Our House: Gudjon Thordarson

Gudjon Thordarson

THE 2017/18 campaign represents 20 years since the Potters moved into what was then the Britannia Stadium, and to celebrate this #pottersmag contributor Dave Coxon has regularly been getting the thoughts of former players who have called the ‘Brit’ home.

Prior to last weekend’s game against Burnley, Dave caught up with former manager Gudjon Thordarson in the first part of an exclusive two-part interview with the Icelander who discusses at length his eventful reign in the Potteries from November 1999 to May 2002.

In the first instalment, the much-loved ex-boss talks about a variety of topics including his initial appointment as manager, the joy of winning the Auto Windscreens Shield and eventual promotion to the Championship, and his fractious relationship with former chairman Gunnar Gislason.   

WHEN IT came to planning this piece back in August, I knew that there was no way I could feature the list of players I'd already assembled!

So here I am packing my flip flops for my summer holidays having left out the likes of Peter Thorne, Peter Hoekstra and Ade Akinbiyi, all of whom have produced magic moments at the stadium.  

My intentions though were always to finish with a 'bang' and even though he didn't play for the Club I know that you are going to enjoy my chat with former boss, Gudjon Thordarson.

A trip to Iceland is not the easiest of challenges but one relished, as I blew the cobwebs off my trusty old pushbike, or as it is affectionately known 'Rusty'.  

So off I headed with the directions still fresh in my head from the media department, third left at Hanford roundabout and then look to the skies in search of the green light. 

At this point I thought Dave have you lost your marbles, you've just taken directions off Jon and Niall - two lads who get lost just coming to work!

Amazingly though a couple of days later there I was peddling into Reykjavik to ask Gudjon just how big a part he played in the Icelandic takeover all those years ago…

“Well, I actually brought that idea forward at the beginning. I was Iceland's national team manager and I was travelling to England and my first stop was Stoke to see Larus Sigurdsson play. What I saw was a lovely stadium but a side that were struggling and that's when I found out that Stoke City could be up for sale. So I took my idea to Iceland and as they say, the rest is history.”

When you took over as manager was the plan to take full advantage of your knowledge of the Scandinavian market?

“No, that was not the plan, the plan was just to develop the Club in a proper manner and to try to take the Club forward. To do that we did utilise the Scandinavian market because it was very much cheaper than that in England.  

“You could get good players for a lot less money and I knew they had the right character and commitment. When I made enquiries for English players, I couldn't believe how much clubs were asking. With the limited money I had, I had to shop wisely and to strengthen the team throughout.”

I guess that it goes without saying that you were quite knowledgeable of the English game even at lower-league level?

“Yes, I saw a lot of football even at that level so you could say that I was well informed as to what was needed.  I had no surprise apart from the price of English players!”

Well Gudjon, you were in the hot seat and what every new manager needs is a good start and it couldn't have gone much better for you could it, that first match against Wycombe Wanderers down in Buckinghamshire!

“No everything clicked on that rainy night in Wycombe and in the end two goals in as many minutes helped to set us on the way to a 4-0 victory. I think at that time that was Wycombe's heaviest defeat since they joined the league. Like you say Dave I couldn't have wished for a better start.”

Looking back at that season, your first in charge here, we secured a play-off spot but we suffered at the hands of Gillingham. I am sure that you, like any other Stoke City supporter needs no reminding of the incidents that evening…

“Yes, it could have been so different and when I look back my blood still boils when I think of that second leg! In that game we played well and handled ourselves just as I would have wanted us to but I think the referee had another agenda and as a result we found ourselves down to nine men.  

“Despite that set back we battled on and were so unlucky when Paul Connor hit both posts before the ball bounced out for Gillingham to clear. After Clarkey (Clive Clarke) and Kav (Graham Kavanagh) were sent off we battled and took the game to extra time which in itself was quite an achievement, but I was livid particularly how Kav was dismissed.

“He was punched and was bleeding so he retaliated and pushed the guy that punched him. Surprise, surprise only one incident was spotted. So, yes it was very hard to accept but that was just the nature of what we had to deal with. I also look back at the first leg when three minutes added time was announced on 90 minutes. We were leading 3-1 when in the 95th minute Andy Hessenthaler scored a screamer.  

“A good goal but it was four and a half minutes over the 90 that was announced. I asked the referee about the time but he never explained where he got it from. What confused me was that in added time there were no stoppages and no substitutions were made. If the score would have stayed at 3-1 we would have been through to the final, but even so I was proud of my players.  They deserved so much more after putting together a terrific run of results to finish inside the top six in the first place.”

Yes, I was talking to Kav a few weeks ago and he spoke to me about that sending off and he said even though he had been set up he felt he let everyone down…

“I don't see it that way. It's understandable how Kav reacted after he had been punched. Let's just say we weren't helped by Rob Styles who could see from how Kav was bleeding that something had gone on to make him react. 

