For a club that have spent over £200m on players in their attempt to break the dominance of the ‘big four’, it did seem rather odd to see Manchester City resort to a 23-year-old rookie goalkeeper from the Faroe Islands last Saturday.
Gunnar Nielsen, who had previously been on the books of Blackburn (where he never played) and on-loan at Motherwell (where he never played) became the first Faroese player to appear in the Premier League, trotting out on to the Emirates turf to replace the injured Shay Given on 76 minutes and catapulting himself into the headlines in the process. Nielsen isn’t even particularly high up the goalkeeping pecking order at Eastlands, but with Joe Hart on-loan at Birmingham and Stuart Taylor out with a knee injury, Nielsen found himself quickly going from fourth choice, to no other choice.
Born in the Faroese capital of Thorshavn, Nielsen began his career at his hometown club HB Torshavn before moving to Boldklubben Frem, a Danish semi-professional side currently playing in the Danish First Division, for whom he made five appearances before Blackburn signed him for a nominal fee in 2007. After a barren two years at Ewood Park, punctuated by a similarly game-less loan move to Motherwell, Nielsen still managed to impress City scouts enough to earn a free transfer to Eastlands on a two-and-a-half-year deal and he finally got his break in British football with a loan spell at non-league Wrexham, making his debut in a 1-0 defeat to Histon and going on to make four more appearances for the Red Dragons before a thumb injury cut his time in Wales short.
Despite his lack of experience, Nielsen has made more international appearances than he has domestic, with ten under-21 and two full Faroe Islands caps to his name. However, even there he is No.2 to IF Fuglafjorour’s Jakup Mikkelsen. With City moving quickly to bring in Sunderland’s third choice ‘keeper Martin Fulop on an ‘emergency’ loan and Taylor expected back in training this week, Gunnar is unlikely to add to his Premier League pitch-time this season, but even his brief cameo against the Gunners will have seen his stock rise in his homeland, as well as making him possibly the most famous fourth choice gloves-man in the Premier League right now. Indeed, City captain Kolo Toure was keen that the rest of the team rally round the man of the moment to protect him from the limelight and the pressure that goes with it. “When you see young players come in, you need to help them. We take the responsibility and try to protect him, to make him confident for the rest of the season. As a team we are really strong” said Toure, before rather unhelpfully adding; “He is coming to play in place of one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.” No pressure then.
It wasn’t so long ago an exotic foreign signing meant an Irishman, but Nielsen’s debut last Saturday saw him become the 96th different nationality to play in the Premier League as the top-flight foreign legion grows with each opening of the Premier League transfer window. Honduras may be footballing small-fry to FIFA, but there are currently three Hondurans plying their trade in ‘the best league in the world’. Even Ryan Giggs was eligible to turn out for Sierra Leone through his paternal Grandfather. Much has been made of Nielsen hailing from one of football’s lesser known nations, but he is not the only footballer representing the small countries in the Premier League. Indeed, he isn’t even the only goalkeeper, as Bolton’s Omani international keeper Ali Al Habsi will testify, along with Fulham’s Neil Etheridge, who was born in Enfield, but has been capped ten times by the Filipino national side.
Here A Different Week selects its own ‘Small Nations Premier League XI’ to put the cosmopolitan sides of Liverpool and Arsenal to shame.
Gunnar Nielsen (GK) MANCHESTER CITY AND FAROE ISLANDS
Emerson Boyce (RB) WIGAN ATHLETIC AND BARBADOS
Chris Samba (CB) BLACKBURN ROVERS AND REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Zurab Khizanishvili (CB) BLACKBURN ROVERS AND GEORGIA
Herita Ilunga (LB) WEST HAM UNITED AND DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Kamil Zayatte (CM) HULL CITY AND GUNIEA
Nikki Ahamed (CM) CHELSEA AND SRI LANKA
Lorik Cana (CM) SUNDERLAND AND ALBANIA
Jason Roberts (ST) BLACKBURN ROVERS AND GRENADA
Daniel Cousin (ST) HULL CITY AND GABON
Marcelo Moreno (ST) WIGAN ATHLETIC AND BOLIVIA