How Marian Pahars became a cult hero at Southampton

How Marian Pahars became a cult hero at Southampton

The Baltic nation of Latvia is generally known for three things: being part of the Soviet Union, potato jokes and, more recently, NBA phenom Kristaps Porzingis. It is not a footballing nation by history, never at the forefront of the international game and rarely has any representation in the top European national championships. Next to no players of Latvian origin are known to football fans, but there was one. One that older Premier League fans still fondly remember, and Southampton fans will love until the end of time: Marian Pahars, the “Latvian Michael Owen”.

Born in the Ukrainian town of Chornobai, Pahars did not initially grow up playing football. But when he was eight-years-old, his school was visited by player-turned-manager Jurijs Andrejevs, who inspired the youngster to begin pursuing a career in the sport. Despite at one point considering hanging up his boots, a decade later, after signing his first professional contract at 18, Pahars made his debut with Pārdaugava Riga. He featured over 15 times in his debut season, notching three goals – an impressive feat for a young midfielder with no full academy upbringing. It was his solid form with the now-defunct Pārdaugava that provided the youngster with a path to national powerhouse Skonto Riga, with which he put pen-to-paper in 1995.

Despite playing for the reserves his first year with the capital club, his fantastic performances, technical ability and intelligence on the ball soon led to a call up to the senior Skonto side. While the move to Pārdaugava – which itself was partially engineered by Juris Andrejevs – kept Pahars from giving up football, the transfer to Skonto was the one that propelled his career exponentially. Within the ranks of the full squad, Pahars did not give up a single stride, and as he transitioned from a midfielder to striker, his attacking output soared.

In 1995 the 19-year-old scored eight goals in nine league matches, then a record for him and a return that would stand as the Latvian’s highest goals-per-game ratio, aiding his team in lifting the league and cup double for the third time running. He would never recreate this initial explosive burst of form, but nonetheless maintained an extremely high level of play throughout his years with Skonto.

The following season Pahars featured much more, playing 28 matches and netting 12 times throughout the season as the club coasted to another league title, with the youngster once again at the forefront. Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs’s – another person Pahars touted as a major influence on him – gamble on signing the diminutive midfielder was yielding immense dividends.

As Pahars continued to grow, his reputation inevitably reached the ears of the Latvian Football Federation. Taking note of his meteoric rise through the ranks at Skonto, in March 1996 then-manager Jānis Gilis gave the young star his national team debut, aged just 19. Though it ended in a dismal defeat to Cyprus, the match started an international career that spanned nine years, three-quarters of a century of caps, and 15 goals.

As Pahars established himself within his country’s international fold, he continued playing his heart out for Skonto back home. In his following two seasons, the forward built upon his first two campaigns, winning the domestic double in both 1997 and 1998, while also going undefeated for the second time in three years during the 1997 domestic season. Pahars’ phenomenal talent led him to blitz opposition back lines, turning defenders inside-out and leaving anchoring midfielders puffing far behind him as he unlocked defences with ease.

Unlike many players that are successful in smaller leagues, Pahars also knew how to translate his stellar domestic form into solid performances against stronger European sides. He scored a brilliant solo goal in a 3-2 defeat to Dinamo Moscow in the 1998-99 Europa League qualifying round, and made solid performances throughout his short and unsuccessful continental qualifying career with his team.

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As is often the case, when a player from a small team in a small league emerges as something special, he cannot be held under wraps for long. After four years of magnificence with Skonto, the secret was let out and foreign suitors began sniffing around, investigating the unknown quantity that was striking fear into the hearts of every defender across his home nation.

Serie A newcomers Salernitana, European Cup Winners’ Cup victors Werder Bremen and recent Austrian championship winners Casino Salzburg all jumped into the fold to sign Pahars, and in 1998 it was looking all but set that he would move to one of these three teams. However, soon a new, fourth club, joined the Pahars transfer circus. Latvia manager Gary Johnson, who was familiar with his star striker, took notice of his expected move abroad and recommended his talents to Southampton manager Dave Jones, who was in need of a forward to salvage the club’s season.

