Marian Pahars considers the seven years he spent in the Premier League with Southampton to be the best time of his life. Yet his introduction to English football in April 1999 had him doubting he would last more than seven games.
Pahars had signed for Saints from Skonto in Latvia in March after scoring a perfect hat-trick for the reserves while on trial, but his debut for the first team, as a late substitute away to Coventry City, seven games from the end of the 1998-99 season, was a rather more fraught experience.
“I came on 15 minutes before the end of the game and it was just pure stress,” Pahars says. “I was too nervous. I just didn’t feel comfortable. I received the ball two times during that 15 minutes and lost it both times. My debut was very ugly.
“I felt like, ‘How am I going to play here?’ It was just impossible. The ball was flying all over the place and I couldn’t find it. Everything was so difficult and so quick. The next game I didn’t even make the bench.
“But then I came on against Blackburn at home. We were losing 3-2 and I scored the equaliser. That goal changed my football life in England.”
Headed in from a James Beattie flick-on, it was the first of Pahars’ 45 goals in a Southampton shirt. It gave him belief that he had made the right decision in signing for the club, and he was quickly embraced by both team-mates and supporters. A meaningful connection blossomed and still exists to this day.
“It’s the same for a lot of footballers, especially coming from abroad,” he says. “You need time to adapt. It’s a different style of football, a different style of life. But that goal, which I scored in the last minute against Blackburn, changed everything. The players started to be more open with me. They would come and talk to me in the dressing room and say, ‘Well done.’ That helped a lot.
“The fans lifted me up and helped me. Fans in England are the most powerful thing in football, I would say. I saw examples where if they don’t like you, they’re going to destroy you. You’re not going to play. No chance. You have to leave the club because you’re not close enough to them.
“But then on the other side they can lift you up, even if it’s a difficult period for you. They can help you a lot and luckily for me I had a special relationship with the fans so I’m always going to be grateful to them for that.”
A few weeks later, on the final day of the season, Pahars scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Everton to save Southampton from relegation. He’d only been at the club for a couple of months, but the Latvian striker was already becoming a fan favourite and part of Saints’ folklore.
Pahars had been in prolific form for Skonto, the biggest and most successful club in his homeland Latvia, leading to trials with Werder Bremen and Casino Salzburg, now known as Red Bull. His move to England was fast-tracked by a Belarusian agent living in London.
“He found a video of me playing against Inter Milan for Skonto. He saw the match and decided that he could be my agent. He took my video to Gary Johnson, who was the Watford academy director. Then Gary Johnson offered me to Dave Jones at Southampton.
“I came for a trial. I managed to impress them and I signed almost immediately. I would say I was ready. I’d already played for the national team for two years.”
A hat-trick in the trial match was all Southampton needed to see. Pahars was snapped up for £800,000 and set about adjusting to the speed and intensity of English football. Although having his family move over with him made it easier to settle in, learning the language was another barrier to overcome.
“I had to take lessons. I didn’t speak any English. It was a difficult period because when you cannot communicate, especially in the dressing room, that was a bit annoying. I was alone for a month or two until I started to talk a little bit.”
But once that first goal went in, things started to fall into place. A small, livewire striker who sniffed out chances, Pahars’ style of play was compared to that of Michael Owen. A good understanding was struck up with the barrel-chested James Beattie, and they’ve stayed in contact ever since.
Pahars scored 13 goals in his first full Premier League season, including seven in 11 games as he got off to a flying start. Two of the best came in consecutive weeks, as Southampton drew 3-3 with both Manchester United and then Derby County.
Southampton's Marian Pahars nutmegs Manchester United's Jaap Stam, scoring in a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in 1999. pic.twitter.com/THcQloa9Dk
— The Antique Football (@AntiqueFootball) January 17, 2016
At Old Trafford he opened the scoring in a match famous for Massimo Taibi’s howler. Not many people made a fool of Jaap Stam during his prime, but Pahars did that day. Receiving the ball from Mark Hughes, he nutmegged the Dutch defender, wriggled past him and finished calmly for the opener.
As a penalty box specialist, Pahars’ goal against Derby was unique – the ball curled into the top corner from distance with his left foot.
“I remember all my goals very well. I think in terms of the most beautiful goal it was the one against Derby at home. I didn’t score outside the penalty area very often so to score from 25, 30 yards was a screamer. That was probably my favourite.”
