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'Mourinho of Latvia' does his bit.

Byline: By Paul Gilder

Glenn Roeder is not the first English coach to attempt to get the better of FK Ventspils this week, as Chief Sports writer Paul Gilder reports from Latvia.

It is Monday morning and Paul Ashworth is relaxing at his home in Ventspils, the sleepy port town on the Baltic coast of Latvia. As his young daughter Masha clamours for his undivided attention, the amiable East Anglian is in a contented mood as he reflects upon a weekend to savour.

Little known in his homeland, the 36-year-old is big news here. That Latvian football's answer to Jose Mourinho has done his bit to aid Newcastle's bid to progress in the Uefa Cup means that the manager of Skonto Riga will have divided loyalties come tomorrow evening.

The comparisons with Mourinho are inevitable. Ashworth has never played professional football yet is in charge of a championship-winning club, the highest-profile team in his adopted home.

"I haven't followed a conventional career plan," he admitted with considerable understatement. Released as a teenager by Norwich, Ashworth's is a story rich in colour.

His own playing career having ended before it had begun, a man told that he had no future in football founded a successful soccer school for up-and-coming young players before returning to the professional game, where he worked under the tutelage of Barry Fry and John Beck.

"The coaching courses really took off and Cambridge United approached me and offered me a job as their youth development officer," explained a man who shares Glenn Roeder's passion for nurturing young talent. "I jumped at the chance and have never looked back. A few years later I joined Peterborough as youth team manager and was eventually appointed as the club's assistant manager by Barry Fry. It was an interesting time."

Ashworth looked to have a bright future at London Road but a man he first met at Cambridge helped to shape the unlikeliest of careers far from Peterborough, in a country he now calls home. Thanks to Gary Johnson, Fry's former number two is now the main man in Latvian club football.

"I went over to Riga to see Gary," said Ashworth, who had watched with astonishment as a firm friend progressed from his job as the Abbey Stadium's youth team manager to become the Latvian national coach. He soon followed in his footsteps having been made a life-changing offer during his holiday.

"While I was in Latvia, the president of Ventspils asked if I would be interested in becoming their new manager," he said. "I didn't think he was serious, I was only 30 and had never done anything like that."

Belying his inexperience, the ambitious Ashworth tackled the job with relish and, during two momentous years in charge, engineered successive second place finishes in a league monopolised by Skonto and steered Ventspils into Europe for the first time.

"That was a big deal," he explained. "We beat Lugano of Switzerland (in the Uefa Cup) and then got drawn against a really good Stuttgart side. We lost 4-1 in both legs but it was still a great experience. That is still considered to be the club's biggest ever game but this match with Newcastle should overtake it.

"It's a huge game not just for Ventspils but for Latvian football in general. It's just a shame that I won't be there to see it."

Ashworth, who left Ventspils for FK Riga and ultimately Skonto, left Latvia at 5am yesterday to prepare for his own Uefa Cup challenge against Molde, although not before helping to organise United's training facilities.

With two clubs in the competition and the stars of the national side still dining out on their qualification for Euro 2004, Latvian football appears to be on the up. Still, the country's footballing fraternity do not expect to witness a famous victory over Premiership opponents tonight.

"There's no one in Latvia who realistically expects Ventspils to beat Newcastle," said Ashworth, who through Johnson, a mutual friend, has passed vital information to Roeder in recent days. "If Newcastle underestimate Ventspils, they could perhaps sneak a lucky draw at home. But if Newcastle take it seriously you would be looking at 6-0 or 7-0.

"We must be realistic. This is a country with a population of 2.5 million people and Latvia won't qualify regularly. It will happen once every 25 years."

Having made a seamless assimilation into life in Latvia, a man who became the first Briton to work in the Russian Premier League when he spent six months as the sporting director of Rostov is well qualified to pass judgement on the game in the former Soviet states.

"I have been here for five-and-a-half years and I consider it my home, more so than England," said Ashdown, a fluent Russian speaker who has embraced the culture of his Latvian wife, Nataliya.

"My daughter was born here, we have another child on the way and my affiliation is stronger with Latvia than England these days.

"You miss the people, of course, friends and family, and I miss being able to pick up an English newspaper every day. But the things I have experienced more than make up for that."

Now in charge of Latvia's most-successful club, a coach attempting to steer his side to the Virsliga title for the 15th season in succession must dash the dreams of the team who gave him his big break in football. Having backed Newcastle to do in Europe what Skonto aim to do on the domestic front, Ashdown expects Ventspils to endure an unsuccessful campaign.

He says: "I was there for two-and-a-half years, I still have my house in the town and I still have a soft spot for them. They are having a great season, we are six points behind but I'm sure we will catch them. I don't think they will have the distraction of Europe for much longer."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 10, 2006
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