When Fortuna Dusseldorf host SC Paderborn 07 in one of the German Bundesliga’s first games back next weekend, Reading fans should have interest in both sides. Whilst Dusseldorf may be twinned with our leafy historic town, Paderborn is now home to former Royals academy midfielder Sami Friðjónsson.
“We’re a team who like to press a lot, keep the ball, and play out from the back,” Friðjónsson told The Tilehurst End when asked why supporters should side with his team. Good news for anyone who misses the football of Jaap Stam.
It was March 6 when Paderborn and Friðjónsson last took to the field against FC Köln before the coronavirus pandemic ground football to a halt, but now the Bundesliga will be one of the first leagues around the world to return. Paderborn had been training in small groups since early April, before regular squad training resumed last week following consistent negative tests for all players and staff. Yesterday, the whole squad moved into a local hotel, which will act as their quarantine base for the next week. They are the only guests, will occupy individual rooms and sit at least 1.5 metres apart from each other at mealtimes. This sort of preparation may become the new norm for teams all around Europe when other leagues gradually start to return, but Friðjónsson is pleased to be back playing.
“It’ll be great to start up again,” he said. “It’ll be different for sure, but the whole globe has been waiting for football to come back so it’s exciting. All the players are ready.”
The Icelander also believes that it will be an opportunity for the league to attract more attention from supporters who may not have seen many Bundesliga games before:
“A lot of English fans probably don’t watch the Bundesliga because the Premier League is so popular, so I hope this is a chance for people to watch the league for the first time. You look at football in Belarus that has carried on throughout all of this, and the interest in the league has increased. We are the first major league to come back so I expect a lot of people will be watching.”
Germany has been praised for it’s handling of the coronavirus, as by putting social distancing measures into place early and taking an aggressive approach to testing, the country has managed to keep its death toll comparatively low - at the time of writing it is just over 7,500. The 24-year-old says that the way the government has acted has created a safe environment for football to be played.
“The players are not worried. I think the Germans have everything under control. Not just in football, but the country has dealt with the pandemic really well, which is comforting, especially for a foreign player like myself.”
Paderborn have a fight on their hands to survive relegation from the Bundesliga, as they currently sit bottom of the table, six points adrift of the relegation play-off place. It is next weekend’s opponents, Fortuna Dusseldorf, that occupy that spot at the moment, making the game particularly crucial.
“We’re in a tough situation, but we’ve trained really well and feel fit”, Friðjónsson says. “It’s hard to know what other teams will be like, but we believe in what we are doing. We will always have hope, so it is definitely possible [to survive].”
It is seven years since Friðjónsson joined Reading at the age of just 17, having already played two games in the Icelandic top-flight for Keflavik. His agent knew Eamonn Dolan, whilst the teenager also spoke to a Royals legend before making the move to Berkshire.
“I knew Brynjar Gunnarsson quite well and he told me a lot about Reading before I came,” Friðjónsson explains. “He said it was a great club, a family club, and it was. I was made to feel very welcome straight away.”
Friðjónsson played a key role in a golden period for the club’s academy, as he starred in the Under-18’s run to the FA Youth Cup semi-finals in 2014 before helping the Under-21s to promotion to the Premier League Division One the following year. He had also featured for the Under-21 side that won the inaugural Premier League Cup in 2014.
“The team we had was so special,” he says. “I believe it was one of the best in the country at the time. We all connected as mates. The banter was great, and that made us play better. We were like a family, and that helped a lot.”
Central to the success of the academy was Dolan, who Friðjónsson has nothing but praise for:
“He had such an unbelievable impact on my career. He has that special gift that he can connect with players both on and off the pitch. He could be harsh with you, but fair. He influenced the way I act, and taught me how to deal with challenges and get to where I want to get to.”
Friðjónsson formed a particularly close friendship with one of his teammates in particular, Jack Stacey, and visits him regularly.
“We got on straight away and he’s still one of my best mates today,” he says. “We’re in contact every day. I’m not surprised about how good he’s been in the last few years. Back to back promotions [with Luton Town], signing for Bournemouth. He’s one of the hardest working players that I’ve known. It’s no shock that he’s playing in the Premier League now.”
The summer of 2016 proved to be a transitional one for Reading, as the club changed managers for the second time in six months, and Brian Tevreden looked to make his mark as technical director. It also signalled the end of Friðjónsson’s time in Berkshire.
“I was coming to the end of my contract and I knew I had to play first team football. Eamonn had passed away that summer and Nick Hammond had left the club, and they were the people who had brought me to Reading.
“Of course I was disappointed to never make my debut for the club. I trained a lot with the first team, but it wasn’t to be. Looking back, I probably wasn’t ready.”
Aged 20, Friðjónsson made the move back to Scandinavia to sign for Vålerenga of the Norwegian Eliteserien. But life at his new club got off to the worst possible start, as he tore his ACL before even playing a game.
“It’s probably one of the worst injuries in football,” he says. “You never know how well you’re going to come back after surgery. I had signed a three year deal and that took one year away straight away. It was tough, but I had to keep going and got help from my family and a psychologist. I’m fortunate that I was fine when I returned.”
After returning to fitness, the midfielder made his debut in July 2017, and speaks highly of his time in Norway.
“There are a couple of big teams in the league, such as Rosenborg and Molde, who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was managing at the time. It was a good stepping stone for me to experience men’s football properly for the first time. It’s a very technical league, which suits the way I like to play.”
Having been capped 43 times for Iceland at youth level, Friðjónsson was handed his senior debut in a friendly against Indonesia in January 2018. Later that year, he was named in the country’s squad for their first ever appearance at a World Cup. Although he did not feature at all in Russia, the midfielder looks back on the summer fondly.
“It was unbelievable. To be called up to your national team on the biggest stage in the world, I’m still dreaming about it today. It was an absolute privilege.
“We’re a small country, and we’ve always known that to be successful in anything we have to stick together as a family. Everyone is there for each other, whether we’ve done good or bad. There’s no cockiness or arrogance. There are some great players, but more importantly they are great characters. The best in the world.”
The 2019 Eliteserien season saw Friðjónsson go out on loan to Viking, where another Reading academy product, Axel Andresson, also plies his trade. It proved to be the midfielder’s best campaign in Norway, playing regularly as the club finished fifth in the league and won the domestic cup.
Friðjónsson’s impressive performances for Viking caught the eye of Paderborn, and he signed for the German club in January. As the Norwegian season had finished in early December, it took the midfielder a few weeks to get up to speed, but he has since played three games as the club look to retain their Bundesliga status.
“It’s one of the best leagues in the world and I would have been crazy to say no,” he says. “I made my debut against Bayern Munich and it was unreal. There were 80,000 fans there and I was playing against some of the best players in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
It’s been quite a journey for Friðjónsson over the last four years, from being released by Reading to going to the World Cup and now playing top-flight football in one of the best leagues in Europe. The Icelander goes back to one man who is to thank for his achievements.
“I’ve always focused on my own game. If you think about what other people are saying then you won’t get anywhere. It’s all about hard work and dedication. I think Eamonn Dolan had a big part in that. All of us in that youth team probably have the same mentality because of him. He told us to never give up, and that’s what we all have in common.
“You look at what that team has gone on to achieve. [Jack] Stacey in the Premier League, Tarique [Fosu] in the Championship and Liam [Kelly] got a move to Holland. We’ve all done really well. Reading made a mistake, that’s for sure!”.