Initially Jones was sceptical of Johnson’s recommendation, and was not quick to ask his president to open the cheque book for the Latvian’s transfer. An agreement was struck; if Pahars performed acceptably in a reserve match against Oxford United, Southampton would take a chance on him. And on February 10, 1999, Pahars delivered a master-class performance. Scoring a perfect hat-trick, using both feet and his head, the 22-year-old shone in his trial game. Two days and £800,000 later, Pahars was a Saint.

Though he arrived to the club with an air of mystery and wonder around him, the atmosphere on the south coast was very different. Things were looking bleak at The Dell; a run of horrid results left the club sitting in the relegation zone, two spots off safety by the time Pahars made his full debut in red and white. It seemed nigh inevitable that the club was going to slump down to the First Division, the second and far less glamorous tier of English football. When the Latvian made his debut in a defeat to Coventry in April 1999, the club was two points off salvation. While this was not a large difference to make up, the club’s dismal away form meant that every point dropped was worth exponentially more.

Though the match against Coventry was his first official match with the Saints, the game against Blackburn at The Dell two weeks later shaped up to be his Southampton home debut. Not yet given the start, Pahars was released onto the field by a desperate Dave Jones with just 12 minutes left and a goal to make up. Seven minutes later, he equalised with a massive header courtesy of brilliant play by Jason Dodd and James Beattie, salvaging a crucial point and introducing the world to Southampton’s newest star. The entire stadium erupted as the diminutive striker rose up over a defending Blackburn player, heading the ball past John Filan, capturing the hearts of the Southampton faithful and rewarding Jones’ gamble.

This result, along with Pahar’s magnificence, galvanised the club, and the team went on an unprecedented undefeated streak. Drawing the next match against Derby and earning back-to-back victories over Leicester and Wimbledon, it all came down to the last day of the season. Though the Saints found themselves two points above the drop zone courtesy of their unlikely end-of-season form, the club needed a victory over Everton to be guaranteed a spot in the following season’s Premiership. Jones, as he had done for the previous three matches, started Pahars up front, partnered with James Beattie and Mark Hughes.

It took 24 minutes for the deadlock to break. Everton tried to push for an attack from deep, but a pass was smartly intercepted by a Southampton defender, who sent the ball up to an advancing Saints midfielder, and several passes later the ball fell to a completely open Marians Pahars. Racing towards Thomas Myhre, the forward unleashed a devastating strike, beating the Everton goalkeeper and sending the Saints up 1-0. The Dell erupted with more vigorous applause than after Pahar’s debut goal, as the Latvian put his club within a hair’s breadth of securing safety.

Forty-four minutes later, Pahars permanently wrote his name into Southampton history. After winning the ball from an Everton player in the 68th minute, Chris Marsden advanced up the pitch and played a pass to an onrushing James Beattie. Beattie ran down the right flank, beating his man before sending a hopeful cross into the Toffees’ box. Spotting the low ball into the penalty area, Pahars threw himself at it, connecting with Beattie’s ball and sending a flying header into the near corner. Southampton were 2-0 up, and Pahars, sealing the result with his pair of strikes, was a hero. The Dell exploded again, with every Southampton fan in the stadium chanting the Latvian’s name. The Great Escape had been completed, the Saints stayed up, and a team once sceptical of their Baltic investment now loved their little Latvian with a passion like no other.

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Though Pahars would never replicate the importance of his two goals against Everton, he built upon his strong debut season during his subsequent 1999-2000 Premiership campaign. The season did not hold particularly good results for Southampton as the club finished in 15th place, an improvement upon the previous year but certainly not a season remembered for stellar results.

