Riga revolution ended in ridicule
As Gary Johnson departed the Wembley pitch in May 2008 after watching his Bristol City side agonisingly miss out on reaching the Premier League, he would have been forgiven for remembering how far he had come from a night in Riga seven years previous when an eventful spell as manager of the Latvia national team came to an embarrassing end.
If taking the Robins to the brink of top-flight football represented the pinnacle of his managerial career, the 1-1 draw with international whipping-boys San Marino was certainly a nadir - leaving an apathetic taste in the mouth of a coach who appears to ooze enthusiasm from every pore.
In a tumultuous two years at Latvia's helm, Johnson found himself tasked with the rather lofty goals of bringing football in the former Soviet state out of the imposing shadow cast by the Iron Curtain, and enhancing the nation's football reputation on the global stage. Whether he achieved either is a question that provokes vociferous debate in Latvia.
One glance at Johnson's Wikipedia page supplies the claim that his reign is "widely recognised [in Latvia] as the least successful in the country's history" and the FIFA rankings show that the national team fell from 63rd at the beginning of his tenure to 96th at the end. But, talking to ESPNsoccernet, the current Peterborough United manager staunchly defends his record, stressing that the arrival of Latvian players in the English Football League and the Baltic nation's qualification for Euro 2004 prove that he was far from a failure. Johnson's story begins back in 1999, when he was academy director under Graham Taylor at Watford.
"I was invited [by a middleman] to go out to Moscow to assess the Latvian squad to see if there were any of them who were good enough to play in Europe. This guy's brief was to come to England to find someone who was a decent judge and for some reason I was chosen. Graham didn't seem too keen but I told him that he would get first pick of any promising players I spotted. I watched Latvia play in Moscow, but while I saw a few players with potential, I thought there was only one who was ready for the Premier League: Marian Pahars.
"Graham told me he didn't need a striker so I recommended him to a friend of mine - Dave Jones at Southampton. He was brought over and in his first trial game scored one with his left foot, one with his right foot and one with his head before coming off - he looked like Roy of the Rovers. Dave said he wanted to take him so I put him in touch with the powers that be in Latvia and they did a deal - he turned out to be a very good signing for them. That year, he pretty much single-handedly kept them in the Premier League.
"Southampton ended up paying £1 million for him, which was big money in Latvia and the credit came my way. I was suddenly the king of Latvia because they would never have dreamt of that sort of money and next thing I know Graham Taylor's got a letter from Guntis Indriksons, who was the president of the football federation and also owner of the country's best team, saying they've put in an approach for me to be their national coach.
"They showed me around Riga and Latvia and I thought it was a great opportunity as a manager to start my career off with a national team. It was so exciting because they had some decent players and I thought it was an opportunity that I couldn't turn down. I moved out there but my son was playing for Watford at the time so my wife didn't join me, though it was actually quicker flying from London to Latvia than it was driving from Cambridge down the M11 and M25 to Watford! They looked after me, the ones who really wanted it to work - the president and secretary of the football association. They were fantastic. I had a full-time driver and a posse of people making sure I was comfortable."
From managing in England's lower leagues with Cambridge United and Kettering, Johnson now found himself responsible for the fooballing fortunes of an entire nation. But while he was welcomed by the country's football officials with open arms, there was more than a hint of scepticism among supporters at the arrival of an inexperienced Englishman, whose intention was to revolutionise the sport in Latvia.
"They wanted me absolutely totally involved at every level, but for every one coach out there who wanted to learn from an Englishman, two wanted to learn from a Russian. It was very difficult and I think with all due respect someone with my sort of personality was needed to go in and just change the country's whole football system. All the teams were playing with an outdated sweeper system and I said their clubs were never going to get into Europe and the national side would never qualify for major championship until they learnt how to play a proper 4-4-2.
"There were eight teams in their Premier League and they all had to learn how to play with a back four and they all had to buy into it. I went around and talked to them about it and took a few sessions with the managers of the top clubs out there. I went round and gradually turned them all round and they're still playing 4-4-2 to this day."
