Rotherham United: The international class of Kari Arnason

Kari Arnason scores against Blackburn
Kari Arnason scores against Blackburn
0
Have your say

His pursuit of a Swedish-born player took in Scotland, Iceland, England and France, but Rotherham United boss Steve Evans wasn’t a man to be deterred.

The newly-appointed manager was about to embark on his first full season in charge and he needed a centre-half who could help take them from League Two to the Championship.

Once the club had found iceland international Kari Arnason quietly going about his business at Aberdeen, Evans was determined to land his man.

“It was our chief scout who came across him, and we remembered him briefly from Plymouth where he’d played in the Championship,” Evans recalled.

“Our scout flew up to Aberdeen a couple of times and watched him, then we watched his situation develop. I was good friends with the manager at the time, Craig Brown, who is now director of football.

“I spoke to Craig and said ‘what are you doing with Arnason?’ and he said he’d made it abundantly clear he wanted to go back to England.

“I spent two or three weeks talking to Kari on the phone and I flew out to Iceland and persuaded him to come and look round the new stadium which was being built for its first season.

“He had a look round and was then involved in an international game against France. I went out, and he was stunning in that.

“I just convinced him that we could go to where he wanted to be, which was the Championship. I used my powers to persuade him he could help us get there, and he’s been stunning for us.”

Agreed.

Two years on, it’s fair to say the deal has been a success in any language.

Evans describes landing Arnason as one of his most astute pieces of business, and the man himself, in tandem with skipper Craig Morgan at the heart of the defence, has never enjoyed his football more.

“I’ve been playing with Morgs now for two years and I love playing with him,” Arnason revealed. “We make up for each other’s weaknesses and I think we’re a very solid partnership.

“With me and Morgs, it’s second nature. We don’t need to speak much. Obviously, we try to speak as much as possible, but we’re very comfortable together.”

In two unforgettable seasons, they were a key partnership in the Millers’ back to back promotions as Evans accomplished his mission to provide second-tier football for a player whose talent cries out to be showcased at a high level.

The Rotherham manager knows class when he sees it. “He’s up there with the best signings I’ve ever made,” he said.

“He’s against real quality strikers week after week. After they scored early, the Ipswich duo didn’t do a lot. The Watford boys came here and didn’t do a lot. We had Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede here with Blackburn and they didn’t do a lot. The common theme in our central duo has been Kari Arnason.”

There was a moment in the 1-1 draw with Charlton Athletic when the ball came down from the sky in the Millers half. Arnason had Addicks players moving in on him as he watched its flight, yet it stopped on his foot as softly as a butterfly landing on a bed of feathers. Applause rang round New York Stadium from fans who, like Evans, realise they’re watching a player who is something special.

‘Arni’ has played against Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale. He has played in final eliminators for the World Cup Finals. Tonight he could find himself marking Manchester United’s Robin van Persie when Iceland play Holland in a Euro 2016 qualifier. His country are well placed in Group A, having seen off Turkey 3-0 and Latvia 3-0 in their opening two matches.

No wonder the challenge of the Championship hasn’t fazed him.

“It basically suits me better to play in this league. It’s not as much carnage as League One and League Two where it’s just fighting for the ball,” Arnason said. “Now it’s actually about reading the game, and you can get on the ball because they’re not always pressing, pressing, pressing.

“So, for me, I can get on the ball without taking massive chances. I’ve been happy with my performances. Obviously there are a few things I’d like to be better. Always, I’d like some things to be better.

“Obviously, going into it, it’s in the back of your mind that you’re playing against some boys on 50 grand a week, but I’ve been very happy with mine and Morgs’ partnership in this league.

“Most of us have played in the Championship before but as a team it’s a little bit different. Before, we used to go out all guns blazing in League One and teams couldn’t handle it. In this league it’s three passes and they get out.

“You have to be a little bit more clever in this league, know when to press and when to step off and just let them have the ball. We’re learning as we go along.”

His touch for a big fella is amazing, but there’s so much more to his game. He’s strong in the tackle, commanding in the air, reads the game beautifully and, as a fixture in the Iceland team - he has 35 caps and is hoping to make it to 50 - has a degree of international know-how most defenders just don’t possess.

That pocket rocket of explosive pace so well known to Millers fans, Nouha Dicko, had him one on one earlier in the season during the win over Wolves. Did Arnason dive in? Did he get beaten for pace? No. He simply let Dicko push the ball past him then calmly stepped into the space between man and ball. Dicko got a faceful of red and white shirt for his trouble and Arnason got a goal-kick for his.

Evans, light-heartedly, says the 6ft 3in defender, who is equally comfortable in midfield, always sees a cloud in a sunny sky and has nicknamed him after a fictional character from yesteryear in TV soap Coronation Street.

“He really is Albert Tatlock (Google it, younger readers). He moans about absolutely everything,” he said.

“But he moans in a nice way, not in a negative or nasty way. The big man hasn’t got a nasty bone in his body. I’ve got a fantastic relationship with him. There’s a real mutual respect and I think he loves playing for us. He’ll never tell us that because he moans!”

Maybe the big man doesn’t vocalise it. But it says much that, after a nomadic Arnason career that has taken in Vikingurm, Djurgarden, AGF Aarhus, Esberg fB, Plymouth, Aberdeen and the Millers, Evans is able to reveal: “When his deal was up last year, he was very keen to re-sign. It tells you about the respect there is between manager and player when the player’s opening words to (chief executive) Paul Douglas are ‘I just want to sign, can we get this done quickly?’.”

Arnason admits the Gaffer has a point: “Steve Evans, he’s not wrong there. It’s not an Icelandic thing, it’s just me. I always find something wrong with my performance and the team’s performance because I want it to be perfect.

“Obviously that will never happen, so I try to find what we can make better. It’s sometimes positive but it’s also negative as well.”

This season he has been a revelation. Playing against better teams and players has brought out the best in him. He even crowned his wonderful start to the campaign with his first goal for two years, scoring the opener in the 2-0 win at home to Blackburn Rovers.

Even then, though his slightly-scuffed effort ended up in the back of the net, he found a cloud.

Referring to last season’s leading marksman who made a habit of scoring with shots that didn’t seem to have been quite hit properly, he complained: “The finish was a Kieran Agard special.”

And here’s one more thing for him to gripe about ... he’s not getting any younger. Today is his 32nd birthday.

Many happy returns, Tatlock. Hope there are plenty more to come in a Millers shirt.