Though it was not a highly significant season for Southampton as a whole – the circus surrounding Dave Jones’s child abuse allegations and hiring of Glenn Hoddle as his replacement aside –it was a very productive campaign for the ever-improving Pahars. The 23-year-old notched 13 strikes that season to finish as his team’s top scorer and just outside the Premier League top 10.

Moved out wide by Hoddle during the course of the Englishman’s tenure, his focus shifted in the second half of the season to drawing defenders away from Southampton’s striker, providing the lone striker with more freedom with which to work. This put a stop on the ex-Skonto man’s meteoric rise, and his strike rate diminished significantly after Hoddle’s arrival.

His pace and technical skills sublime, Pahars was at the top of his game. He was named Latvian Player of the Year for the second time during the season, while also continuing to feature for the Latvian national side. His form continued into the 2000-01 season as he scored a massive six goals in his opening seven matches.

As the season went on, though, the forward found himself playing deeper and deeper in the Southampton team, effectively transitioning into a playmaker role from his more familiar front-line position. As Pahars began to play closer to the centre circle, his goals dried up. He provided his teammates with scoring opportunities and made himself a nuisance in the midfield with his stellar footwork, but from the end of September to the conclusion of the season he scored just three more goals, finishing with a tally of nine strikes from 31 outings. The highlight of Pahar’s campaign came at the beginning of the season as he orchestrated an emphatic comeback against Liverpool after going down three goals, netting twice as the Saints drew the match 3-3.

Arguably the most important occurrence of the season for Pahars was the departure of Glenn Hoddle. The manager appeared to almost fear Pahar’s talents, and largely moved him away from the Latvian’s preferred striker position, which noticeably reduced his production in front of goal. However, in March 2001, Hoddle suddenly parted ways with the Saints, replaced in short order by Stuart Gray just days later.

The Saints would end that season 10th in the Premiership, a significant achievement considering previous consecutive placements of 17th and 15th. The change in leadership did wonders for Pahars and, in the following campaign, he notched his highest ever goal tally. Moved back into his preferred centre-forward position by Stuart Gray, and staying there after Gray’s sacking and subsequent appointment of legendary Scottish midfielder Gordon Strachan, the Latvian came to life once more.

Strachan empowered Pahars, as well as the rest of the Southampton team, that in October 2001 looked dangerously close to relegation once again. Under the leadership of the former Leeds United and Manchester United midfielder, the Saints climbed out of their rut and finished the campaign in a respectable 11th place. While Hoddle appeared unsure of Pahar’s talents up top, and Gray unable to get the best of him, it was Strachan that oversaw the Latvian’s stellar season as he finished the Saints’ top scorer for the second time in three seasons, notching 14 league strikes and 16 in all competitions, forming a fearsome strike partnership with James Beattie that finished second overall for most goals between two league players.

Pahars by then was a fan favourite, a cult hero with the Southampton faithful. Everything appeared to be set for the 26-year-old to stay at the Saints’ new St. Mary’s stadium for many years to come. He was loved by the fans, put in phenomenal performances, and worked well with his coach’s philosophies. It seemed in that moment, in the spring of 2002, that nothing could possibly go wrong for him.

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But go wrong it did. In the summer following Pahars’ best season, he was forced to undergo an operation for a hernia. This kept him out for the majority of the pre-season preparations, kick-starting the first of many injury problems he would face in his final seasons with Southampton. Despite returning for the beginning of the season and taking part in multiple matches, he was never the same after that first operation. In November 2002 he re-injured his ankle, ending Pahars’ season as rehabilitation and a second operation in early 2003 kept him out until the end of the campaign.

Pahars played just nine matches that season, his lowest total for a full Saints campaign. Though the team did not particularly miss their Baltic talisman’s goal contributions – Southampton finished 8th during the 2002-03 campaign – there was something undeniably missing from the club as the Latvian sat sidelined. His smile, his friendly face, the air of youthful, almost whimsical fun just playing the game was gone when the Latvian was not gracing the pitch.

