Paharidise Lost: The Marians Pahars Story

I’ve had this for three years now … I’m tired of the comparison – Marians Pahars

It’s. Not. FAIR. Why does every treat come with a customised consequence? Every coffee stains your teeth, all box-sets end in remorse, every stuffed-crust causes heartburn and all football coverage comes with cliché. But of these minor indulgences, it is the beautiful game’s by-product that feels most cruel; a game that prides itself on its unpredictability consistently prompts commentary that is anything but.

Pointless heat-maps, forced banter, ex-professionals with nothing to say; we endure these predictable irritants because the main event is worth the pain, but in turning a blind eye to football’s weariest tropes are we inadvertently enabling something worse?  At one end of a hypothetical cliché scale we have the tolerable, petty crimes; the “oh, he struck it too well” and the “he’ll be disappointed with that” … but at the other end we have the murders, the familiar phrases that stifle fresh thinking or worse; emerging talent.

Perhaps the worst cliché of all is what I’ll term “the lazy comparison”, we’ve all heard them; “(barrel-chested English midfielder) is the new Gazza” or “(tall, gangly African) is the new Vieira”.  Quick to assemble but hard to discard; lazy comparisons are uniquely toxic. They discourage us from forming an objective opinion of a player while burdening the subject with expectation. A figurative graveyard of tricksy Argentine forwards should alert us to the danger of convenient labels, but there will always be a “new Maradona”.

So if we are unable to stem the tide of lazy comparisons then what can we do? The answer is as simple as it is excessively earnest; we must remember the fallen. We must celebrate those footballers, who, thanks to collective lack of imagination shown by pundits and journalists, have found their unique stories obscured by another man’s narrative…but where to start?  To this author at least, the choice was obvious.

A three-time Latvian footballer of the year (the only man to win the award in 3 successive seasons) and bona-fide Baltic legend as both player and manager, Marians Pahars, AKA ‘The Latvian Michael Owen’ has done more than enough to be remembered on his own terms. Unfortunately for the former Southampton front-man, few footballers have been so haunted or seemingly so cursed by a lazy comparison; one that, as will hopefully become clear, managed to be both eerily prophetic yet grossly inaccurate.

We didn’t have a lot of toys … the best toy was a football – Marians Pahars

August 1976, Chornovolia, The Ukraine. Born to Latvian parents of modest means, Marians Pahars’ bond with football was an earnest one. In a disintegrating Soviet satellite, sport could not be the means to a gilded end, for the end itself did not exist. As Pahars later reflected; “we didn’t even know you could earn money playing football. It was just … pure passion, for yourself, (just) to enjoy it“.  But if the lack of financial incentives preserved footballs’ innocence, it did little to help a family who needed their son to earn a living. Pure passion had to make way for pure pragmatism.

As a series of academies assembled Michael Owen to order, Marians Pahars reflected on retirement; could one even retire if they had yet to play professionally? Only an intervention by close friend and mentor, Jurijs Andrejevs, prevented Latvia from losing arguably their greatest footballer.

As a youth coach, Andrejevs had inspired an eight-year-old Pahars to fall in love with football.  Now, ten years later, the same man would implore his young friend not to lose heart. Trusting in Pahars’ untapped potential, Andrejevs proposed a deal; if the young midfielder delayed his retirement, the old coach would use his contacts to find him a club. The offer was not without risk; if Andrejevs’ faith was misplaced then his protégée, and his family, suffered the fallout. Of the make-or-break moments that defined Pahars’ career, this was the first and most significant one.

Whether compelled by recklessness or self-belief, Pahars accepted Andrejevs’ offer; the young Latvian trained as the elder statesman networked furiously. Thanks to their combined efforts Pahars secured contracts at Pārdaugava Riga and later, Skonto Metāls; smaller Latvian clubs that provided experience, a wage and a modest platform from which to launch. While unknown to Pahars, his journey to the Premiership had started in earnest.

Pahars in Saints colours. [Source: Robert Nemeti/Solentnews.biz © Solent News & Photo Agency]
In a country more familiar with puck than ball, Pahars’ unnatural talents stood out. Within months of making his professional bow the precocious teenager had signed for Skonto Riga; Latvia’s perpetual champions.  During what became a three-year stint at Skonto, Pahars enjoyed a tactical and reputational transformation; ascending from midfield to attack, from hot prospect to star attraction.  The ever-improving Pahars’ 44 strikes in 85 appearances attracted the inevitable attentions of Europe’s B-List; Casino Salzburg, Dinamo Moscow and Werder Bremen lurked among a number of interested parties.

While Marians Pahars flirted with a host of European suitors, Southampton worked on their relationship with Egil Ostenstad. Honest, willing, but largely inert; the Norwegian striker was failing to score the goals that might preserve Southampton’s Premiership status. The Saints clearly needed a saviour, but from where?

