Jon Dadi Bodvarsson exclusive: Why Millwall are like Iceland, beating England and petrol station myth

Sam Dean
Millwall  striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson was part of the Iceland team that knocked England out of Euro 2016 - COPYRIGHT © JULIAN SIMMONDS

“I have to be a bit cheeky here,” says Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, breaking into a smile. “From time to time I go to YouTube to see some highlights, to watch it back. I love seeing the reactions of the English fans and the videos of people reacting to it. It’s surreal, really.”

With a name like Bodvarsson, there are no prizes for guessing which match the Millwall striker is referring to. He was part of the Iceland attack that day in Nice, leading the line as the nation with a population of 360,000 — roughly the same as Bradford, lest we forget — toppled Roy Hodgson’s England at Euro 2016.

“It changed not only my career but my life as well,” says Bodvarsson, whose exploits that summer earned him a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers. From there he went to Reading before, in July last year, joining a Millwall side that has become genuine contenders for the Championship’s play-off places this season.

“Millwall is the club that goes closest to the chemistry in the Iceland national team,” he says. “It is the bond and the togetherness that makes us strong and it is the same at Millwall. When the team is doing well, the individual blossoms.”

Bodvarsson, it soon becomes clear, will never grow tired of talking about Iceland’s rise, or indeed the night they met England. The thought of the jubilation back home, and the impact they had on generations of Icelandic people, still gives him “goosebumps”. He remembers the celebrations with the supporters and, above all, the quietness in the dressing room afterwards, as the players first digested what they had done.

Bodvarsson (back row, number nine) lead the line in Iceland's Euro 2016 run Credit: Reuters

He also remembers the build-up to the game, when he was described by some parts of the media as a semi-professional who worked a second job alongside football. “There was a story that came out saying I was a part-time guy filling up gas at a gas station,” Bodvarsson laughs. “It was very random. None of us were part-time players. The majority of us were playing in strong leagues around Europe. I think it was more the name Iceland — it does not sound very professional, does it?

“England was the game every Icelandic person dreamed of. We grow up watching the Premier League. It was almost like destiny.”

There is not yet a sense of “destiny” to Millwall’s rise up the Championship table, but there is certainly momentum. They are now two points off the play-off places and they meet Sheffield United in the FA Cup this weekend having lost just twice since Gary Rowett took over from Neil Harris, now at Cardiff City, in October.

Rowett, the former Birmingham, Derby and Stoke manager, has described Millwall’s team spirit as the best he has ever seen at a club. “It took me by surprise when I came here, how good the atmosphere was already,” says Bodvarsson, 27. “The chemistry in the changing room is brilliant. I have never been in a changing room as good as this, with all the clubs I have been in.

“It is a very tight, honest group. There is no filter. It can be quite crazy, and funny. There are big characters and also a lot of players who have played in lower leagues before and have had to work their way up. There is some sense of humility there, and hard work. That combination is brilliant.”

Millwall have shot up the Championship table under Gary Rowett Credit: Julian Simmonds

Those qualities will sound familiar to Sheffield United supporters, many of whom will arrive in south London on Saturday fearing they could become the fifth Premier League side in four years to be mauled by Millwall at the Den.

This is a different Millwall under Rowett, though. There is more flexibility to their shape, more liberation to their play. “He has given us more freedom to express ourselves on the field and believe in ourselves,” says Bodvarsson. “We have some really good football players, we are good on the ball. I think he sparked that belief even more so.”

The departure of Harris in October, after more than four and a half years in charge, was as much a shock to the players as the wider public. “Nobody saw it coming,” says Bodvarsson. “A lot of the players had been with him for years. For some of the new players, including me, it was obviously a bit unnerving.”

The affable Bodvarsson need not have worried. He has been more of an impact substitute than a regular starter this season, but a goal in Saturday’s victory over Reading underlined his threat from the bench. “I settled in quickly and the lads were good at making me feel comfortable,” he says.

Millwall, famously, are good at making other teams uncomfortable. It is a trait they share with Iceland, who are hoping to add another chapter to their story by reaching this summer’s European Championships, via the play-offs. Romania await in March.

The progress has been there for all to see, not least back at home where the facilities are now so impressive. “We have indoor halls,” he says. “I was lucky enough to experience it just before the artificial pitches came. It was a mess. Sometimes we could not even play and we just played rugby instead.”

Bodvarsson has already been part of one remarkable footballing rise. At the rate Millwall are progressing, it may not be long before he is part of another journey to remember.