Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a little Latvian who megged the best for fun.
On September 25th 1999 Southampton travelled north to Old Trafford to surely become the latest victims of an all-conquering, swaggering Manchester United side who four months earlier had won the treble.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team – and you know the one I’m talking about; the one that was bolstered by Jaap Stam and driven by a midfield of Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham who bossed and bullied the great and the good behind a strike-force of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer who took turns to sit on the bench and come on to score in the rare event the other two brilliant forwards had failed to that day – had started the campaign in typically fearsome fashion.
Two weeks earlier they had left Anfield only a bit out of breath with all three points. The aggregate score-line from their previous three homes games was 11-1. Late summer was merging with autumn and to this point nobody had been able to take a swing back at them.
Here though, to the deep surprise of everyone, the Saints held the Mancunian Harlem Globetrotters to a high-scoring and highly memorable draw and if you’re struggling to immediately place it the occasion can be short-handed so iconic was the afternoon. It was the Taibi game: the one where the hapless Italian in jogging pants proved himself to be a complete non-starter as Peter Schmeichel’s successor following the giant’s departure that summer.
Halfway through the second period, and with United ahead, Matt le Tissier daisy-cut a powderpuff effort from 25 yards out and the Blind Venetian – as the tabloids swiftly and mercilessly dubbed him – attempted to smother it only to see the ball squirm beneath his legs.
This frankly was hilarious and frankly too it had been a bloody long time since rival supporters had cause to laugh at an indomitable club that was hoovering up silverware as if the precious metal was going out of business. So of course a costly gaffe by a new signing was going to hog the attention that day and forever more even if that gaffe took place in a 3-3 draw for the ages that had a bit of everything.
Yet there was something even more memorable that occurred at Old Trafford on September 25th 1999. The arrival, the announcement, enacted effortlessly like it was a brisk walk in the park, of a little Latvian genius.
Marians Pahars was already known to Premier League audiences. Pitched into one of Southampton’s seemingly annual relegation dogfights at the tail-end of the previous season the 23-year-old had scored a late equaliser against Blackburn then took on and defeated Everton almost single-handedly soon after. So his name was familiar; his dipping of a shoulder and zig-zag dribbling executed at frightening pace was familiar.
Other than that though he was a mystery; a recent, unheralded purchase from Skonto that February as bigger clubs who had long taken an interest backed away and the Latvian national coach Gary Johnson notified his mate Dave Jones that here was a wonderful talent worth gambling on.
He began his first full term in England impressively and finished it as his side’s top goal-scorer. Diminutive, quick and tricky he was not an outright forward, winger or an attacking midfielder but rather a combination of all three. He was a force. Seven years later he left St Mary’s as a legend with 43 goals to his name most of which left at least two defenders on the deck.
But at Old Trafford on that sunny, still day Marians Pahars was just a foreign signing with it all to prove. A bit like Taibi in fact, only with more credit in the bank.
Southampton started the game brightly, adventurously; their approach knocking the home side out of their usual cock-sure stride. Chances came and went for both teams and from very early on it had the hallmarks of a classic.
With the game still in its relative infancy David Hughes turned and scampered into an acre of space. He fired the ball forward to the feet of Pahars who had his back to goal and with Stam touch-tight a redirected pass out wide appeared to be the most sensible option. Only Stam then made a fatal mistake. He dropped off, just a fraction, and set himself square on.
Take me on. Go on, I dare you.
So Pahars duly did. How could he resist? Taking on players – even if that player happened to be arguably the best, most intimidating centre-back in the world at that time – was what he did, not only through obligation but for sheer fun.
With the outside of his right boot the Ukrainian-born schemer nudged the ball between his opponent’s legs. He megged him. He megged the best defender around on the biggest, most famous stage around. And as Stam clawed and grasped in humiliation, partly at the striker’s shirt but mostly at air, the Saints new hero faced down a goalkeeper wearing jogging pants and paralysed by the enormity of the footwear he had to fill and dinked it past him.
It would and should have been memorable but half an hour later calamity knocked brilliance off the next day’s headlines. And by doing so it faded a slice of pure genius from all future thought.
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