Enter Gary Johnson. The former Kettering Town manager had recently swapped Rockingham Road for Riga, taking charge of the Latvian national team and a certain young forward. Not for the first time, a veteran coach would facilitate Pahars’ ascent up the footballing ladder; Johnson used his connections in England, and more specifically Southampton, to advise that the shot-shy Saints take a chance on his prolific front-man. Despite a pressing need for goals, Dave Jones, Southampton’s then-manager, responded with caution; if Pahars impressed in a specially-arranged trial game, then a contract might follow.

… but could they do it on a wet Wednesday at Stoke? – Andy Gray

In 2009 Andy Gray unwittingly gave new life to football’s most enduring question; can technique alone overcome earthy opposition? The query was both depressing (is Ryan Shawcross and inclement weather England’s best response to continental flair?) and intriguing; would Cristiano Ronaldo thrive in the Vanarama Conference while brutalised by part-time scaffolders? Could the Brazil team of 1970 wriggle past 2010’s New Zealand? Could Messi score against Oxford United in the middle of winter? Perhaps not; but Marians Pahars could. In fact, Marians Pahars could score three; one with his right, one with his left, one with his head; the perfect hat-trick at the perfect moment.

Suitably impressed with their Latvian trialist, Southampton moved to secure his signature; The Saints gazumped a chain of cautious continental admirers with a bid of £800,000. A clutch of European managers cursed their risk-averse chairmen as the English tabloids half-mockingly heralded ‘the Latvian Michael Owen’; the first of his nationality to play in the Premiership.  Southampton had rolled the die on a man whose career was sparked by a gamble. The footballer who so nearly never was had officially arrived in the big leagues.

17th April 1999, The Dell. SOUTHAMPTON 2 : 3 BLACKBURN.  Preoccupied by events on-field, The Dell’s candy-striped contingent paid no mind as an unassuming figure struck palms with Scott Hiley and jogged onto the pitch. Marians Pahars was given 12 minutes of his home debut to make a difference. He needed seven. 3-3. Southampton hadn’t just grabbed a point, they’d found a galvanising figure; the unknown forward was a mystery no more.

Powered by Pahars, Southampton grabbed seven points from the next available nine but entered the last game of the season; a home tie against Everton, needing a result guarantee safety. On the same match-day just 12 months before, Everton had unwittingly helped Tony Adams cement his legend at Arsenal. This season the Toffees would go a step further by helping Southampton mint a shiny new icon; Marians Pahars scored both goals in a 2-0 victory in front of a delirious Dell. Southampton were safe.

…up against Stam…oh! Brilliant play by Marian Pahars…fantastic goal! - Barry Davies

Placed at the centre of an attacking trident, Marians Pahars started the 99/00 season as he had finished the last. Seven goals in eleven games hinted at consistency, but a moment of invention confirmed the permanence of Pahars’ class. In humbling Jaap Stam before coolly slotting home, Pahars exhibited more than skill; he showed a composure that makes technique meaningful.  Pahars’ uncommon calmness had elevated a would-be viral video to something of actual value; a goal, a point, an unlikely draw at Old Trafford.

In creating moments few others could, Pahars could put distance between himself and his lazy comparison. Granted, Pahars and Owen were small, fast and lethal, but the Latvian’s capacity for the unexpected had the potential to make him distinct. However, as Pahars stood ready to define his own narrative; misfortune struck. A career that deserved to be seen as unique was warped, forcing it to resemble that of Michael Owen in the least desirable ways.

When presented a challenge that was his to surmount, Pahars had consistently proven his mettle, but the tenacious young forward was derailed by events arguably beyond his control. First, Dave Jones, the man who placed Pahars at the heart of his team, was controversially sacked midway through the 99/00 season due to serious but ultimately unsubstantiated charges. Glenn Hoddle; without a club since getting himself sacked as England manager, assumed Jones’ role and wasted no time in getting down to what a Hoddle does best; producing decent results while disrupting his squad’s most talented players.

As well as falling out with Matt Le Tissier, Hoddle dragged Pahars back into midfield. Despite being untested in this role against top-flight opposition, the former-forward’s prospective ability to unsettle teams and create chances for others was valued more than a proven goal-scoring record.  The tactic may have rattled defences but it also arrested Pahars’ development. Having once shown signs of real consistency, the Latvian now spluttered; a special talent apparently suffering for his tactical fluidity. The man behind this tactical masterstroke had once argued that Michael Owen was “not a natural goal-scorer”, had Hoddle also misjudged his Latvian ‘counterpart’? The spectre of the lazy comparison appeared to loom large.