After the departure of Dave Jones, Southampton went through several different managers while Pahars continued to prosper. The 2001-02 season was his best on an individual level. He scored 16 goals in all competitions to help secure another mid-table finish after Gordon Strachan arrived to steady the ship during a tough first year at St. Mary’s.
Unfortunately, this was as good as it got for Pahars as injuries robbed him of the chance to play on a regular basis. It started with a hernia operation, but then his ankle became a persistent issue. Frustration and a sense of helplessness set in.
“Of course that affected my life,” he says. “When suddenly you cannot do your job and you’re not enjoying football itself, then you get depressed. You start to feel uncomfortable.
“For me it was a long time so I had to adapt to living without any disappointment or fear anymore. But during that time, of course I was depressed. It was a difficult time. It took the most important thing in your life from you. It was like losing somebody.
“But there are no regrets for me. That was my destiny and I think I did enough, even during a short time, to be remembered and feel that I made a mark at Southampton. For me it’s one great big memory. I don’t think about these injuries or whatever.
“I was the first one ever from Latvia to play in the Premier League. I played in the best league in the world, against the most talented players. Of course I’m happy about this. It’s still the highlight of my life.”
There were fleeting contributions when he was fit, such as a memorable strike in a 3-0 win over Portsmouth, but Pahars missed the entirety of the 2004-05 season as Southampton were relegated to the Championship. He made another 10 appearances before being released by George Burley.
“My contract was finishing and they didn’t renew it. The new manager came and he decided that I had to leave. I wanted to stay. I wanted to play almost for free in order to stay because it was my dream to play a testimonial at Southampton and I needed another two and a half years.
“But he didn’t want to listen. That’s okay. It’s his decision at the end of the day and I was injured quite a lot. That’s life. That’s football.”
Saying goodbye to the supporters after the final game of the season remains a poignant memory.
“It was just one big emotion. Very difficult. I still remember that now. It was difficult to take. That’s why I didn’t want to stay anywhere else in England.
“I just wanted to get away from the UK because I couldn’t imagine myself playing for anyone else.”
Pahars rejected an offer from Coventry after leaving St Mary’s, choosing to sign for Anorthosis Famagusta in Cyprus before returning to Skonto. He finished his career in Latvia and soon became assistant manager at his former club as they won the league title.
He then took over as manager in 2011, at the start of a rapid decline brought on by financial difficulties. He was just 34.
“Maybe I wasn’t ready but you have to start sometime. Okay, that was early, but I got some experience. Now I would say I’m watching the game a bit differently, but overall I’m happy that I started and I’m happy that I made my mistakes in order to learn from them and become stronger.
“Coaching is a non-stop process. You have to learn every day. It’s not a cliché. You can’t copy anyone else. You have to make decisions yourself. You have to see the situation you’re in and decide what to do.
“It was difficult to have to start making decisions very quickly. You have to learn that immediately when you stop playing football. That was not easy in the beginning. You have to see the situation from a different angle.
“I always try to learn – watching football, listening to coaches, reading books. It’s a non-stop process. That’s why I have my own style, because I’ve got my own character and my own experiences.”
Having toiled through the last few years of his playing career because of pain, coaching has enabled him to enjoy football again. After two seasons at Skonto, during which he led the club to victory in the Latvian Football Cup, Pahars was appointed as manager of the national team. It was a huge challenge at such a young age and the demands were very different.
“It was quite a difficult job. It’s a lot of analysing, a lot of talking. A lot of office work rather than being on the pitch every day. It was quite different, but football is football at the end of the day. When the team come together and you’re preparing for important games it’s the same.
“Of course it’s your country. It’s an anthem. It’s a flag. It’s pride. All these things make it a memorable occasion. But on the other hand I would say it’s more difficult than managing a club when you know what to do all year.
“With the national team you are affected by players who are out of form and you cannot improve them a few days before the game. You motivate them and do some tactical work with them. That’s it basically. That’s all you can do.”
Pahars led Latvia for four years but was unable to add to the country’s sole appearance at a major tournament, when he was part of the squad that reached Euro 2004. A short stint at FK Jelgava came to an end in June and the ambitious 42-year-old is now looking to the future.
“You always want to get the best out of your job and out of life. I just want to move forward. I want to achieve new things and get to a good level where I can manage with lots of spectators watching. That’s probably more a dream than a target but I would love to have that in my life.
“I’m still a young manager. I need to learn. I need to work hard and I hope to achieve something one day. Of course I would love to come back to England. I’m not going to hide this. That would be a dream come true.
“I did it once as a player so why not again?”
By Sean Cole