“In those two legs I don't think we were helped by the officials so when you look back it's hard to accept. I've no doubt had we have had 11 players on we would have made it to Wembley for the second time that season.”

That brings me on nicely to our victory over Bristol City in the Auto Windscreen Shield Final, a day that will live long in your memory, I am sure!

“It was a great day and one I will always remember, if I'm right it was April 16th. Not only was it a good day for me it was also for the supporters, in fact the Club as a whole. It was a just reward for all the people that had put so much into that season.  

“Everyone pulled together and it was a joy to make so many Stoke City supporters happy. As for the game, well it was a tough one to take but the atmosphere was terrific. I think the crowd was just short of 80,000. What was special to me was that we were in the same dressing room as England when they won the World Cup in 1966. I will never forget the feeling I got when I led the team out, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would experience anything like that.”

On then to the following season, one that brought with it a real mixed bag of results. An FA Cup defeat to non-league Nuneaton and an 8-0 thumping by Liverpool in the League Cup - a side we beat 1-0 in a pre-season friendly. We did, however, string together a run of 15 games without defeat in the league, which helped secure a play-off spot for a second successive season. Although not for the first time Gudjon, that ended in heartbreak didn’t it?

“Yes, it was certainly a mixed bag however I feel we should have progressed past Walsall in the play-offs but individual errors cost us dearly. We put a free header wide and Wardy (Gavin Ward) drops the ball over his line from a corner. On another day we would have finished the job off but that's football.  

“On this particular day it was not meant to be and that was very hard to take. I've got to say how important Peter Thorne's goals were to the Club, I think he scored close to 40 goals during my time and it could have been more but for the injuries.  

“He was singled out by the opposition, they knew how dangerous he was. It was, therefore, hard for me to take as I'm sure it was for you, the supporters, when he and Kav moved to Cardiff City. Unfortunately, that was the nature of our financial situation. I thought both did great for this Club both on and off the pitch.”

Twelve months on, and third time lucky… promotion through the play-offs. Firstly tell me about the two-legged affair with Cardiff City and then of course, the victory over Brentford at the Millennium Stadium…

“The games against Cardiff were a real roller coaster ride. It was unbelievable particularly after the first leg. When we lost that game 2-1 people were saying that it was all over, but I knew different.  I could see my players were in good spirits and like me they felt confident we could turn it around.  

“If I felt like that before the game I was even more confident when I saw Lenny (Lawrence) take Thorney off. I was so relieved because I knew that Thorney could make something out of nothing. I nearly went over and thanked him there and then - that's when I was convinced we would come out on top, and for sure, we did.  

“That was the stepping stone that we needed - promotion would move the Club on to the next level. When the final whistle had sounded and things had settled down we said promotion is our destiny and now we can go on and finish the job off against Brentford. 

“Our preparation for the final was fantastic, we were cool and calm and the camp was just how I wanted it. To a man, we said that we had come through so much not to go up now. I was always convinced it was in our hands and more importantly so were the players. They looked ruthless with an attitude of 'nothing is going to stand in our way'.  

“As I gave my team talk I looked into my players’ eyes and saw what I wanted to see, a bunch of players that were ready for the task ahead. When I spoke to the media I was reminded that we were in the so called ‘cursed’ dressing room where side had won from. ‘Not until now’, I said. 

“As I left I said, I'm going to tell you one thing and that is nothing and, I mean nothing, is going to stand in our way and that is exactly how it turned out. Before I leave that season Dave I've got to say, I think we would have gone up automatically if it wasn't for injuries because we were only four points off second place Reading.  

“I look back to a game at Huddersfield Town just after Boxing Day when we lost both Brynjar Gunnarson and Peter Handyside with broken bones in their feet. We struggled to replace them and results suffered. Mind you, if we had gone up automatically we wouldn't have experienced Cardiff and the Millennium Stadium.”

So there you are Gudjon, your remit was to get the Club promoted, a box you ticked, and as a reward you get the sack days later. That must have been a bolt from the blue?

“Yes, you could say that's a strange reward but I knew what was coming. I had a difficult time with the Chairman from my very first day in Stoke, so it was nothing new, it goes back to the beginning but the strange thing for me was that with the Icelanders coming in, I thought that they would support me, I was wrong!

“Any support I had came from Peter Coates and Keith Humphries. Yes, I had more support from them than my own people. Even when we won the game at the Millennium Stadium I knew what was coming.  

“I met the Chairman after the game and I saw his face. He didn't even enjoy the win and that was sad because I knew what my destiny was, but we'd gained promotion and I thought we had a good team. A team that I knew could get promoted again if I could add two or three good players. For me, it was an unfinished job but the decision had already been made.”

Make sure you pick up a copy of our matchday magazine prior to the final home fixture of the season with Crystal Palace next month to read the second instalment of Dave Coxon’s in-depth, and fascinating interview, with the former Potters boss.

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