Though Latvian football had not moved on from the outdated sweeper system, it was far from backward. After emerging as an autonomous nation in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new Latvian Premier League (the Virslga) was formed, thanks in the main to ex-KGB agent turned businessman Guntis Indriksons - the man who eventually appointed Johnson and who is still president of the Latvian FA. Indriksons was one of many tycoons to profit from the collapse of the Soviet Union and his newly-created club Skonto FC - named after the Skonto Group that formed the backbone of his business empire - reaped the rewards of his investment, winning the title for a remarkable 14 straight years following the Virsliga's inception.
Inevitably influenced by Soviet football but certainly not shackled by it, Latvia began participating in international football once more. But the returning football nation successfully managed to avoid becoming known as whipping boys, with home draws with Spain and then-reigning European champions Denmark in 1994 World Cup qualifying, victories over Northern Ireland and Austria in Euro 96 qualifying, and home and away wins against neighbours and bitter rivals Estonia all providing some particularly noteworthy results.
At a time when Latvia's football finances were hardly overflowing, Indriksons' desire to raise more funds appeared to play a significant role in his appointment of Johnson. Certainly, the Englishman admits that his "other brief" as national team boss was to act as an agent of sorts and, as well as Marian Pahars, he successfully engineered the transfers of Igor Stepanovs (Arsenal), Andrejs Stolcers (Fulham), Aleksandrs Kolinko and Andrejs Rubins (Crystal Palace), national team captain Vitalijs Astafjevs (Bristol Rovers) and Imants Bleidelis (Southampton).
"We suddenly had seven players in the English leagues and the Latvia national team was then improving. It also meant I could spend half of my time in England because I was keeping my eye on them. We were never going to win a major championship but those with the Russian football mentality would be disappointed and speak out if we lost because they seemed to think I should come in and win the World Cup. What we did was exactly our brief: we improved Latvia as a team and put them on the football map. £7 million of transfers later and Indriksons was very happy - they managed to use it to set up some great facilities over there and implemented football programmes for kids all over Latvia. It all went back into the game and it was a fantastic time for them."
On the pitch, Johnson had Euro 2000 qualifying to take care of and began with some solid results - drawing away to Georgia and Albania and narrowly losing at home to Norway. Reaching the finals was always beyond Latvia and so Johnson's main focus was the qualification campaign for the 2002 World Cup. But what he describes as a "nightmare" group containing Scotland, Belgium, Croatia and San Marino indeed played out as a disaster. A 1-0 win away to San Marino was to be the only victory and the return encounter with the minnows would prove to be his final game in charge.
"It didn't go to plan against San Marino. I'd love anyone to watch the tape as we were fantastic on the day. We scored and hit the bar six times but ended up drawing 1-1. Those who didn't want me there in the first place were quick to forget all the good things that went on. Previously, if Latvia got a 0-0 draw, they would have a national holiday, but we got them changing their mentality and it brought out the best in their offensive play because before they would only play on the halfway line.
"I was coming to the end of my contract anyway and I promised my wife I would only be out there for the two-and-a-half years of my deal so I left. But it was great because my number two, Aleksandrs Starkovs, then took over and he then got that team to Euro 2004 in Portugal and I went out there as a consultant."
Starkovs, currently in his second spell in charge of Latvia, masterminded the remarkable European Championship qualification and was one victory away from making the World Cup 2010 qualification play-offs. Certainly, most Latvian football fans would point to him, rather than Johnson, as the nation's football saviour. But the jovial Peterborough United boss still speaks with pride of his experience in Latvia, despite the media backlash against him both during and after his time in the national team hotseat. His relationship with Latvia's football chiefs, including Indriksons, is still healthy and he holds the title of honorary president with the Latvian Football Federation for his work in building the profile of Latvian players abroad.
"The most magnificent part of the experience was to go to Japan for the World Cup draw as a national team manager, it was amazing. But while I would recommend the challenge of becoming an international boss, it is important to pick the right job when you come back otherwise you get lost to the game. For me, though, I went out there to prove to myself I could cut it as a manager and I did just that."