The wistful romanticism of ÍA, the club that once ruled Iceland against the odds

The wistful romanticism of ÍA, the club that once ruled Iceland against the odds

A little over 30 miles to the north of Reykjavik resides the small port town of Akranes on Iceland’s west coast. Even for Iceland, this is not a huge place. With its buildings gathered on a thin sliver of a peninsula that extends furtively into the ocean, it is home to a mere 8,000 inhabitants.

Like many coastal settlements in Iceland, Akranes is noted for its thriving fishing industry, and its deep, still harbour is home to a flotilla of trawlers that combs these teeming waters each summer.  But there is another reason that Akranes is a name familiar to many Icelanders, and it has nothing to do with trawlermen.

Those who do not take to the waves in search of fish prefer to take to the football field in search of a more prestigious catch. The town’s resident football team, Íþróttabandalag Akraness, more commonly referred to by their initials ÍA, are one of Iceland’s most successful clubs. It is a remarkable feat given that for much of its 75-year existence, the club has been bound by its rural location and small population. 

The roots of this success were planted deep in the earth of the 20th century when in 1951 ÍA became the first club outside of Reykjavik to secure the Úrvalsdeild karla title – literally, the Men’s Select Division. For the first 39 years of the league’s existence, the Reykjavik clubs of Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur (KR), Valur, Vikingur and Knattspyrnufélagið Fram had exerted an unshakeable oligopoly over Iceland’s elite football division. 

But throughout the latter half of the century, as the league moved beyond a single-round to a double-round format, the inhabitants of this small fishing town became famed for their excellence on the football pitch. Between 1951 and 1990, no club was as successful in Iceland as ÍA, and much of this domestic dominance was attributed to the labours of Ríkharður Jonsson, who acted as long-time player-manager. 

Sadly, he passed away in 2017, but These Football Times was privileged enough to speak with his daughter, Sigrún Ríkharðsdóttir, with help from his grandson, Ríkharður Árnason. Sigrún has been attending ÍA matches her entire life and is as fervent a Skagamenn supporter as they come. “You don’t want to sit next to me at a game,” she says drily. “I am the loudest woman in Iceland when it comes to the football!” Meanwhile, her son shares his first name with the legendary figure of his grandfather and is head of social media at the club. Few, if any, can claim a richer heritage with this unique football club. 

Their past and their future are incorrigibly entwined with that of Íþróttabandalag Akraness, and it is in their past that this tale begins. In 1990, to be precise, whereupon ÍA had suffered relegation for only the second time in their history. Though they had won the league twice and the Icelandic Cup four times throughout the 1980s, by the turn of the decade the club had somehow contrived to slip through the dreaded trapdoor into the First League.

“You know how football is,” Sigrún Ríkharðsdóttir says with a wry smile when asked to explain what went wrong for the then-12-time champions. “Sometimes you have a good game. Sometimes you have a bad game. But the team from ’83 and ’84 were gone, and the next generation we had taking over were young – very young, indeed.”

The ÍA team that suffered the infamy of relegation was heavily reliant on a core of young and painfully inexperienced footballers. Several of the players who featured in every, or almost every, league game included left winger Haraldur Ingólfsson (20-years-old), midfielder/left-back Sigursteinn Gíslason (22) and future superstar striker Arnar Gunnlaugsson, who was the team’s joint top-scorer that season at the mere age of 17. 

Admirable though it was to entrust the fortunes of the club in the hands (and feet) of youth, the result for ÍA was painful. Playing football in the second tier for the first time since 1968, this predicament only consolidated the view in Reykjavik that Akranes was simply a town of chancers who had punched far above their weight for far too long and were now reaping what they’d sown in their foolhardy attempts to meddle with the might of the capital.

Realising that the club had been allowed to slowly decay throughout the latter half of the 1980s, the board turned to one of its former stalwarts to invigorate an inexperienced squad in need of firm guidance. ÍA legend and all-time appearance holder, Guðjón Þórðarson, was persuaded to rejoin the club at which he had found fame in his playing days.

One of the last relics of the 1980s golden era, since retiring in 1987 he had ventured into coaching and his innovative training methods, which placed an enormous emphasis on fitness, discipline and recovery, had seen virtual unknowns KA Akureyri crowned champions for the first time in their history by virtue of being fitter, faster and better organised than their contemporaries. 

He was a man in high demand, but with KA lacking the finances required to repeat this success in subsequent seasons, the chance of a reunion with ÍA proved too alluring to ignore. Even though it necessitated dropping down a division, he agreed to become head coach and began in earnest restoring ÍA to the Úrvalsdeild karla. 

