Eggert Jonsson interview: Heart of fire, head of ice

AN UNASSUMING guy, Eggert Jonsson doesn't particularly enjoy the limelight. On and off the park he goes about his business quietly, leaving it to others to hog the headlines, but that hasn't stopped people sitting up and taking notice of him. Hard not to given the fact he has been popping up all over the place.

Having spent the past couple of seasons establishing himself in the Hearts midfield, this term he has had short stints at centre-forward – including during yesterday's derby as Hearts searched for a leveller – and morphed more convincingly into one of the lynchpins in the Tynecastle side's defence. Right-back, left-back and centre-half, he jokes that if the goalkeeper ever has to go off mid-match and all the subs have been used he would probably have to step between the sticks. Just to complete the set, he says with a smile. Considering he is just 20 years old, it is an impressive show of versatility.

But he has always been adaptable. As a youngster he combined his football with golf (he now has a handicap of 12 and is working on reducing that as he works his way round Scotland's courses) as well as skiing, a family pastime. He was 15 and a regular member of the Icelandic youth team when he was forced to choose between skiing and football. It was a choice made easier, he says, by the fact that few Icelandic skiers have gone on to prosper on the bigger stage. Dealing with tough challenges, however, is something he is used to. Even when he is uncomfortable in a certain situation, he still makes it look effortless. Interviews are the bane of his life. Opening up to strangers is not his bag. Or so he says.

"I'm quite a shy guy. You're lucky you got me talking," he stresses. Maybe, but once he does open up he is an interesting lad. He doesn't betray the kind of indiscretion that will give his media-wary bosses palpitations yet he is not so mundane that he could be deemed uninteresting.

He is a contented soul. Despite leaving home when he was just 16, Jonsson has adapted to life in Scotland. Belying his youthfulness, he has ploughed on through the maelstrom of managerial changes and negative publicity which has battered the club over the past few years and has emerged not only grounded but happy and positive, one of the most consistent young performers in the SPL this season.

Developing his talent against a backdrop of such upheaval cannot have been easy. To his credit, he doesn't pretend it was. But what doesn't break you makes you stronger, and he believes he has emerged from the turbulence a tougher and more complete player.

"No matter what is happening, you have to be a professional. This is your job and you have to make sure you keep concentrating on your own job and don't get caught up in anything else. But sometimes it was hard when we changed coaches a lot. We just got used to it, but, to be fair, we have had a lot of coaches over the years and that has made it a wee bit difficult."

One of the consistencies amid such inconsistency was an appreciation of what the young Icelandic player could bring to the team. "Most managers I have had still gave me the chance. But I don't think your development is just about the coaches, it's up to the player himself. If he can show the coaches what he is able to do then the manager has no alternative but to play him."

The manager must decide where to play him, though. And since arriving at Tynecastle, Csaba Laszlo milked that prerogative. "Last season I played most of the games also, so I have been a regular for two seasons now, but this season has been a bit different with me playing so much in defence rather than midfield. But it's been good, and I have seen that I am progressing. I never thought about playing in defence, but I have started liking it just as much as centre midfield. It's hard to say you prefer any position. What you prefer is being in the team, and if there is a place for you in the team, in defence rather than midfield, then you play there and make sure you do your best.

"You just need to work on it and play there, and in the end it is going to help you develop as a player. I think it will all come good later on, and it means I can jump in wherever we have problems."

A product of the Hearts academy, he is an example of what can happen when the Gorgie club gets things right. With Jonsson, Robbie Neilson, Lee Wallace, Andy Driver, Gary Glen and Jason Thomson, a clutch of Hearts squad members have formed an emotional, as well as professional, alliance to a club that has nurtured them and allowed them to break onto the bigger stage.

But they are not the only ones fighting for the cause. As they manoeuvred their way up the league table this term they demonstrated a collective will and the kind of battling that can be commended rather than condemned. Forget the red or yellow cards, this fighting spirit manifested itself in players competing for every ball, or throwing themselves in front of goal-bound opportunities to help protect a one-goal lead as the minutes ticked down. It may not always have been pretty, but it has been a marked change from recent seasons and betrays a greater sense of togetherness.

"That's right," he says with a smile which also reveals a sense of relief. "We are in it together and that's the main thing. We are quite a small squad now and everyone is prepared to sacrifice everything in a game for his team-mate, and I think that is the big difference from what it used to be in the past few years. Maybe last year there were a few individuals who were not all that together, both on and off the field, but now it's not like that and it's making a large difference."

The vastness of past squads made it difficult for everyone to gel, he says. That's when the cliques were formed. But paring back the numbers has aided the sense of unity and helped him express himself. "In the past it was difficult to find a free spot in the dressing room, but now you can sit wherever you want! It's difficult for me because I am shy, but when I got to know all the boys I came out my shell and there is good banter going on. A lot of things have changed over the last few seasons and I think we have a really good squad now. Obviously we lost Christophe (Berra] in the January window, and that was a big loss with him being our captain, but we have got to move on and I'm sure we have the right people to keep the spirit we have going."

There is also greater organisation and more honed tactics thanks to Laszlo and, as a result, Hearts are on course for a return to Europe. Provided they stay focused, warns Jonsson.

Playing at the higher level is something he craves. He has heard tales of Tynecastle on European nights and wants to experience it for himself. But if the Europa League is next season's dream, this term he wants another taste of international football. Against Scotland.

His homeland and adopted homeland are in the same World Cup qualifying group and the next head-to-head is a matter of weeks away. Having made his debut for the Iceland national team, aged just 19, he missed out on the first match, a 2-1 win for Scotland in Reykjavik in September, but is desperate to be involved this time around.

"I wasn't even in the squad for the first game and that was a bit hard to take because it was a game I really wanted to play in, but there is one more and I'm just hoping, hoping, hoping that I will be in that squad and can be involved at some point in that game."

But is he worried about the stick he will get? He laughs at the idea. Not at Hearts. "To be fair, there are not that many Scots here! That means I won't get too much stick from the lads in the dressing room. But the fans and people I know in Edinburgh will probably have a wee bit of banter."

A lad who has always been contented with his lot away from the football, the novelty is now being able to laugh about his life within it as well. A player of many positions, that's surely the one he is happiest in.

MAN OF MANY POSITIONS

LEFT BACK

A midfielder by trade, Eggert Jonsson has been deployed in a variety of positions this season as manager Csaba Laszlo shuffles his pack. He filled in at left-back against Hibs in the absence of Lee Wallace earlier in the season.

RIGHT BACK

With Robbie Neilson out injured for a large chunk of the season, Jonsson spent the early weeks at right-back, a position he took to with some aplomb.

CENTRE HALF

The mid-season sale to Wolves of captain Christophe Berra and the suspensions incurred by Marius Zaliukas left Hearts desperately short in the centre of defence. Step forward, Jonsson.

MIDFIELD

His preferred position but he has started few games there this season and they have tended to be on the flanks rather than his favoured central berth.

STRIKER

Pitched up front against Falkirk in the Scottish Cup, Jonsson looked like a fish out of water in the home defeat. He was also sent into attack against Hibs late on yesterday, but to no avail.