“I remember when I came back for preparation for the new season, I was already a player, I was already a Saint. I was already knowing I was important for the team, for the city and for the fans. It took some time, but before that game it was all like one day.”
If Marian Pahars’s first goal in English football changed his life, his second and third changed the recent history of Southampton Football Club.
Arriving in February 1999 from Skonto in his homeland, it’s difficult to gauge who knew less about the other: Saints fans about their Latvian import, or Pahars about the club he wanted to join.
“I hadn’t seen a single game of Southampton,” he admits, 22 years later. “I didn’t even know the players.
“At that time, they didn’t show the Premier League in Latvia. Of course, we saw the best games of top clubs in European arenas sometimes, but very occasionally, and I didn’t know much.
“I knew it was a Premier League club – a middle table Premier League club – but that’s all I knew. How bad the situation was, I didn’t even know.”
Very bad, Marian. After an explosive trial appearance against Oxford featuring a perfect hat-trick – right foot, left foot, header – the contract was signed and Pahars was drafted in to breathe some life into a Saints side that had not left the relegation zone all season.
“When I came I had other things to think about,” he recalls. “To learn the language and to start playing, because there was big pressure on me from back home. I knew that my coach, my teammates and all the fans in Latvia needed to be proud of me.
“My wife was pregnant and I had to think about that also, so there were too many things that maybe took that pressure off a little bit. I could play free in these last games of the season, and that helped me.
“But definitely by the end of the season, when I’d stayed a couple of months already, I realised that the situation was critical, we could get relegated and we needed to win.
“Before the last game that we played against Everton, I knew the importance of it already. I realised and I understood it.”
From a position of peril, Pahars was summoned from the bench against Blackburn in mid-April, heading a late equaliser from James Beattie’s flick-on to rescue a point on his home debut.
“That goal changed my life. It changed everything. When I scored that goal against Blackburn, I was part of the team,” he says. “Before that, I was something different, sitting in the corner of the dressing room. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t play.
“I scored that goal and after the game the boys came to me and suddenly you start speaking English! Without even understanding, you start to talk and appreciate what they are saying. Then finally, I felt I can do it on that level. I can do it here, and it will become my home.”
Saints drew again in their next game, 0-0 at Derby, before back-to-back wins over Leicester and Wimbledon left survival in their own hands.
By now Pahars was a starter, and well aware of what was at stake on the final day against Everton.
“I remember that adrenaline in my blood,” he says. “You could run for two or three games, whether it was impossible or not impossible, just to win that game.
“Usually it’s a routine – you come, you play but you cannot be motivated or so concentrated in all the games in your career. Some games are just coming without emotions, some games are coming without such big concentration.
“You can lose sometimes, you can win sometimes, but that game everybody was so mobilised, so ready. I remember that adrenaline pumping in my blood, it was just one moment, BOOM, one big spark.
“It was a double celebration, double expectation – either we stay in the league or we don’t.”
Facing an Everton side only just safe themselves, Saints were on top from the start, with Matt Le Tissier only inches away from making the breakthrough with a typically spectacular half-volley from the edge of the box that only just whistled wide.
Midway through the first half, an expectant home crowd at The Dell was sent into a frenzy as the moment they craved was provided by the diminutive No 35 whose oversized shirt billowed in the breeze.
When Jason Dodd played the ball forward from right-back, two defenders jumped with Beattie. Both were beaten, as Beattie flicked on for Pahars, just as he had against Blackburn four weeks prior.
“I am the coach now, and two good players – or one good player and one intelligent player – always find a way to communicate, because the clever player will help the other one,” Pahars says of his instant connection with Beattie.
“Two unintelligent players never find a way to communicate or how to understand each other – never, even after 100 years in the club. But two clever players, always from the first second, they will find a way.
“So I was lucky Beatts was clever enough to understand everything and to run where I needed him to, or flick where I ran to. It was just feelings – you don’t need much time for that.
“I knew from day one that he’s quite a tall boy, but what was most amazing is that I had never seen a jump like he had in my life before, and not since then also.
“I knew 100 per cent he will win the header against any Premier League defenders – any. All I need is just to run behind him – that’s it! And I did, and he always won that ball. I don’t remember how many times he assisted me and I assist him, but he was a great partner.”
Bearing down on goal, Pahars’s first touch took him wider than he wanted, and on to his marginally less favoured left side, though he would go on to score regularly with both feet.
