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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 12:37 GMT
Johnson joy at Latvia win
By John May

Celebration time for Latvia
The loudest cheer for the draw that earned Latvia a place in the Euro 2004 finals would have been heard in Yeovil.

Latvia head off to Portugal and their first major championship, proving that fairy tales can still come true in football, and the old romantic at the heart of it is Yeovil boss Gary Johnson.

Johnson managed Latvia for two years between 1999 and 2001, and in the process laid the foundation stones for the football upset of the year.

Even Johnson was forced to admit: "I think it has to go down as a shock, as Turkey are ranked in the top 10.

Qualification for a major tournament like this means everything to Latvian football
Yeovil Town boss Gary Johnson

"But Latvia did well in their qualifying campaign to finish second behind Sweden.

"Nobody would have given them much chance in a strong group which included Poland and Hungary."

Johnson is still a consultant to the Latvian Football Federation and his contribution to football in that country is recognised in an honorary president's role.

"I kept in contact with what was going on, I had telephone calls from the stadium updating me every 10 minutes with what was going on," said Johnson.

But if the football world is rubbing its eyes and pinching itself at Latvia's qualification, it is nothing to the magnitude and impact it will have at home.

Johnson said: "In a country of 2.3m people, football is ranked fourth in popularity behind ice hockey, basketball, and athletics.

"There are only eight professional clubs in the country, and the coach of the national team has a pool of no more than 100 players to pick from.

Yeovil's former Latvia boss Gary Johnson
Gary Johnson shares Latvia's joy

"Hopefully, this will mean football goes to the top of the list alongside ice hockey, and it will get more kids playing the game.

"Qualification for a major tournament like this means everything to Latvian football."

Very few ripples were created when former Watford academy head Johnson took over as national coach in the summer of 1999.

Having only gained its independence eight years earlier, Latvia as a country and its footballers were still coming to terms with shrugging off the yoke of Soviet rule.

"When I took over as manager I had to try to change their mentality," said Johnson.

LATVIA FACTS
Gained independence in 1991
Population: 2.3m
Professional clubs: Eight

"Their main aim was not to lose games but I changed it to one where they should go out and try to win. The idea was to allow their flair players to do their thing, and they've got some good ones."

Johnson was quick to recognise the latent talent in Latvia when he recommended their star striker Marian Pahars to his old mate Dave Jones, then manager at Southampton.

Pahars made an immediate impact on the Premiership and Latvia's qualification is even more laudable as it was achieved without their talismanic little striker, who was given a token minute's substitute appearance in Turkey.

FAMOUS PEOPLE OF LATVIAN DESCENT
Jim Backus (the voice of Mr Magoo)
Charles Bronson
Sir John Gielgud
Ron Ely (Television Tarzan)

"Marian hasn't had the best of luck with an ankle injury which has kept him out for a year," said Johnson.

"But they've got plenty of other talented players. Maris Verpakovskis who scored the crucial goal is a very good little striker and several players are based abroad.

"I think it's fortunate that Skonto Riga play regularly in the qualifying stages of the Champions League, which gives the players experience of playing against European opposition."

As Latvia limber up for their chance to rub elbows with the elite at European fotoball's top table, a glass or two of cider will be raised down in the West Country.





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