The following season was not much better for the injury-hampered star as he missed the majority of the first half of the 2003-04 season and intermittent portions throughout the rest of it due to recurring issues with his ankle. Though he played 14 matches, more than he managed in his previous season, he looked noticeably less mobile and dynamic. The highlight of his injury-ravaged campaign came in the December south coast derby, in which he scored a powerful curling strike in a 3-0 demolition of Portsmouth. Though his absence was not major during the 2002-03 season, it was felt significantly more during the next campaign. Southampton closed the season 12th, their lowest finish in four years.

With a big return finally on the horizon after the conclusion of the campaign, Pahars tragically suffered another huge setback. Playing in pre-season during the summer of 2004, his thrice-operated-on ankle suffered a crunching tackle from a Coventry City player, sidelining Pahars for the entire 2004-05 campaign. Pahars simply could not catch a break. Every time he was poised to make a comeback for Southampton, another injury flare-up beat him down.

His unavailability ultimately proved dire for Southampton who, at the end of the 2004-05 season, found themselves in the bottom three, relegated after over 25 years in the top flight. Without Pahars up front the attacking line often proved toothless, and the little Latvian could only watch as his team heartbreakingly descended into the second tier of English football.

The next season proved to be Pahar’s last in the red and white of Southampton. Again facing constant injury issues, he played just eight times as the Saints unsuccessfully attempted to break back into the Premier League. With recovery nowhere in sight, the management of the club decided that they could not afford to keep a striker on the books who was unable to play, no matter how much the fans loved him.

Told that his contract would not be renewed, Pahars closed out his final season in England with a tearful lap of honour around St. Mary’s, to a standing ovation by the entire stadium. Though he was a frustrating star at times, nobody had forgotten his instrumental part in the Great Escape of 1999, or his duo of prolific seasons when he was fit. His last four seasons were filled with disappointment, but his first four made him an icon to Southampton fans all over the world.

His time as a player was effectively over after parting ways with his beloved English home, and Pahars floated around during the closing years of his injury-plagued career. He spent some months in Cyprus with Anorthosis Famagusta and later returned to his homeland, featuring again for his boyhood team Skonto Riga before closing out his playing days with coastal Latvian club FC Jūrmala.

In a career spanning 16 years, Pahars became the first Latvian to grace the Premier League and his nation’s greatest ever footballer, as well as one of Eastern Europe’s most naturally gifted forwards. Though injuries ended what could have been a longer and more productive career, he remains a hero to all that were blessed with seeming him feature for their club.

Pahars may have retired from the pitch, but he has not distanced himself from football. After hanging up his boots he became assistant to his former national team boss Aleksandrs Starkovs. Joining him at Skonto, he won yet another Virsliga in 2010, this time as a member of the staff. The following year Starkovs departed for Azerbaijan, and Pahars, still only a year into his coaching career, was given the reigns at the many-titled team.

At Skonto’s helm the 35-year-old won the Latvian Cup in 2012, while also finishing 2nd to FC Daugava that same season. After two years in the Virsliga, Pahars left the team once again, taking the Latvia under-21 post. A year later, he would once more replace Starkovs, taking the reigns of the senior national side just three years after retiring from professional football.

Under Pahars the team has looked strong, with the latest youth contingent holding a lot of promise, and whispers of World Cup 2018 qualification making themselves known. While Pahars’ international managerial record has not been amazing, given the players he has to work with and his experience in coaching before taking the post, he has done very well indeed.

Marians Pahars is undeniably a Baltic legend, and an example of near-perfect talent tragically struck down by injury. Who knows what could have been if he stayed fit throughout his stay on the south coast. Perhaps Southampton would have stayed up in 2005, and perhaps he would have been scoring for fun well into his 30s. Nobody knows for certain, but one thing is known: there will likely never be another like him from Latvia.

By Daniel Gutman @DGutman_

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