Gary Johnson was sacked as Latvia coach after a draw with San Marino. Daunis Auers explains what he was doing there in the first place
Gerijs Dzonsons (or Gary Johnson as the English spelling would have it) bounced into Latvian football at the tail end of yet another doomed campaign for the national side, a respectable but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to qualify for Euro 2000. Johnson offered a colourful contrast to the grey, dour Soviet negativity of Revaz Dzodzashvilli, his Georgian predecessor, with his bubbly, upbeat, chirpy cockney (I could go on, but I think you know what I’m driving at) demeanour that had never been seen in Latvian football, or, come to that, anywhere in Latvia.
However, Johnson left Latvia a forlorn, tragi-comic figure after the disgrace of drawing with San Marino on April 25 (on a comparative scale, we are talking Real Madrid drawing with an injury decimated Corby Town) and losing even a mathematical possibility of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. So what went wrong?
During the 50 years of Soviet domination, Latvian football was absorbed into the hinterlands of Soviet lower league football while ice hockey and basketball stole the limelight. After independence in 1991 it seemed likely that football would go the way of these other, more popular, sports and see a rapid exodus of sporting stars to the west while financial crisis crippled the domestic league
However, this did not happen, for two reasons. First, there were no Latvian football stars. Second, a knight in suspiciously shiny armour emerged from the shady post-Soviet economy. This was Guntis Indriksons, ex-KGB agent turned managing director of the Skonto group of companies. He founded and bankrolled the obviously named Skonto FC (winners of the Latvian league for the past nine years – in fact, since its creation), based in the capital Riga and now proud owners of a brand new 10,000-seat capacity stadium smack in the centre of the city.
The club developed an extensive scouting and youth coaching system that is now beginning to pay dividends. Indriksons formalised his domination of Latvian football when he took over as president of the Latvian FA in 1998. In many ways, club is country, as the overwhelming majority of the national team are either current or former Skonto players, the coaching staff are virtually identical and the national side now plays at Skonto’s new stadium. Compared with other ex-communist countries, football in Latvia is as organised as the Arsenal back four in the George Graham era. It seems strange then that a jouneyman English player and coach should have got in on the act.
By the late 1990s the Indriksons empire began running into financial difficulties. This made it increasingly difficult for money to be siphoned off to the football club, his great passion. However, a possible solution proposed itself in 1999 with the sale of star Skonto striker Marians Pahars to Southampton. Pahars’ goals kept the club in the Premiership that year and scouts seeking cheap talented players began to look to the amber-laden shores of Latvia. But this trade still required some kind of contact man on the English end to prevent Skonto from being ripped off. Step forward the Bob Hoskins lookalike Gary Johnson, formerly a hard working but limited player and manager at Cambridge, and by now Watford’s youth coach.
Dzodzashvilli had left for sunnier and wealthier climes in Saudi Arabian club football. Johnson met Indriksons (they had first been in contact on Skonto’s pre-season tour of England the previous year) and apparently talked his way into the job with an incessantly perky view of the potential of Latvian football.
Johnson initially charmed the press with his openness, his willingness to drone on about football for hours on end and his confidence in Latvia’s ability to qualify for a tournament. Moreover, the press were slightly in awe of this man from the “home of football” (clearly none of them had ever seen Cambridge or Watford play) and his large selection of shellsuits. He wooed the fans by buying them a set of drums (come on, we’re poor) and asking for more vocal support, as well as promising, and initially delivering, a more attacking style of play. Alas, in eight qualifying games, Johnson managed just one win – 1-0 in San Marino.
However, there was more success on the business side. Johnson performed a facilitating role in the sale of Vitalijs Astafjevs to Bristol Rovers, Imants Bleidelis to Southampton, Andrejs Rubins and Andrejs Kolinko to Crystal Palace and Igors Stepanovs to Arsenal (where he has disappeared since “starring” in the 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford). The money has helped pay for further development of the stadium, although rumours have swept Riga that the transfer fees have also been used to help service the large debts of the Skonto empire.
Johnson’s English network appears the only valid explanation for the FA president’s reluctance to sack him, even after the San Marino game. By this point both press and the fans had turned on Johnson. At the end of the game, the stadium echoed to the chant of “Dzonsons go home”, to a rhythm set by the drums he himself had bought. Johnson managed to make things worse by physically attacking a football reporter after the game and then blaming press negativity for the result. The next day, headlines talked of The Blackest Day in Latvian Football and resignation was finally wrestled out of him.
Since that eventful evening, abuse from Latvian coaches as well as the press has been heaped on Johnson’s head. The Skonto manager has taken over the national team, continuing the cosy relationship between club and country. Indriksons now says he wants to buy a club in England when he has paid off his debts (which he estimates at nearly £5 million from football alone). “I will begin at the bottom, and build a club up,” he claims. Look out Cambridge.
From WSC 173 July 2001. What was happening this month