The only previous time ÍA had suffered relegation had resulted in an immediate return to the top flight, whereupon they finished second, before going one better and winning the league the following year in 1970. Accordingly, great things were expected of this dynamic side brimming with youthful vigour, and under the strict stewardship of Þórðarson, they were being moulded into a formidable outfit. 

Serendipity deigned to alight upon ÍA who, despite playing football in the unglamorous environment of Iceland’s second division, managed to attract the services of three players patently too talented for their surroundings. First, Þórðarson – who was renowned for travelling extensively on his scholastic enterprises – spotted the hulking figure of Olafur Adolfsson in the amateur leagues of Iceland’s sparse northern marches and brought him to Akranes. At well over six feet tall and broad of shoulder and limb too, Adolfsson struck an uncompromising figure at the heart of the ÍA back line. 

Alongside this mountain of a man, Þórðarson installed Luka Kostic, a Yugoslav centre-half who is, even to this day, widely regarded as the finest foreign footballer to have ever played in Iceland, even though he was 33 at the time of his arrival. Bringing with him a wealth of expertise, he was responsible for marshalling those around him.   

Boasting an impregnable defence aided by the capture from bitter rivals KR of 20-year-old goalkeeper Kristján Finnbogason, ÍA made predictably short work of returning to the top flight. Across 18 second division games in 1991, the club won 14, scored 55 goals and conceded a paltry 12 in reply. Úrvalsdeild karla football ensured for the 1992 campaign, hope slunk back into Akranes. With the most innovative young manager in the country presiding over a hungry, well-drilled squad of saplings primed to flourish come spring, there was a feeling ÍA could cause an upset. 

However, since Skagamenn’s last championship victory in 1984, Fram and Valur had asserted their domestic dominance. The two traditionally powerful Reykjavik clubs had won five of the previous seven titles, and on three occasions occupied first and second places in the league. Even with ÍA’s return, the title was widely expected to remain in the capital, at least for another year. From the outside, the yellow-clad upstarts from Akranes were still too inexperienced to mount a serious title challenge so soon after the turmoil of relegation and were written off by pundits, supporters and near enough anyone with even a passing interest in Icelandic football. 

However, before the season began in 1992, ÍA were to benefit from one more fortuitous occurrence, one which would have a major bearing on their fortunes for years to come, as Þórðarson convinced former player Sigurður Jónsson to make the long trip back to his hometown.

Only 25-years-old at the time, the prodigious midfielder had been forced to retire prematurely after suffering a back injury while playing for Arsenal in England’s old First Division but was coaxed into playing once more for the club at which he made his debut aged just 15. A veritable legend of the sport in Iceland, he was the erstwhile youngest debutant in a European game before being supplanted by a certain Martin Ødegaard some years later. 

Much to the chagrin of the Reykjavik clubs – and in particular their fierce rivals KR – ÍA furnished their return to the Úrvalsdeild karla with their 13th championship and their first in nearly a decade.

It was a momentous achievement, which Ríkharðsdóttir ascribes in part, at least, to patience. “Many of the boys who were with us when we fell down to the First League stayed with us and these young lads just got stronger and better [under Þórðarson].”

Inclined to set-up in a four-four-two system that harnessed a squad accustomed to gruelling training regimens, the ÍA players ran harder and for longer, were physically stronger and, as is crucial to any team with ambitions of winning a league, possessed an indomitable mental resilience in pursuit of their goals. That they could play, too, was an added benefit.

Although it is not unheard of for clubs to win the title immediately after promotion, especially in the Nordic countries where the traditionally smaller leagues are somewhat renowned for producing surprise victors, seldom have many teams managed to repeat the feat. Indeed, miraculously, ÍA became the first club in the history of football to not only win the league following promotion but win it for five consecutive seasons. 

Just how could a team hailing from a town of barely 8,000 people, and who had been relegated just a year earlier, undertake a championship run the likes of which had never been witnessed in Iceland in over a century of organised sport? Not just Iceland, either, but anywhere in the entire world. At the time, no team had won five championships in a row directly after being promoted. It was an idea born from fiction; a feat literally unbelievable in its design. 

Ríkharðsdóttir, however, believes she has the answer. “It was the same team. All the five years. And the manager, too. In 1992, 1993, and 1996 we had the same manager [Guðjón Þórðarson].”

This continuity undoubtedly benefited ÍA, but there was another factor at play, one which, in the long roster of champions not just in Iceland but across the continent of Europe, is unquestionably unique. Though many claim to be ‘close-knit family clubs’ nowhere is it more pertinent than in Akranes, where, it is said, “everyone is related somewhere”.  

