Gary Johnson: Aiming to win in Latvia

Gary Johnson was manager of Yeovil Town Photo: Dan Weir/Pinnacle

Gary Johnson was manager of Yeovil Town Photo: Dan Weir/Pinnacle - Credit: Dan Weir/Pinnacle

They say 'It's Not What You Know, But Who You Know'. Well, it worked for me one day in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

I had a driver from the FA there - a lovely bloke who couldn't do enough for me - but I finally got him to have an evening off and decided to drive myself. Mistake.

I was soon going the wrong way down a one-way street and, sure enough, the police stopped me.

I didn't speak Latvian or Russian - I had offered to learn, but the players wanted to speak English, in case they managed to get a move here - and the police definitely didn't speak English.

But one other thing the FA president had given me was a letter to carry, which I'd never read. It was in the glove compartment.

As a last resort, I pulled out the letter, gave it to the police and hoped.

Well, one of the officers immediately turned the car around, invited me to get back in and they all saluted as I drove away!

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Just what was in that letter, I still don't know to this day.

The whole Latvia story had started a bit like a spy film.

I was head of Watford's Academy, and this guy would lean over the fence and watch our training sessions. I used to chat to him from time to time.

He turned out to be Belorussian, and a friend of the Latvia FA president and Skonto Riga, the biggest club. He asked me if I'd be interested in assessing their players.

I flew to Moscow to see Skonto in a tournament held indoors. A good thing too - it was minus-30 outside!

Graham Taylor, Watford manager, wasn't interested in the best player, Marians Pahars, but Dave Jones of Southampton and I had done our badges together and I ended up as a sort of go-between.

Dave paid top-dollar for Marians, but it still turned into a massive bargain.

The deal went down well in Latvia, and a few weeks later I was called to the Dorchester Hotel in London where I was offered the job of national coach.

If it had been at Joe's Cafe, I'd probably never have gone.

Watford had just won promotion, Graham didn't want me to leave, but he had told me once that if a national team ever comes in for you, you must take it. So I did.

I did cost £300,000 in compensation though - a lot more than I'd ever been worth as a player.

Before long Arsene Wenger came over and signed Igors Stepanovs, and I also helped Alex Kolinko and Andrejs Rubins get to Crystal Palace, Vitalis Astafjevs to Bristol City, Andrejs Stolcers to Fulham and Imants Bleidelis to Southampton.

As you can imagine, I was quite a popular boy.

Latvia couldn't compete with the big countries, but instead of sitting back and trying not to lose all the time, me and my assistant Alex Starkovs started a new philosophy of actually trying to win.

I went to Japan for the 2002 World Cup draw. We got Croatia, Scotland, Belgium and San Marino! Scotland only beat us in the last minute, and we got four points off San Marino.

When Latvia finally got to the 2004 European Championships in Portugal, after I'd left, Pahars said that it was my team that did it. I was proud of that.

It was a big decision to go there in the first place, but in hindsight a very good decision, a great experience and it helped my profile as a young manager.

A few months after I came back, a friend persuaded me to go for the Yeovil Town job and, as they say, the rest is history.

Stay safe, everyone.