AS January’s transfer window creaked shut last night, one of the first players to stroll through it admitted genuine regret at the timing of his move. It says much for Eggert Jonsson that, despite six-and-a-half years sterling service to Hearts in every outfield position, he remains irked that his final act in a maroon shirt was a penalty miss in the dying minutes at Celtic Park.
Fraser Forster saved Jonsson’s 89th-minute penalty to deny Hearts a point on December 10 last year. Days later, the midfielder’s pending transfer to Wolverhampton Wanderers was confirmed. He knew he wouldn’t get the chance to atone. He was heading for the bright lights of England’s Premier League but harbouring a deep sense of frustration at how his Hearts career ended that afternoon in Glasgow.
In particular, he is eager for Tynecastle supporters not to hold that spot-kick as their lasting memory of him. “If I’d scored, the last memory Hearts supporters would have had of me is getting them a point away at Celtic. Then we could have parted with better memories,” said Jonsson, speaking to the Evening News in his first interview since leaving Tynecastle.
“There’s not a lot I can do now. Hopefully, the supporters won’t remember me as the guy that had a penalty saved in the last minute at Celtic Park. Obviously, it’s disappointing but I will have to let it go and move on. Since I left, there have been a few other penalty misses. It seems to have gone through the whole team but I hope they start putting them in soon. These penalties can decide a lot of points here and there throughout the season.”
No-one of sane mind and being is likely to hold a grudge. Jonsson was a perfect ambassador for Hearts ever since joining from the Icelandic club KF Fjardabyggd aged 16 in 2005. His rapid progress through the Riccarton youth academy indicated a potential Premiership player in the making and he soon became a first-team regular, later deputising as captain occasionally. He initially took up position in his favoured central midfield role but went on to fill in at centre-back, right and left-back, wide midfield and even centre forward on one occasion. Former Hearts manager Csaba Laszlo once joked that constantly shunting the Icelander around was tantamount to abuse: “We have almost made violence against Eggert because we have put him in every position. You could go to jail if you did this outside football. But his performances, for me, have been fantastic.”
Jonsson never complained. He simply got on with his job, out of position or not. He was a full internationalist with Iceland at the age of 19 and attributes that achievement to his development with Hearts. His memories of Tynecastle are nothing but fond. “I came over to Scotland at 16 so I knew I had a few years playing in the youth team ahead of me,” he explained. “I had ambitions to get myself in the first team. I felt I had made big progress in my first two years in the youth team and reserves under coaches like John McGlynn. He is as good a coach as you can get. When I first arrived in Edinburgh, Hearts had people who took care of us. John Murray did a lot for us, we got picked up every morning for training and then dropped off at night. People were willing to do a lot and there was a family atmosphere around the place. To be in that academy was a good opportunity to improve.
“In my second year, I started to get involved with the first team, coming on as a sub in a few games. I was in the squad a lot so I was getting a taste of it pretty soon and that was driving me on. When I made the breakthrough I knew I was playing for a big club and I really enjoyed my time there, even though we didn’t win any trophies. During my time, obviously the club had ups and downs. Everyone knows how Hearts is with all the things that go on in the background. That sometimes made it difficult but I think, over the years I was there, we were reasonably successful. We had one year when we finished in the bottom six but I played European football and it really was a good time. I never really wanted to leave Hearts, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I never got to the point where I wanted to go. I always felt good, I enjoyed living in Edinburgh right up until this year. I knew my contract was finishing at the end of the season and I’d been there for six-and-a-half years and I thought this was the right time to move.
“I had to get a new challenge for myself to keep improving and developing. I wasn’t desperate to get away but when Wolves came up I thought it was the right option. Playing in the Premier League was a factor. I knew about teams that had been watching me, teams from England and Europe. I knew they were prepared to make an offer in January but when Wolves came in I made my mind up straight away.
“This is a big club and a chance for me to play in the English Premier League. It was an opportunity I had to take. I don’t regret it at all and hopefully I won’t regret it at any time in the future.”
Surprisingly, Jonsson says the high point of his Hearts career was a game he didn’t even play in. “Although I wasn’t in the first team, I remember going to Hampden for the cup semi-final when we beat Hibs 4-0 in 2006,” he recalled. “That was probably the highlight of my time there, at least in terms of atmosphere. I was only watching from the stand but it was a great day. I’ve had great moments when we beat Hibs in derbies. They were the best games, the biggest games, and over the years I’ve been quite successful against Hibs. All the wins against them were highlights.”
He now finds himself embroiled in a different kind of battle; the one to force himself into the Wolves first team. Last night’s Premier League meeting with Liverpool brought Jonsson’s first league appearance since arriving in the Midlands at the start of January. His only other two outings were FA Cup ties against local rivals Birmingham City. Manager Mick McCarthy has already laid bare the challenge to the 23-year-old.
“He told me I’d have to make him put me in the team,” said Jonsson. “Hopefully, I will get my chance soon and establish myself as a regular. It’s going to take time so I’m not panicking. I’m not saying to myself, ‘I’m not in the team yet, what was I thinking coming here? Maybe I shouldn’t have done it’. That’s not in my mind at all. I’m going to be patient. I know I’m not going to get into the team straight away, I’ll need to work hard and earn my place. I’m just waiting at the minute, working each day in training, and hopefully I’ll earn my place. You want to be playing every week wherever you are playing your football. You need to work hard to earn your place in any team. When you get your chance, you need to take it. That’s all I want down here. Wolves is a step forward for me but it’s going to take time to get into things.
“I’ve been here a month now and it’s a good group of boys in the squad. Obviously, I already knew Christophe (Berra) from Hearts. We are in a difficult position at the minute after dropping into the bottom three. It’s going to be tough but I think, with the quality here, we can get more points. We’ve drawn a lot of games so if we can turn them into wins and build momentum then I’m sure we will climb the league and get away from the relegation zone.”
Jonsson insists he is more than capable of cementing his place in the Premier League having “manned up” in Scotland. Hearts nurtured him into adulthood and, one day, he might consider returning to repay them. “Of course I’d come back to Hearts. It’s a great club and they did so much for me, not only as a player but as a person. I was a young boy when I arrived. Over the years, there I’ve gone from being a boy into a man. I appreciate what they did for me and I’d love to go back if the chance came up in years to come.”
Should that transpire, taking a penalty to atone for what happened at Celtic Park might be high on his agenda. Eggert Jonsson doesn’t forget easily, and he certainly won’t forget his time at Tynecastle.