Of ÍA’s squad, eight were sons of former players, seven were brothers, six were cousins, three were nephews and, in a testament to the longevity of this dynasty, one was even a grandson. Ríkharðsdóttir herself, being the daughter of the club’s most famous player, claims a deep affinity within this 1990s vintage side. “In that team at the beginning of the 1990s, I had four uncles. In fact, lots of good local players are in the same families here,” she explains. 

It is an entirely unique footballing dynasty; a positive myriad of interrelated riches. But clearly, as the old adage goes, there is something in the water in Akranes, for such a small town to repeatedly produce an unbroken line of talent that coaching alone cannot surely engender. Genetics play their part, and Ríkharðsdóttir explains with an air of pride the stats behind her town’s unmatched footballing pedigree. “We have had 38 players [as of 2021] that have played professionally abroad. That is 0.5 percent of the town’s current population who are or were professional footballers playing around the world.”                             

Given the small size of town, it is scarcely believable that this tiny strip of land on Iceland’s west coast has been so prolific in producing such talented footballers. Fortunately for ÍA in the 1990s, they profited from the particularly abundant vintage of 1973, which produced the likes of Arnar Gunnlaugsson, Þórður Guðjónsson and Lárus Orri Sigurðsson, all of whom were raised and nurtured in Akranes. Though they went on to enjoy careers in England’s Premier League, it was their exploits between 1992 and 1996 that earned them acclaim in their town of provenance. 

Over the course of five years, ÍA stormed to five consecutive league titles. After the first was secured on their return to the Úrvalsdeild karla by a three-point margin, a rivalry that had been put on pause during their relegation reignited. Enmity had been simmering between ÍA and KR in the years prior to 1992, and with the latter enduring a protracted silverware drought, the notion of ÍA returning to the pinnacle of Icelandic football rekindled this latent wrath. 

The 1993 season, therefore, was billed as a clash between two eternal enemies, but, once again, pundits and observers alike dismissed ÍA’s chances of repeating their 1992 success. At the time in the early-90s, KR were the only club capable of paying their players anything close to what would now be regarded as a professional salary, and as such could attract the finest players to West Reykjavik. Their riches could not stop ÍA romping to a second title in two years, however. 

If anything, ÍA were, to the surprise of many, merely waxing in strength. In 1992, they had amassed 40 points from 12 wins and four draws, but in 1993 they finished top of the pile with an incredulous 49 points – a full nine points clear of nearest challengers FH. Indeed, only Fram took any points whatsoever off Skagamenn that year. The rest of the league stumbled in their efforts to keep up with the early pace set by Þórðarson’s insatiable side. On no fewer than seven occasions, ÍA scored four or more goals in a single game, including an opening day 5-0 demolition of eventual runners-up FH. 

Þórður Guðjónsson, of the famed 1973 vintage, finished as both club and league top scorer with 19 goals, while 22-year-old winger Haraldur Ingólfsson was not far behind with 14. Moreover, that ÍA could outscore virtually anyone was daunting enough, but their resolute backline was breached only 12 times all season – and seven of those came during the two fixtures with Fram. 

It was inevitable, then, that ÍA would march to a third title in a row in 1994, but not without KR attempting everything in their power to ensure otherwise. After they had finished in a lowly fifth in 1993, having been unceremoniously thumped by ÍA to the tune of five goals over two fixtures, the Reykjavik giants sought to undercut their rivals the only way they knew how: money. They lured manager Guðjón Þórðarson to the KR-völlur and secured the return of goalkeeper Kristján Finnbogason. Little did it matter, though, for Þórðarson had bred a monster even he himself could not slay, no matter the riches with which he tempered his sword. 

KR finished fifth again, while ÍA clinched a hat-trick of championships. Not that the season was without its struggles. In the absence of Þórðarson, the board had appointed Hörður Helgason, and though he won the title, he was more alike to a custodian than manager. Compared to 1992, when Skagamenn had marched to 16 wins, they faltered to three 0-0 draws and three losses in a season which saw their goal tally plummet from 55 to 35. Mistrusted by the players, who allegedly did not approve of his outdated coaching methods, he was dismissed at the end of the year and replaced with Logi Ólafsson. 

Þórðarson, meanwhile, attempted to navigate KR back to the summit of the Úrvalsdeild karla in 1994 and perhaps would have done so had Olafsson not reinvigorated ÍA with his arrival. Yet again, the club came perilously close to that elusive unbeaten campaign, as they registered just a single loss – ironically, to Þórðarson’s KR side, who would eventually finish a very distant second to their bitter rivals. For the fourth season in a row, an ÍA player finished as the league’s top scorer; this time, it was another member of the 1973 vintage, Arnar Gunnlaugsson, who completed the campaign with 15 goals to his name. 

