Jack Lang meets the football coach who has eschewed the English game to carve out a career in the dugouts of Latvia.
Ask the average fan what they know about football in Latvia and they might mumble something about Southampton cult hero Marians Pahars and tail off. It is fair to say that this tiny country of two million souls has not carved out an especially vibrant space for itself in the game’s collective consciousness. That feeling is only strengthened by a visit to the de facto home of the national team in capital city Riga. Skonto Stadium – the country’s biggest ground – is homely and has a certain retro charm. It is also wedged in next to a dusty car park and appears to be made of Meccano. When Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal team-mates visited for a World Cup qualifier in June, they got changed in a rusty hanger of a sports hall that adjoins one of the stands. The cradle of the game this is not. For one British manager, however, this is home. Paul Ashworth, the brother of FA technical director Dan, has spent much of his career in the Latvian Virsliga, having first swapped Peterborough United – where he was youth-team coach – for tiny seaside club FK Ventspils back in 2001. He has since had spells at FK Riga and Skonto FC, returning to Ventspils in 2015. Like most love affairs, this one began with a healthy dollop of serendipity. Latvia was not on Ashworth’s radar as he learnt his trade at Norwich and Cambridge United, but a colleague at the latter club would later present him with the opportunity to try something a bit different. Ventspils manager Paul Ashworth. Photo: PA Archive/PA Images
‘Gary Johnson [the former Cambridge manager, now at Cheltenham] was coaching the Latvia national team and he asked me whether I would be interested in coming over,’ explains the 47-year-old. ‘There was a club called Ventspils looking for an English coach. Their president had been impressed with Gary and wanted someone with a similar mentality. ‘I had just finished at Peterborough, so I said OK. I was 31 at the time, so it was quite young to become a manager or head coach, but that was my ambition.’ This was before Latvia voted to join the European Union in 2003, establishing Riga as a stag-party destination, and Ashworth freely admits that the geographical details were hazy to him: ‘I didn’t know where it was at all.’ But that proved to be little impediment. One trial training session, in November 2000, was enough to convince Ventspils that this was their man; Ashworth began work two months later. ‘I didn’t have any reservations,’ he continues. ‘It was an impressive set-up at the club. It was very professional and people were very open to ideas. I thought it was a good opportunity and I wanted to take it.’ That brand of give-it-a-go determination served Ashworth well later in his career, when he picked up Russian during a stint as sporting director – and briefly caretaker manager – at FC Rostov, some 700km beyond Latvia’s eastern border. But there was no denying the existence of a language barrier when he first arrived in Ventspils. ‘That was biggest challenge to start with,’ Ashworth recalls. ‘Very few people spoke English. So to come out and live here in a different culture, that was hard. Speaking the language is the most important thing if you want to get by. ‘[In training] I had to go through my assistant coach. He spoke good English, but it’s not quite the same when your words are being translated. If you’re putting emphasis on something emotional and it comes out of the translator’s mouth in monotone, it doesn’t have quite the same effect.’ Still, Ashworth was impressed by the quality of the Virsliga at the outset and says things have improved since: ‘Before, there were only two or three teams competing for the championship; now there are six or seven. It’s more of a level playing field and there’s money invested in all the teams.’ So how would the top Latvian sides fare on these shores? ‘It’s difficult to compare the level to English football, but we’ve played in Europe and had friendlies against Blackpool, Yeovil, Bristol City,’ says Ashworth. ‘Over a season, there’s no way the Latvians would keep up with the pace of the English game, but in a one-off game, it could be lower-Championship level.’
It is testament to Ashworth’s willingness to test new waters that Latvia and Russia are probably not the most eye-catching countries to appear on his CV. There was also a four-and-a-half-year spell in Nigeria, initially as technical director of the prestigious Kwara Football Academy, then briefly as head coach of top-flight side Sunshine Stars. He has fond memories of that time, but admits there were certain difficulties involved. ‘We had 100 players and 100 staff,’ Ashworth says of the academy. ‘It was quite a big job, with a big budget. But Nigeria was a complete culture shock. Having no electricity where you’re living means it’s completely different to Europe. The players were of a very good standard, but the administration, the facilities and the organisation… let’s just say it was an eye-opener.’ The Buxton native is now back in more familiar climes – by his standards, at least. He is settled in his adopted patch, with a Latvian wife and young children. Professionally, too, there is plenty of reason for cheer: Ashworth has taken Ventspils to the Europa League qualifying rounds in each of the last two seasons. He relishes managing abroad and hopes his experiences will inspire others to broaden their horizons. ‘I think some English coaches think anywhere abroad is beneath them,’ he says. ‘I’m not referring to all coaches, because there are a lot who would try their luck abroad if they had the opportunity. But some are reluctant to look into the possibility because England has the best league in the world. A lot of people don’t look beyond that and don’t want to leave their comfort zone.’ So the message for coaches considering is a positive one? ‘If you get the opportunity, leave your comfort zone. You’ll become a better person and a better coach.’ Jack Lang is a freelance football writer based in London