English coach out after San Marino disaster

  • 2001-05-10
  • John Whitmore
RIGA - At a meeting of the Latvian Football Federation on May 3, it was agreed that the resignation of chief coach for the Latvian national team, British national Gary Johnson, should be accepted. This came shortly after a World Cup qualifying match against San Marino that ended in a draw, on what some reporters have dubbed Latvian football's darkest day. He is to be replaced by local coach Aleksandrs Starkovs.

It's a long way from Watford to Latvia, but Gary Johnson had time to get acclimatized. Initially invited to assess the strength of Latvian players by the president of the Latvian Football Federation, he joined Riga Skonto, the country's most professional team, for tours in Italy and Russia and helped in getting star player Marians Pahars signed to England's Premiership club Southampton.

He then got a call offering him the post of coach for the Latvian national team. It was a big decision. He had a good job as an assistant coach at Graham Taylor's Watford, helping to take them from the English second division to the Premiership.

The game against San Marino was a night when all the squeaking wheels on the wagon came off in spectacular fashion. The final result: 1-1. This was only the second point won by San Marino in its international football history and first away from home.

A paltry point from a team of part-time footballers, chants of "Johnson, go home!" from the stands, accusations that Latvia's England-based players lacked fight, motivation and understanding were enough to persuade most Latvians that Johnson should go immediately.

"But look at what we've achieved in the last 18 months," he protested to The Baltic Times. "Seven players from Latvia are now playing in the English leagues, which are some of the best in the world. That has generated a lot of money, which has gone into building a new stadium, a great youth structure, new sponsors and, for the World Cup qualifying games against Scotland and Belgium, full houses.

"The game against San Marino was a nightmare. We had two good goals disallowed. For the life of me I don't know why. We had 90 percent possession, nine great chances, and we could only take one. They had two chances the whole game and scored from one."

San Marino seemed to have 10 defenders during the game, and it was hard for the Latvians to continuously show tempo and aggression. The Latvian side had to try to break them down with quality playing, and they almost succeeded.

"It was one of those days when a little team gets half a result," said Johnson.

After the game many people were critical of the England-based players' contribution, comparing the size of their salaries to their contribution on the field.

"In the long term these players' experience will be a great help to Latvia," Johnson asserted. "Not only for the new money they've brought into football here, but for the experience they get."

However, he questioned some of the players' mental toughness in adapting to the far more competitive English league. "All these lads played for Skonto. They would have one hard game all season. The rest they could play with one arm behind their back. In England they had to adjust to playing their best game under pressure as there are no easy games in the English leagues. Some have struggled and only a few are playing regular first team football."

As a result he thinks their form has dipped and this is the irony. The very move that brought so much capital, renewed interest in the game and pride to Latvians may, in the short term, have cost him his job.

"The San Marino game is the only one where we didn't get a result when we should have done. Croatia, who beat us 4-1, came third in the last World Cup. We can't compete with that. We had 47 percent of possession and 12 chances. When has Latvia ever done that against a team like Croatia before? People aren't being realistic at the moment. I thought we were getting there."

According to Gary Johnson, a lot of the press and the fans are "new football people," who don't understand what Johnson was trying to achieve.

"A bad image has been created by some of the press against me and against the players based in England, and that's the only image many of the fans get."

When Johnson tried out the local players the results were disastrous.

"There was a tournament in Cyprus that the lads playing in England couldn't attend as it was mid-season for them. So I took local lads and the under 21s and we lost five out of five matches.

"We've got an international squad of about 25, with only 6 or 7 of real international quality. If those players are having a bad time there is no one to replace them."

Johnson reassured that the language barrier was not the problem.

"I just spoke in basic English, which nearly all of them understood. If they didn't I had a translator. He was great. If I got angry, he'd get angry a second later. He was perfect."