The Premier League is home to many different nationalities – from the Grenadian Jason Roberts, to Benin international Stephane Sessegnon. However, there is one nation that has been missing a representative in England for quite some time now – Latvia. Their favoured son, Marian Pahars, lit up the league for Southampton during his time here and would have made a greater impact if it had not been for injury.
Pahars began his career with Pardaugava in 1994, before moving to Skonto Riga – the biggest club in Latvia. After impressing in the reserve side, he battled his way into the first team where he started off as a winger. His goalscoring soon saw him converted into a striker; a role English fans remember him for.
His form for Skonto did not go unrecognised on the national stage and he was rewarded with a call-up to the Latvian national side. He excelled in the role and became a regular member of the squad. At club level, he was picking up regular silverware. Skonto won four consecutive league titles and two national cups during the time he was there. The club even broke into the UEFA Cup, but were unable to progress past the first round of the competition.
Pahars becomes a Saint
An impressive strike-rate of just under a goal every two games saw him attract interest from all over Europe. Despite being linked with moves to Germany and Italy, Latvian national boss Gary Johnson recommended the striker to Southampton boss Dave Jones. A successful trial saw Jones snap up Pahars midway through the 1998/99 season.
With Saints struggling in the league, it came down to the last game of the season and the club needed a win on the final day against Everton to guarantee their place in the Premier League. A 2-0 victory at the Dell, in which Pahars scored twice, saw the club avoid relegation and ensured Pahars became a fan’s favourite immediately!
The following season Jones was replaced by Glenn Hoddle, who decided to play Pahars on the wing. Despite the change of position, he still finished as top scorer at the club – thus leading to him being nicknamed the ‘Latvian Michael Owen’ by the British media. The 2000/01 season proved difficult for Pahars, who struggled for form in his wide position. However, he did help the club to a comfortable mid-table finish.
Injury problems begin
The 2001/02 season saw him return to form and build a successful partnership with James Beattie, and the pair finished the campaign as the second-best striking duo in the top flight. A hernia operation in the summer saw the beginning of a series of injury problems for the little Latvian. After finally getting himself fit and re-establishing himself once more in the first team, he suffered a serious ankle injury in November and missed the rest of the season.
After a long spell of rehabilitation and reserve team outings, he finally made his return to the first team a year later, but struggled to nail down a spot in the first team. However, he did do enough to gain a place in the Latvian Euro 2004 squad – although the side crashed out in the group stages.
More heartbreak was to follow when he aggravated his previous ankle injury during the 2004/05 pre-season – ruling him out for the entire term. The campaign also proved to be a miserable one for Saints, who were relegated after 28 consecutive years of top fight football. He made a brief return to the side in the Championship the next season, but did not to enough to earn a new contract.
End of an era at Southampton
Pahars was released in May 2006 after scoring 45 goals in 156 games for the club. Saints fans always appreciated the talent of Pahars and this showed when he was given a standing ovation as he made his way around the pitch for a lap of honour following the final game of the season. the hard-working striker had always given his best for the club, despite such rotten luck with injury.
He wasted little time in finding a new club and signed for Cypriot side Anthornis Famagusta – managed by former Newcastle midfielder Temuri Ketsbaia. However, injury hit once more and he was unable to establish himself in the first team. These injury problems proved costly and he as released in January 2008 – after just a handful of appearances for the club.
Now 32, Pahars decided to return to his homeland and re-joined Skonto – where he had had such success earlier in his career. After just a year with Skonto, he moved to fellow Latvian side FK Jurmala where he ended his playing career.
After a brief break from the game, he was given the chance to return to football in 2010 when he was invited to become the assistant manager at Skonto. He assisted Aleksandrs Starkovs, who had handed him his debut as a youngster at Skonto. Their first season as a managerial duo saw Skonto win the league for the first time since 2004.
Despite the success, Starkovs left to manage in Azerbaijan in early 2011 and the manager’s role was handed to Pahars. As the Latvian league runs from April until November, Pahars is curently in the middle of his first season as a full-time manager. Skonto currently lie fourth in the league after a disappointing run of results, but they have a UEFA Cup qualifier (a reward left over from last season) to look forward to.
It is always a shame when such a promising player has his career restricted and cut short by injury. Football can be a cruel game at times and many players have felt the full force of the obstacles it can throw at you. I’m sure everyone will wish Pahars the best of luck in management and hope he succeeds there where he inevitably would have done at playing level, if it had not been for injury. The little Latvian is now the big man at Skonto!