In spite of, or perhaps, because of his ego, Hoddle steered Southampton to the relative safety of 15th; a small but welcome improvement on the previous campaign. Despite a slow start to the 00/01 season, Hoddle’s good work continued; taking the The Saints to mid-table safety by March.  Then, as if compelled to ruin his own legend; Hoddle suddenly walked out on Southampton to underwhelm at Spurs. Hurt and confused, Southampton appeared to rebound with the nearest available person; former first-team coach Stuart Gray took the reins for the remainder of the season.

While his predecessor had achieved decent results at the expense of certain individuals, Gray adopted a more universal approach; everyone should play badly. Having finishing the previous season in 10th, Gray and Southampton flopped into the 01/02 season; Pahars and Southampton misfired together. After three months and one win in eight games, a change was made; The Saints moved for Coventry’s ex-manager, Gordon Strachan. If the Scot’s confidence had been dented by his recent relegation, then it didn’t seem to show; the Scot brought much-needed energy to a team down of their luck.

Unlike Hoddle, Strachan openly coveted Pahars’ talents; the Scotsman had previously attempted to bring the Latvian to Highfield Road before presumably opting for Israel Zuniga instead.  Supported by Strachan off the pitch and James Beattie, the quintessential ‘big man, on it, Marians Pahars quickly returned to pre-Hoddle form. Despite their slow start to the season, Pahars and Beattie bagged 30 strikes between them (the Latvian grabbing a respectable 16 for himself). When fit, up-front and given the support of his manager; Marians Pahars’ form appeared to peak, unfortunately for the little Latvian, this trifecta was all too rare.

Southampton approached the 02/03 season full of confidence; the team was settled, the strike force was prolific, the manager wasn’t Stuart Gray. But, as Marians Pahars stood ready to start the new season, the curse of the lazy comparison struck once more; the luckless striker suffered the first in a series of debilitating injuries. While Michael Owen’s profile sustained a career beset by injury, his Latvian counterpart lacked the luxury of a world-class reputation; he only flickered with the promise of one. A hernia operation and a serious ankle injury forced Pahars to miss most of the 02-03 season and Southampton’s famous run to the F.A Cup Final.

While Michael Owen’s profile sustained a career beset by injury, his Latvian counterpart lacked the luxury of a world-class reputation; he only flickered with the promise of one
Trapped in a wretched cycle of injury, recovery, reserve game, repeat; Pahars was unable to hit his stride. When physically able, the Saints’ favourite forward provided sputtering but spectacular reminders of his ability, but for every recovery there was a corresponding relapse. The 03-04 season assumed a now-familiar pattern, but at least the luckless Latvian made an appearance; 04-05 was a write-off for more than one reason.

Ruled out for the entire season due to successive injuries, Pahars’ talismanic presence was arguably missed; Southampton suffered their first relegation in 27 years. The Saints had regularly flirted with disaster while eating at footballs’ top-table, but a slump that would last seven seasons had now started in earnest. Having managed without Pahars for the best part of two years, Southampton had needed their man more than ever; could the Latvian have pulled his team back from the brink for a second time?

Despite chipping in with 10 appearances during the 05-06 Championship season, Southampton could ill-afford to maintain a non-playing footballer, even one as cherished as Marians Pahars.  Before the last game of the season Pahars was informed that his contract was not to be renewed.  After an unlikely but electrifying start, a promising career seemed destined to end without fanfare; all that was left was to say goodbye.

In one regard, the Pahars/Owen comparison had proven tragically prescient; both had seen their careers nudged off-course by events beyond their control. Yet, in his final act as a Southampton player, Marians Pahars confirmed why the lazy comparison is so brilliantly inadequate. History will show that Michael Owen treated football as a trade; an approach that stirs appraisals, not affection. By comparison, despite only making 156 appearances for Southampton over seven years, Pahars formed a bond with a club, and its fans, that Owen never would, and perhaps never wanted to.

The hollowness of the lazy comparison was laid bare on the final day of the 05-06 season. As Southampton’s players and staff performed a farewell lap for the crowd, a sullen figure in a suit; the uniform of management and the perpetually injured, walked alongside his colleagues. Head down, shoulders slumped; Marians Pahars shuffled alongside his soon-to-be ex-colleagues.  A career that began with a great escape was about to finish with a muted exit…

…yet something didn’t add up. Despite finishing 12th in the Championship, an undeniably poor season, thousands of fans had remained at St. Mary’s. But, as the masses caught sight of Marians Pahars, all became clear; funeral was transformed into festival as the wake awoke. The Saints acknowledged their hero the only way they knew how; bombarding the humbled forward with chant he had inspired. As Marians Pahars circled the St. Mary’s pitch, unable to control the tears, one thing was clear; he wasn’t the Latvian Michael Owen, he was Southampton’s Marians Pahars.