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

Comments (3)
Comment by sebytfc 2010-03-18 17:39:42

I'm obviously going to be biased, but in the interests of balance whilst his time at Latvia may be 'patchy' his record since has proved the authors final statement 'Look out Cambridge' total nonsense.

He did indeed find a club 'at the bottom' and he did more than build it up, he revolutionised Yeovil Town Football Club. Taking us from the Conference up to League 1 in a few years, whilst at the same time playing beautiful football was an absolute joy to watch. The 'cheeky, upbeat Cockney' was as influential off the field he worked wonders with the press and was a real gent to the fans. When he did leave us it was to join a Bristol City side who were below us in League 1 and had been in the third tier for 7 seasons. A few years later and he's 90 minutes from Premier League football. The demanding Bristol City fans were never going to be happy with mid table medicority and so he's gone.

Johnson shouldn't be out of a job for long and he may have struggled in the International arena, but he's as good a manager as there is in the Football League.

Comment by shamottle 2010-03-18 19:34:42

"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."

You misread it Seb.

Comment by pattemp 2010-03-19 12:41:53

The "demanding Bristol City fans" did not appreciate losing 0-6 and 2-5 at home, nor did they understand the vast majority of GJ's signings, may of which moved on at a loss. He lost the ability to motivate the players, which he freely admits, so it was time to go.

Do not think that we don't appreciate what GJ did for us, we do, GJ's time at City had run its course (4.5 years is a great run) and both club and Manager move on having achieved promotion and relative stability.

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