Daniel Smith spoke to Latvian International Andrejs Štolcers about the wingers time at the club. Andrejs has mixed views of his time at Fulham, frustrated by the lack of opportunities but equally the club that he still calls his home…
DS – Let’s begin with how you became a professional footballer. Was it a dream come true and how did you get the opportunity?
AS – Well like young people I was into many sports and I played for a local club in Latvia when I was 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. Then it was time to decide what you’re going to do with your life. Are you gonna work or go to University? So I decided to go to Uni to study sports science as well as becoming a professional player at the age of 18. ‘Olimps FC’ they were called. They used to be called Daugava Riga and played in the Russian League, they reformed when Latvia became independent from the Soviet Union so the level was quite high and most of the players played for the national team. So I used to watch this team and these players before I joined so it was a dream to play with them when I was 18 and I became stronger and quicker.
DS – Has studying sports science benefitted you during and since your retirement?
AS – Yes I was always interested in the body and how to recover from injuries and so on. How to recover quicker and things. My career I did ok with injuries, I had them like everyone else but I survived. It helped me to understand how and why the body needs to recover fully.
DS – Who were your heroes in football growing up?
AS – Well we had Pele of course and Diego Maradona. But we also had some great ones in Eastern Europe as well. Like Lev Yashin the famous goalkeeper, he was iconic. There was Zavarov, the first player to go into Europe and make a living out of football with Juventus who were very, very big club, it was hard for players to leave the Soviet Union in them days so he’s a very famous player. And Egor Titov too from Spartak Moscow.
DS – How did the move to Fulham happen and what made you choose to sign for Fulham?
AS – I think it was a number of things. At the time I was on loan to Shakhtar Donetsk from Spartak Moscow and I had to decide if I wanted to go back or not. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that and I’ve always been an explorer. The opportunity came up to play in London and I knew that Fulham were a strong team who could get to the Premier League. Everywhere I went it doesn’t matter what level of football it was, I always played for teams winning the league or coming very close second or third. So I knew I wanted to join Fulham and win the division which we did. I was thinking of my family too, I wanted to play good football and be happy. Financially it was more security and it was an opportunity to learn another language. Plus the club was set up right; we had very good players, an ambitious Chairman and financial backing so we had to be the favourites to get promoted.
DS – So you didn’t know English when you came to England? I’m surprised, I know it’s a long time ago now but I think your English is good, I can understand everything you are saying.
AS – Thank you, thank you. I take it as a compliment. I studied a little at school and I was very interested in English because of the different sounds and letters. At the end of the day we are talking about William Shakespeare here, his plays are all around the world, very iconic person. So I always wanted to speak it. I was always fascinated by the culture you have, I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland with the national team so it was fascinating to understand the meaning of the words that you use and something I always wanted to do when I arrived in England.
DS – It started very well; you scored on your debut vs WBA. Do you remember the goal?
AS – Err, I think so. I picked the ball up somewhere around the halfway line and I turned. I dribbled through the team and cut inside shooting with my left foot safely inside the net under the goalkeeper. To be honest I wasn’t interested in who we were playing in this league. I came here to be in the Premier League with Fulham so these matches were just about doing the job and getting over the line. I remember watching Fulham when I was away with the national team. Gary Johnson was our manager and he had the Fulham match on the TV when they were in the third tier. It was great watching them play, they were a very impressive team at that level so I was aware of Fulham before I joined.
DS – How did it feel making your Premier league debut as a sub at Old Trafford in what was also Fulham’s premier league debut?
AS – It was quite upsetting because we had many chances to beat them. I watched it many times and it was sloppy, we let the players go through and it was so embarrassing, it’s not us. I knew what we were capable of and I couldn’t understand why we made it so easy for them. Van Nistelrooy is a great striker but he is very slow, he isn’t Ryan Giggs. We scored two goals and David scored an unbelievable free kick for them. I remember thinking “gosh, he’s so talented!” What can you do when someone is that good and puts it in the top corner? But the other two goals were very, very sloppy, we were so far apart from each other giving them lots of space, it was rubbish!
I had these kinds of level games before so I was alright with playing at that big stadium. To be honest sitting on the bench was frustrating so it’s hard to feel part of it properly.
DS – Was that your standout match for the club or is there another match that was your favourite?
AS – I don’t have a favourite match really, my favourite thing was winning the championship and celebrating. To experience the joy and happiness was a great feeling but I just loved winning. Doesn’t matter what level, as a player you want to win so it was just as special for me getting promoted with Yeovil, it’s something special. You proved that you’re the best.
DS – What was Jean Tigana like as a manager?
AS – Well you’ve got to think this guy was one of the best players in Europe when he was younger. You want to give everything for this person because you know that his standards are so high, he was the best! And to be fair to him he brought quality players in which gave such a boost to the team. It was a great feeling to see this person, one day Baresi came over to train with us, it was an incredible experience.
DS – Did you ever meet Al Fayed and what was he like?
AS – Yes he used to come in after some games, he used to ask us how we were and always chatting, always positive. He always gave really nice presents at Xmas which was very nice. He was a very good Chairman for us. He could crack some jokes too but that’s the level of a great person. He knew when to be serious and when to be silly and that’s why he was such a good businessman.
DS – How many of your Fulham teammates would get into the best eleven of players that you’ve played with over your entire career?
