When thousands of jubilant Latvian fans partied long into the night following their country's surprise qualification for Euro 2004 at the expense of Turkey earlier this week, a proud English league manager was celebrating with them - in spirit if not in person.
Yeovil Town's Gary Johnson spent three years in charge of Latvia's national team and is widely credited with masterminding the development of the latest eastern European country to rise up and challenge the Continent's established footballing powers.
Johnson could be forgiven, after sowing the seeds of Latvia's unexpected 3-2 aggregate play-off win over the Turks, to have split loyalties if the country for which he still holds enormous affection are placed in the same group as England when the draw for the finals in Portugal is made on 30 November. While everyone was watching the progress of Wales and Scotland on Wednesday, only one result concerned the Yeovil manager.
"I was flicking between the channels at home but the one game I was really interested in was not on TV so I kept getting updates by phone from Istanbul," said Johnson, whose contract ended after the last World Cup qualifying campaign, but who is a consultant to the Latvian FA. "You can't imagine how proud I was." Understandably so, for Johnson's role in Latvia's emergence cannot be underestimated. This is a country, after all, with only eight professional clubs and barely 100 players to choose from.
"We started a programme of confidence coaching, instilling into them a belief that they could win games," Johnson explained. "They stopped playing the sweeper system, which even the Russians had kicked out, and we made them believe in their technical ability. The manager, Alex Starkovs, was my No 2 and has carried on the legacy. I'll be in Portugal with them, that's for sure, and meanwhile I've got the added bonus of being at Yeovil." Who just happen to be involved in their biggest game of the season this afternoon at the Third Division leaders, Hull City.
Johnson certainly has no regrets about coming home, having taken on hero status at the Somerset club he propelled into the Football League after 108 years of trying. Promotion to the Second Division is the ultimate goal and Yeovil are on Hull's coat-tails even though today represents a massive learning curve. "Some of my players will never have experienced the size of crowd we'll encounter but there are only three points between us and there's no reason why we shouldn't run them close."
But back to Latvia. Johnson is predicting great things for Maris Verpakovskis, the Skonto Riga striker who used to be very much the understudy to Marian Pahars, but who scored Latvia's equaliser in the 2-2 draw in Istanbul to add to four others during the qualification campaign. Johnson believes Verpakovskis, who has already had trials with Wolves, can be a bigger success than Pahars or Arsenal's Igor Stepanovs, currently on loan with the Belgian club, Beveren.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Maris is a future Premiership player," Johnson said. "There'll be a lot of interest in him when the transfer window opens in January and we have to make sure he goes to the right club. But he's not the only one who has come on a bomb. In my first six months there, we placed 10 players with more competitive overseas leagues. That's what has given them the character to cope with the bigger games like Wednesday.
"I honestly believe they thought they'd get through after winning the first leg 1-0 in Riga when the Turks clearly didn't want to be there because of the cold. Even when they were two goals down in Istanbul, they only needed one to get through. What they have now is a little bit of belief to go with their athleticism and technique."
Yet lambs to the slaughter, surely, in Portugal? Not necessarily, says Latvia's most revered Englishman who passed on several tips about how to beat Turkey and will be a vital "spy" in the build-up to Euro 2004. "They know they have got as far as they ever could have dreamed and when underdog teams are in that frame of mind, they can become very dangerous. They are not nervous about needing to win like some teams are." England, for instance?Reuse content