As featured on Guardian Sport
WHEN SOUTHAMPTON SIGNED MARIAN PAHARS from Skonto FC, Latvia, in March 1999, Saints fans would have been forgiven for asking “who?” The diminutive forward had not been unearthed by a scouting database. He had not been hailed by informed commenters on internet message boards. No-one claimed to have much knowledge of the 23-year-old. Yes, he had scored 19 goals in 26 appearances for his club, but Latvia was not even on the periphery of English football.
In traditional old school, word of mouth fashion, Pahars had been recommended to Southampton manager Dave Jones by Latvia boss Gary Johnson. He scored a hat-trick in a trial match and signed a contract straight after.
An initial 20-minute substitute appearance against Coventry City gave little away, so when fans funnelled into The Dell on 17 April, 1999, they had little idea what to expect. Unpredictability fosters a special kind of viewing in sport. Where would he play? Was he left or right-footed? What would he offer?
With his side trailing 3-2 to Blackburn, Pahars took the field at The Dell for the first time. The words of the commentator indicate the extent of knowledge surrounding him:
“The new man is from Skonto Riga known as ‘The Latvian Michael Owen’, Marian Pahars, who is a striker, and in the words of his manager is a ‘big game player’.”
A couple of hastily prepared notes were all the viewer could glean. But when Pahars latched on to a James Beattie flick-on to head firmly into the net before celebrating with the crowd, an immediate cult hero was born. Players of the status of Matt Le Tissier and Mark Hughes were on the pitch in red and white stripes, but it was a 5 foot 9 inch Latvian known only by a crude comparison to a well-known English player that scored the crucial equaliser.
Joy would have been the end result regardless of the scorer, but unpredictability provides a different breed of excitement.
Pahars had made the perfect start to his Southampton career. He had come out of the blue to immediately endear himself to the fans. This was underlined when he scored twice in a final day win over Everton to secure Southampton’s top flight status. He recently reflected on his impact in England:
“I didn’t know much about England, the Premier League, the club – even the language. I didn’t understand. But the emotion afterwards; if the people are happy around me, smiling, congratulating me, I knew I did my job.”
Dave Jones’ gamble had paid off: a tip off from a contact, a punt based on a trial and gut instinct had ultimately ensured Premier League survival. Three months previously Marian Pahars was just a name buried in the ether of European football, now he had stepped out of the unknown.
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FAST-FORWARD 16 YEARS and the English top flight is markedly different. No longer do managers rely on word of mouth to source players. No longer do fans have the unbridled thrill of watching a complete unknown step onto the pitch for the first time.
Today’s footballing upper-echelons are defined by easily accessible information. Never before has there been such a proliferation of sources – from the professional to the consumer sphere.
Scouting and analytics are areas defined by continual growth. An industry that was once reluctant to abandon its traditional roots is gradually being enveloped by modern methods. Extensive databases, analytical tools and prominent agents on top of traditional scouts mean that more information is available than ever before. In theory, this should mean that the best talent gets identified quicker, cherry-picked and given a chance in a top league. In reality, while striving to minimise risk and stay one step ahead of rivals, clubs now move at a rapid speed in the transfer market.
This globalisation of the world’s most popular sport is in full swing across all of Europe’s top divisions and the pull of the English top flight is arguably greater than ever. The net is routinely cast further afield, scouting is more sophisticated and transfer fees are forever rising. At the beginning of the 2015-16 season players of a staggering 64 different nationalities were active in the Premier League.
In the modern era the competitive nature of player recruitment is such that in some cases it has moved well past the sensible middle ground. In a scramble to find the next big thing, players are identified even younger and snapped up before they have been allowed to develop.
The weight of expectation is driven by social media hype, scouting reports, ProZone analysis and YouTube compilations. This was typified by the transfer of Martin Ødegaard to Real Madrid, a true transfer of our time: a 16-year-old signed on the basis of just over 20 appearances in the Norwegian Tippeligaen and an array of YouTube videos. Ten years ago, Ødegaard may never have made it, or more likely been made to wait for his break, but the modern era demands he be thrust into the spotlight post-haste.
Similarly, new South American wonderkids are proclaimed weekly. How many times have bright-faced prospects been dubbed the ‘New Messi’? Meanwhile, team goals from Ajax under-9s make their way into the public sphere with regularity. The scope and depth of information has helped push the transfer market into overdrive.
As issues central to Premier League recruitment are widening, so too are the whole host of secondary aspects. Football media has reached a high-water mark with topics widening, and the niche becoming the norm. With the global product of football growing relentlessly there are bound to be new shoots of interest. We may think we are at the peak of knowledge, of understanding and sources, but it is only likely to increase.
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Marian Pahars in action for Southampton
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Interest in the wider picture of football is also greater. UK broadcasters like BT and Sky, as well as paying a combined £5.1 billion for three seasons of Premier League, are forking out exorbitant fees for the rights to show La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 games. Highlights packages are not hard to find. Illegal online streams of European matches are increasingly prevalent despite attempts to clamp down. Instead of settling down in front of a wide screen TV or venturing to the local pub, millions of people now watch on their laptops, relying on an illegal stream hosted on a shady website.
