceland, surprise leaders of their group, are looking to take another step towards their first major tournament.

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Sigurdsson believes Shelvey can play for England

Sigurdsson has a key role – Iceland’s coach, Lars Lagerback, plays him in central midfield and describes him to me as “one of the best team players I have worked with” – and Sigurdsson smiles when reminded of the two goals he scored to beat the Dutch 2-0 at home last October. “Just now when you said it I got goose bumps. That is how much it means.”

Sigurdsson does not envy the exposure his young English friends like Harry Kane face when they go on international duty. “[The media are] really harsh over here. The media put a lot of pressure on the team and sometimes on young players who’ve barely played any games and are just coming through the system.”

Having arrived here as a 15-year-old at Reading, Sigurdsson has experienced life in all four divisions. Was it hard to leave home so young? Not at all, apparently. “Easy,” he replies, given that in Iceland the weather allowed him to play outdoors on grass pitches for only four months a year. “Since I was a little kid I wanted to play football, and I couldn’t have gone to a better place than Reading.”

At Reading he had loan spells at Shrewsbury and Crewe, and from the comfort of his plush leather dressing-room seat he recalls a visit to Accrington Stanley for only his fourth senior appearance. “It was pissing it down with rain and freezing cold and the changing rooms were so small. It was a good shock. It made you realise how fortunate you are when you sit in a changing room like this and you play in stadiums like Old Trafford. You appreciate it more.”

He appreciates too the guiding hand of Brendan Rodgers, his manager at Reading and during his first spell at Swansea, on loan from the German club Hoffenheim. “All of the players that have played for him will tell you he is really good man on man and the way he talks to players. He makes the players feel like there is just one big group that you want to be a part of, and you want to play for him.”

But has Rodgers forgiven him for turning down Liverpool when he opted to join Tottenham in 2012? “I hope so, yes. I’ve spoken to him pretty much after every game when we’ve played them.” At White Hart Lane, Sigurdsson struggled to hold down a starting place – he began only 26 of his 58 League games played – yet he is grateful for some memorable moments.

“Of course it was difficult at times when I wasn’t playing, but playing in the London derbies against Arsenal and Chelsea, and in the Europa League against teams like Inter Milan at the San Siro, that is what you want to do. The games against Arsenal were just mental games, there was an unbelievable atmosphere.”

Sigurdsson seems too laid-back to dwell on the past. He arrives late for our interview having taken his pet dog, Koby, a King Charles spaniel, to the vet, yet sits chatting for nearly an hour. Usually his days involve a walk on the beach with Koby.

“It is really quiet down here. It is good at times but sometimes if you think back to London where you had all the things you could do, you’ve got everything there. But when the sun is out it is beautiful here and you have the beaches and the little walks around the cliffs.” And days, as Manchester United don’t need reminding, when dreams really do come true.

Apart from the football

Golf is my only hobby and back at Spurs I used to play with Harry Kane. Harry has only been playing for about four or five years but he has picked it up really quickly. We still keep in touch and he beat me the last time, but that was an off-day! My brother Olaf was trying to get on the European Tour a few years ago and he came over the week after and gave me a few lessons.

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Rory McIlroy alongside Sigurdsson with the Claret Jug

I have to say I’m a better player than Harry – he shot even par that last time but I have a handicap of about four or five so I am not too shabby. Gareth Bale was not a bad player but the best golfer among my football friends is Jonjo Shelvey. We have a good rivalry as we are pretty much the same handicap, so we take it in turns winning.

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