In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Birkir Bjarnason – the Icelandic midfielder who departed Aston Villa in the summer – about his time at Villa Park.
Words and interview: Regan Foy | @findfoy
The ball finds the feet of Birkir Bjarnason on the left. He waits, then stutters, before cruising forward – weaving his way between the Wolverhampton Wanderers defence and poking the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
Villa Park erupts as the Icelandic midfielder buries a fourth goal past John Ruddy, before smashing the ball back where it came from as it trickled back out into the penalty area. He strides forward in a subdued celebration as his team-mates close in.
This is perhaps Birkir’s favourite moment in an Aston Villa shirt – but it was borne from frustration.
“At that time, I played well against Preston and did relatively well, but I didn’t start the next few games or the game against Wolves”
“It was the frustration that I didn’t start, that I wasn’t appearing in consecutive games that came out in that celebration.”
It’s a moment that most fans will remember when they think of Birkir Bjarnason, who joined Aston Villa in the January of 2017 in a £1,800,000 deal from Swiss giants FC Basel. The fans at the game certainly let their appreciation be known and they are something that Birkir was fond of during his time at the club.
“Of course, it’s a massive club with a lot of fans – there was always a huge amount of supporters at away games which is very impressive”
“It made a big difference for the players to see the support, and I always had a great relationship with the fans”
“I enjoyed being able to play for them whilst I was at the club.”
The midfielder’s time at the club was littered with small injuries that resulted in large gulfs in game-time opportunities that were afforded to him, with the first coming relatively shortly after he was signed under Steve Bruce.
Only a few games in to his Aston Villa career, the Icelandic international damaged his knee ligaments and was forced off in the 33rd minute of a win against Rotherham United back in 2017 – with then manager Steve Bruce saying that he was a ‘tough so-and-so’ and that he ‘wanted to continue playing’.
Something similar happened in one of Dean Smith’s first games at the club too, with Birkir looking as if he was the preferred player in a holding midfield role before he had to be replaced after picking up a groin issue.
“They were all very big disappointments”
“I never had any big injuries, but I picked up injuries at very bad, unfortunate times. The timing of my injuries always came at the worst possible time”
“All three injuries that I picked up came when I was finally getting into it – when I was in form and was looking good on the pitch”
“It was really unfortunate that I picked up these injuries at the time that they came.”
His appearances were also spread across the pitch, with some game time coming as a left-winger, and others coming in a more central, holding role – where the fanbase thought that Bjarnason thrived.
It caused some confusion amongst the B6 faithful. A player that had been signed, with little knowledge outside of the club about him, that plays as a winger but never truly looks at ease there – before he’s moved into the role that had been occupied up to that point by the tandem of Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak – and surprisingly excels.
It was a case of Steve Bruce not really knowing how to get the most out of his player, and Birkir believes that he wasn’t utilised well enough and was played out of position for large swathes of his Aston Villa career.
“At Villa at least, I enjoyed the holding role more – I’m a midfielder, not a winger”
“In the beginning, I played, in my opinion, a lot out of the role or position that I am – which is a bit of a shame,” Birkir admits.
“When I finally was moved centrally, I felt better, and that I could show my quality more.”
In terms of the dressing room, Birkir was a well-liked member of the squad and struck up a number of friendships during his time at the club, but states that he was ‘closer with some more than others’.
For Bjarnason, there wasn’t much difference between the atmosphere within the dressing room whilst working under Steve Bruce and then Dean Smith, for the most part, the vast majority of the squad were there under both managers – something that attributed to a ‘positive vibe’ around the club.
Surprisingly, the players that Birkir found himself getting on the most with were both goalkeepers.
“I was really close to Jed Steer and Orjan Nyland, but the lads are all really nice guys,” the midfielder states, with the latter not coming as too much of a surprise as they share the same agent.
“I got along with pretty much everybody.”
Whilst the ‘vibe’ in the dressing room remained largely the same under both Bruce and Smith, the style of football changed dramatically – from a languid, defensive approach to a more open, attacking mindset.
But Bjarnason doesn’t believe that one suited him more than the other, and that he found enjoyment from playing in both styles – stating that it was difficult to separate “two managers who were relatively successful at Aston Villa.”
Of course, one manager was more successful than the other. Dean Smith managed to take his boyhood club back to the fabled land of the Premier League at the first time of asking under his tenure, and despite not playing in either Play-Off Final, Birkir believes it was an exceptional experience to be a part of the squad during that moment.
“It was huge. Obviously, in the situation that the club found themselves in, it was a very important thing for the club both financially, and in that Villa as a team belongs in the Premier League”
“You have to consider it a big achievement for the club and the supporters, and the players – and myself – I had a part to play throughout the season which I am immensely proud of.”
The Icelandic midfielder was quick to praise the club’s prized talisman, Jack Grealish too.
“He’s Aston Villa’s best player, he’s the captain, he’s an unbelievable talent with great qualities – and he’s still young”
“His ability is probably better than where Aston Villa currently are as a club, and I think he could play for a top, top team”
“I think he can reach the heights of football, and hopefully he will go very far – but I hope that Villa keeps a hold of him for as long as they can.”
And speaking of the heights of football, Birkir has played against – and frustrated – one of the very best, ever.
There is now an almost iconic picture on the internet of Bjarnason sat in the Iceland national team dressing room, holding the shirt of Lionel Messi aloft after the legendary Barcelona forward had asked to swap shirts with the then Aston Villa star after he had been kept relatively quiet by Birkir throughout the game.
But despite a strong performance in their group stages, the Euro’s still stood higher in his list of achievements as he was part of the Iceland squad that knocked England out of the tournament – and although the midfielder now owns a match-worn shirt from one of football’s all-time greats, it’s currently tucked away somewhere in his home at the moment, rather than displayed, he told Under A Gaslit Lamp.
Birkir Bjarnason, now 31, is currently plying his trade in the Qatar Stars League for Al-Arabi after his contract was brought to a ‘mutual termination’ during the summer despite a strong pre-season from the Akureyri native.
He tells us that he’s enjoying playing at the Grand Hamad Stadium, after waiting for a few months before making a decision on what his next move would be, but speaks incredibly highly of Birmingham as a city.
“It’s a multi-cultured city, which suited me, and there’s a lot of ongoing work meaning that Birmingham gets better and better every year”
“I think in five or ten years, the city is going to move up another level and be really great”
“Overall, it was a great experience to live there.”
With the end of Bjarnason’s career coming closer, we asked about his plans after Al-Arabi – with his short term contract ending at the end of January – and whether a move to the United States was possible, or if he had plans to go into modelling after the midfielder posing for Vogue during his time at Aston Villa.
“I have no plans for modelling,” Birkir laughs.
“My plans after Qatar, we’ll see, there are doors open – I could continue here – but I will consider that when that moment comes in January”
“We’ll have to see what happens.”