Behind Skonto FC's latest title pursuit is a budding coaching duo whose playing careers helped lift Latvian football to new heights. Coach Marians Pahars came to prominence as a striker in England's Premier League and although his lofty status is rivalled by assistant Vitālijs Astafjevs, they remain united in their vision for the 15-time national champions.
Pahars' goalscoring exploits had first endeared him to Skonto hearts during a memorable three-year spell which ended in 1998. After his meteoric rise culminated in a lucrative move to Southampton FC, the diminutive forward made history by becoming the first Latvian to play in the English top flight.
Initially an unknown quantity there, Pahars soon made himself known, scoring seven minutes into his home debut when rising from the bench to secure a vital 3-3 draw with Blackburn Rovers FC. Four weeks later he etched his name into Southampton folklore, netting twice on the final day of the season to consolidate the club's premier status.
He began his first full campaign in England with equal menace, notching seven goals in the opening ten league games. With no intention of relenting, Pahars proceeded to plunder 36 goals in three seasons, prompting speculation that other teams were watching. Yet if loss of form and a string of niggling injuries subsequently put paid to any big ambitions, it was not before he and midfielder Astafjevs had appeared for Latvia in the country's major tournament debut at UEFA EURO 2004.
A romantic by nature, Pahars later got to enjoy a striking swansong with Skonto before finally retiring in 2010. Now the 36-year-old channels his footballing passion alongside Astafjevs – 43 and still Europe's most-capped international – into a working relationship bound by camaraderie and nostalgia. "Of course it is me who is responsible for results," Pahars told UEFA.com.
"But it is impossible to underestimate Vitalij's role. We think the same way, understand each other's every word, and it is very important to me that there is a friend nearby who knows everything in football. It helps both of us to become stronger characters."
The Pahars-Astafjevs pairing currently has Skonto in second place in Latvia's First Division after 22 games, one point behind FC Daugava Daugavpils going into Saturday's match at SK Liepājas Metalurgs.
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