“I had a bad touch,” he admits. “If you see that goal again, my first touch was away from goal and I was telling myself, ‘wow, crazy, what are you doing? It’s just a direct one on one against the goalkeeper and you make a bad touch! What do I do now?’
“I knew that defenders were trying to catch me and if I’m going to make another touch, probably that would be it, so I decided to shoot.
“Where? Nowhere. Just inside the goal. I didn’t know where the goalkeeper was, I didn’t choose which corner I put it, but I put it just between his eyes. Just head down and kick it as hard as you can.”
The ball flashed past goalkeeper Thomas Myhre and into the Everton net. Saints were in front in a game they dare not lose.
At half-time, Pahars reveals, manager Dave Jones was unflustered.
“He was calm, and that’s an amazing quality,” tells Pahars, since a manager himself, expressing his admiration. “He was calm and telling us quite direct, very short, just helping.
“How many nerves can a coach give you at half-time and destroy the situation? But he was something different. He would just say a couple of main things.
“Sometimes it’s better not to say anything because we already know what to do. Experienced players, a very good group of players, we knew we were not going to let it out of our hands.”
As the game restarted, Le Tissier kept shooting, but for once his radar was off. So often the hero, this was the turn of somebody else to be Saints’ saviour.
Pahars made sure he was that man with an iconic diving header at the three-quarter mark, on 68 minutes.
When Chris Marsden won the ball inside the Saints half, Pahars set off on a diagonal run to the left, across the path of the midfielder, while Beattie headed in the opposite direction, out to the right, which is where the pass was played.
“That’s the hours of work you do before – you understand those situations,” Pahars explains.
“As soon as he plays it wide, then I knew my job was to be in the penalty area. That’s what the coach is for – they’re telling you before the game the job of the striker is to be in the penalty area when crosses come in.
“It’s quite simple, and that was already a reflex. You just know what to do. If he is not playing it to you, you run into the penalty area, so I turned and ran to the penalty area. Then Beatts again… what a cross, and what a goal.”
Indeed, the delivery was a peach – flat towards the near post, never more than five feet off the ground – but Pahars, arriving at breakneck speed with his head, had an awful lot to do, with the ball now having dropped to knee-high, six yards out.
“It’s not my style at all,” he says of that dart to the near post. “I knew from the beginning it is much easier to score a goal with the head, because you can place it quite clear – more precise, I would say, because the distance from the ground you remember was quite low,” he adds.
“I could probably hit it with my foot, but where would the ball go? It’s very difficult to predict, but with the head I knew exactly that I would place it where I wanted to place it.
“I was quite close to the near corner, so it was much easier for me to place it a short distance and the goalkeeper would have no chance, so that’s why I choose to take it with the head.
“Again, that’s lots of practising. It’s not natural, it’s something that I practised a lot. Even from my old time in Skonto, the coach Aleksandr Starkovs worked with me individually lots of hours on short balls.
“I was constantly dirty when I had to dive into the water and the mud to practise, so that paid off that day.”
The remaining minutes were played out relatively stress-free. Saints’ need was so much greater that Everton were unable to match the intensity of Jones’s team, and Pahars was substituted 10 minutes from time to a standing ovation. Not that he knew it at the time.
“Back home I never played with the big crowd and I didn’t even realise what it was,” he laughs. “I didn’t even hear they were shouting my name for a long time, but I remember the time when somebody told me, ‘come on, wave to them!’ I said, ‘to who?’
“‘They are singing your name!’ I didn’t even know. I was sitting in the stadium and didn’t even realise they were singing my name. Then I heard ‘Marian’ and I realised they were singing for me! It was amazing, but at that time against Everton, no, I hadn’t even realised that yet.”
Saints, inspired by their unlikely new hero, would maintain their top-flight status until 2005 – another six years in which the club moved stadiums, reached an FA Cup final and even qualified for Europe.
Pahars went on to score a total of 45 goals for Southampton across seven seasons – his latter years sabotaged by injuries – but the man himself will never forget the significance of those first three months, not least Sunday 16th May 1999.
“I didn’t know when I came for the trial that within a few months I will become a Saints player, a player who is already helping the team and scoring goals… it was so quick,” he reflects. “Crazy really, crazy. Difficult to imagine.
“I was the first Latvian who ever came to play in the Premier League. Knowing that fact, it was satisfaction of course, and I knew that I did something important for the club.”