There is a clear desire to watch more and to know more. The average football follower of today knows than they ever have before, whether through conscious effort or unavoidable osmosis. This obviously has had an effect on how we consume football. A match programme, a newspaper report and a short television segment used to form the core of extra information surrounding football – now a whole host of other formats exist.
This inundation, driven by supply and demand, has eroded the unknown and unpredictable. When was the last time a player arrived in the Premier League that you had never heard of? How low down the footballing pyramid do you have to go to find a footballer without a Wikipedia page?
At the top level there are no longer any unknowns. If you want to know something – a statistic, or even a minor detail about a player – the information is likely out there somewhere. If you can find it, just think of the depth of information available in professional databases.
This evolution has of course had many consequences, most of which are positive – after all most fans would want the Premier League to have the highest quality of player. But there is something missing, something harder to quantify. With the benefit of misty-eyed hindsight there was an undeniable alluring quality about unknown quantities.
There was no opportunity for early judgement on a player who came from nowhere. No transfer scoop. No prior warning. No scouting report. No context. Just nervous energy: fans simply had to turn up, watch them play, wait, and form opinions.
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THE LATE 1990s was a period expansion for English football. The Premier League had established itself and with this stability came a wider, more ambitious reach in the transfer market. As part of this the country saw an influx of more exotic players, with Scandinavians particularly prevalent.
While the clubs were widening their gaze, journalists and fans’ attention was generally still focused inwards. This created the ideal conditions for unheard-of players to make a name for themselves.
Perhaps the prototype of such moves was Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Norwegian went on to play at United for 11 years, score a winner in a Champions League final, contribute to a period of domestic dominance, and earn the reputation as a super sub, but in July 1996 he was merely a name, a £1.5 million gamble.
There had been interest from other English clubs and across Europe after 31 goals for Molde, but that hardly equalled recognition in Manchester. However, United fans did not have to wait long to see Solskjær’s qualities: six minutes into his debut he found the net, before going on to register 18 league goals in his first season on the way to winning the title. He finished the season joint-third top scorer in the league, mixing it with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright and Dwight Yorke.
Had a well-known domestic player scored these goals he would have been hailed, but here was a baby-faced striker sourced from a lower-level foreign division taking the league by storm. His previous obscurity surely served to enhance the thrill; fans cannot have expected such an impact.
Solskjær’s example drove others to try and replicate his success. Among a wave of arrivals was Chelsea’s Tore André Flo, a £300,000 arrival from SK Brann in Norway, in 1997. The rangy forward rarely looked the part, but playing ahead of the likes of Gianfranco Zola he was given the chance to make his name. Fifteen goals in his debut season and two in the Champions League against Barcelona two years later before a hefty £12 million fee to Rangers tells of a shrewd investment.
Eidur Gudjohnsen joined Bolton from Reykjavik in 1999 and completed two strong seasons for the Trotters before moving on to Chelsea and embarking on a tour of European clubs. Djimi Traoré signed for Liverpool from second tier French club Laval in 1999. He went on to play in the famous 2005 Champions League final victory over AC Milan and become a cult hero.
There are countless other examples of a varying obscurity and success, but not all relative unknowns blossom, turn into match-winners or progress to successful careers. By their very nature these signings are risks, but part of the lure of days before extensive scouting was the anomalies – those who somehow managed to slip through the net despite lacking the requisite skill. In an age of rigorous medicals, £10,000 training vests, not to mention simple internet checks, some of the most famous flops would have never have made it. Think how football nostalgia would suffer without the likes of Ali Dia, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Sean Dundee.
These characters have a very different qualities in nostalgic terms. Dia’s story of off-pitch lying and on-pitch hilarity is oft-told, but one thing is for certain: it would not be possible now. Similarly, it is hard to imagine how players of the ability of Djemba-Djemba or Dundee would make it today. How many other fan favourites were recruited from obscurity?
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THERE ARE MANY POSITIVE THINGS about the evolution of the top flight, but as time rolls on nostalgia will continue to envelope remembrances. Those players that came from nowhere, whether to achieve greatness or flop provide heady recollections. They offered an aspect of football stripped back to its minimum – no commentator’s notes, no statistics, and no scouting report; a blank canvas on which to project opinions, emotions and memories. When a star player received the ball he was expected to produce; with no precedent an unknown could give a different kind of thrill.
But as the Premier League evolved, television money ramped up and recruitment grew in importance, light was gradually shed on previously dark areas. There are few blind spots left in a highly competitive system. The industry and our knowledge will carry on expanding – that buzz of excitement from unpredictability is all but gone.
It is now a rare occasion that a player steps over the white line of a Premier League ground without an array of context behind him. We will know his back-story. We will know his attributes. We will know his game. There is little left to fill in. The age of information has killed the unknown.
By Felix Keith. Follow @felixkeith