AS – Van Der Sar was the best keeper. Erm, right back I’m comparing in my head with other players erm… Steve Finnan was the best definitely. I’d have Steed Malbranque and Louis Saha too.
DB – Were you given a fair chance in the first team to prove yourself?
AS – Maybe I was naive, there were many languages at the club at first and this is something that I think is poison in football. I don’t know 100%, I just felt something was wrong. Maybe it was language, maybe it was my body language wasn’t what they were used to. I always made sure I worked hard and I was always fit, sharp and strong so I thought I was a good professional and adapted quite well.
I wanted to carry on under Chris Coleman but he didn’t see me in his plans so you know that’s the manager’s decision, fair enough. It was strange because we had just done our badges together to become coaches/managers, we were at the same level of qualifications. I didn’t feel that I was the weakest link at the time. I always played ok for the reserve team. If I had been given a chance and my performances were very low I would have held my hands up. “Lads I’m sorry, I am rubbish at this level” but I wasn’t allowed to show myself. I was here four years and then I was just told “sorry, bye, bye” which was sad.
DS – You’re right that you never got many chances, that’s why I asked the question. I remember very clearly you coming on against someone and we were drawing (at Loftus Road). You only had about 10mins on the pitch and you put in a brilliant cross from the right and Saha scored, I can picture it. You made the difference and then we never saw you again. It was a bit weird.
AS – Yes I remember. That was for Tigana though; it was against Sunderland or Southampton I think. But even still, for a player whose played Champions League football in their career, to then get 10 mins to prove yourself is a little embarrassing. I know I never let myself down, I was always fit and ready for my chance but it never came. I always trained hard, I never spread any rumours and so on, I was all for the team, always positive, always encouraging and being professional. I had a precious chance and I did two crosses and for the second Saha scores, 3 points and we move on… But it shouldn’t be just down to that. It should be your attitude on the training pitch every day and I never gave them a reason not to pick me.
DS – You played a fair bit of non-league football too after leaving Fulham. How big was the change from premier league to non-league for you personally?
AS – Well they don’t keep the ball, they don’t like the ball. They just want to smash it somewhere very far away. Very anxious and nervous but that’s why they are non-league. They haven’t got the experience. As people they are fantastic and you can learn so much from their attitudes and fight but in terms of the level, it’s nowhere near the same.
The conditions of training grounds and pitches don’t matter to me. All these players who worry about how smooth the pitch is or how soft it should be and what colour boots to wear, it’s rubbish, just play football. Moaning, moaning, moaning!!! I get myself angry and I want to swear. I feel very lucky to have experienced both levels of football and to meet these proper people. You go to the Nou Camp or Old Trafford and it’s great, it’s lovely to have but if you haven’t got it, just work hard and get on with it.
DS – Which club do you look back at as your favourite from your career and why?
AS – Spartak Moscow for the team, we were a very good team. We won the title and the football was amazing. We beat the likes of Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Sporting Lisbon in Europe.
But as a club definitely Fulham, this was my home for four years. I was only at my other clubs a year, maybe two so this place is my home.
DS – You’ve played in the charity matches at the Cottage before, how does it feel coming back to Craven Cottage now that you’ve retired?
AS – It’s an incredible feeling, I always look forward to it. It’s great to see people that are still working at the club and some old faces, having a drink afterwards. I love the ground, it’s very special.
DS – You have 81 caps for Latvia, what was it like to represent your country especially at a major tournament- Euro 2004 in Portugal?
AS – Well everyone tells me it was amazing that I was part of the squad that went to Portugal but if you ask me how I feel it would be zero. I didn’t play and as a player, if you aren’t playing or you play tiny bits it’s just pointless. I never complained at the time because that’s betrayal, it was the biggest level for my country so you support the team but in my head, I was thinking “if I’m not playing, what am I doing here?” I could have been more helpful to my Grandma in her garden planting her plants and chopping trees and stuff like that. I might as well be useful for somebody rather than just sitting there.
I could have played on longer and got more caps but the manager just stopped picking me for some reason, that’s football. My last game was against the Netherlands. My favourite moments were playing against Brazil; I got lucky to play 45 mins. I scored a penalty in Oslo against Norway and we won 3v0 which was a big win because Norway were unbeaten at home for seven years so it was a huge win for us. I always loved to play against Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, they had some interesting players. Sadly, never played against England, only at under-21 level when I was about 16 years old.
DS – What are you up to now, are you still involved in football?
AS – I’m back at Fulham working for the foundation coaching the under 16’s and its great to be where I spent the longest in my career. It’s great to be back here and it’s just a matter of time before we are back in the Premier League. We are a good team and they will make it back soon, we almost did last season. I also managed in Portugal for a little bit and coaching quite a lot of young players. I had one player that I coached for 6 years and he just signed for Lee Clark professionally. I was so proud of him, to see him make it. It’s a great feeling to help these young people.
DS – Finally Andrejs, pie or pasty – which filling?
AS – Any meat pie, I love it. What is a pasty haha?!
DS – Your challenge before the next time I speak to you is to try a pasty.
AS – I think I know what it is, it’s baked inside with meat, onions and stuff. Don’t worry I will be eating it! When I’m starving I can eat anything. I’m sure I will see you soon; we will have pasties together with our pints!