In 1996, Þórðarson, whose affair with KR had come to an unsavoury end, returned to the club, looking to secure a fifth consecutive title and his third with ÍA. Astonishingly, KR were installed as the strong favourites for the title, and for once, the bookies were almost right. 

For the first time in five years, Iceland witnessed an enthralling title race between two heated enemies, where over the course of 17 games, the two clubs exchanged places at the top of the table before a final-day show down at the Akranesvöllur. KR had emerged victorious in the return fixture, a 1-0 win courtesy of a 68th-minute Ríkharður Daðason goal, but the final day clash is a day Sigrún Ríkharðsdóttir recalls fondly, and for more than one reason. “In 1996, in the last game we played against KR, and KR needed just a draw to win the title. But we had to win. And, oh my god, we did. Four goals against one.”

ÍA, who had been trailing KR for much of the campaign, demonstrated the enormous mental resolve for which they had become renowned, and overhauled the leaders on the final day of the season. Knowing that a draw was all KR required, they tore into their opponents, going 2-0 up by the hour-mark before Ríkharður Daðason pulled one back to set up a nervy final twenty minutes. It is a name familiar to many in Akranes, especially Sigrún Ríkharðsdóttir.

“The scorer for the KR goal was [her son] Rikki’s uncle and namesake! For that one goal he scored that game, he won the golden boot.” 

Unfortunately for Sigrún Ríkharðsdóttir, Ríkharður Árnason and the inhabitants of Akranes, the 1996 league and cup double marked the end of a record-breaking cycle. By 1997, the yellow-and-black stranglehold on the Úrvalsdeild karla had slackened, but the relinquishing of their throne was at least a slow and reluctant process, for ÍA still managed to finish second in 1997, then third in 1998 and even reigned as champions again, albeit briefly, in 2001. 

What precipitated the downfall of their monopoly was a convergence of many factors, Ríkharðsdóttir believes. “Our key players have gone away, both to play abroad and for other teams in Iceland. For me, it’s extremely difficult to watch my boys play for other teams in Iceland.”

This assertion harks back to the notion that football in Akranes remains very much a familial affair. Those who come through the ranks at ÍA are Skagamenn until the end of their days, even if their travels are increasingly taking them farther and farther from home. 

“It is also a question of money,” Ríkharðsdóttir continues. “The main thing today is that because we are not in European competition, we do not have enough money. Our players prefer to go abroad. One of our players is in CSKA Moscow [Arnór Sigurðsson] and one of our boys plays for Norrköping [Oliver Stefánsson].”

Similarly, prodigious winger Ísak Bergmann Jóhannesson, who has drawn the attention of a host of clubs across the continent, plies his trade with FC København, while Stefán Teitur Þórðarson went to Silkeborg in Denmark and Bjarki Steinn Bjarkason is enjoying Serie A football with Venezia.

Unfortunately for ÍA, when the club was in its pomp in the early to mid-90s, European qualification was nowhere near as lucrative as it is today. They made fleeting appearances in the UEFA Champions League preliminary round in 1993 and the UEFA Cup first round between 1994 and 1997, but without the enormous financial rewards gleaned by the continental voyages of today’s top teams in Iceland. 

As such, it has been a long 20 years since the club’s last title in 2001. An Icelandic Cup victory in 2003 and a runners-up medal in 2021 have provided scant solace for the proud people of Akranes who grow ever more restless with each barren season. This two-decade stretch marks the longest period in their history they have gone without winning the league, and in that time they have been relegated twice, albeit returning to the top flight at the first time of asking on both occasions.

There have been no more five-in-a-row heroics, though, as an increasingly globalised world, which has seen Icelandic football broadcast to the rest of Europe for the first time in the league’s history, has led on one hand to a diaspora of Akranes’ young footballers and on the other to an influx of foreign talent to the traditionally powerful Reykjavik clubs. 

Silverware will return, the people of Akranes believe; after all, their town is the fastest growing settlement in all of Iceland, and therein lies a sliver of hope. Amidst the squabbling rich boys of Reykjavik, there still may be a place for the wistful romanticism of ÍA. Perhaps, in years to come, another legacy in yellow-and-black will emerge from this westerly stronghold of dynastic riches – born of fresh blood within which is carried the blueprint of that unrivalled 1990s vintage. 

By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90

With thanks to Sígrun Ríkharðsdóttir, Ríkharður Árnason, Bjarki Ármannsson and Mike Morgan.

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