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Justin Walley: From Latvia with Love

While many have travelled the world, few can boast the wild variety of Justin Walley’s globetrotting adventures – and football has played no small part in that. It is rare to see Latvian players making their way in England – there were four that featured in the Premier League around the turn of the century in Marian Pahars, Igor Stepanovs, Imants Bliedelis and Andrejs Stolcers, with just one more in Kaspars Gorkss a decade ago – but an Englishman playing in Latvia?

We sat down with Justin to uncover exactly how he ended up breaking barriers of all kinds – and has no plans to stop any time soon.

How did a guy from England end up in Latvia?

I went backpacking in 1997 with a very good friend of mine, Kelvin. We set off from Newcastle and took a boat to Norway, travelling through Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, then took the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way across Russia to China. We travelled extensively through Asia, all the way down to Indonesia. We were on the road for 15 months and went to 34 countries. We both fell in love with the Baltic States during our travels.

After that trip we just didn’t have any desire to go and live back full time in the UK. I did move back and lived in Bristol and my mate got a job in Riga. I worked in tourism and my work partly brought me to the Baltics, taking customers on hotel bus tours through Eastern Europe.

I really wanted to make the move, so in the early 2000s I came over. I didn’t have a job and was kipping on my mate’s sofa. I almost ended up going home after a few weeks as it was so difficult to find any jobs. In the end I did a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language), and did that in Prague. Luckily, I passed that and used that qualification to get a full-time job in a school teaching English. That was in 2000 when I finally settled in Latvia.

I haven’t lived here the full time though; just on and off. This particular stint here has seen me stay a year and a half. I was actually living in Russia, in St Petersburg, and I went back to the UK to get my work visa and I stopped off in Riga to visit some friends. I was only due to stay for three nights but then the Covid situation kicked off. I hesitated for a week and then the borders all closed. I ended up staying for a few months while the borders remained closed. In the meantime, my Russian visa expired. I met a lovely lady in Riga a couple of months into lockdown. In Latvia the initial lockdowns were not as extreme as in other countries. When it became possible to return to Russia, I decided to stay in Latvia instead to be with my girlfriend.

Can you give us a brief overview of the Latvian league system, and a little bit of info about FK Aliance?

Aliance has actually been around quite a lot longer than most Latvian clubs. It’s a brutal kind of existence here. Most clubs can’t get paid fans in at the lower league level or certainly not any more than a Euro or two, so there’s just not income from fans coming through the turnstiles. It’s just really hard to keep clubs going. Aliance have been going around since 2007, the same as Riga United, and I think they’re in the top 10 oldest clubs in the country. You’ve also got to factor in the Post-Soviet thing that happened from 1990 onwards as a reason that some clubs went by the way.

Spot the happy Englishman playing in Latvia…

As for the league system here, we’ve currently got eight Premier League clubs, I think 10 League 1 clubs with one going up and another coming down. They’ve restructured it now; League 2 used to encompass all the other teams, there’s now a distinctive League 2 with 14 teams in it, and then you get down to the League 3, which is regional. There are five regions with, I believe, 41 clubs this season. Basically, there are 73 clubs in the league system in Latvia, although a lot of these stem from larger clubs having 2nd and 3rd teams playing in the lower divisions. Aliance are an example of this; they have a first team playing in League 2 and a second team playing in League 3. What that means is that the players can play in both teams, but if you have a reserve team then this team cannot be promoted to the next level, because otherwise the players can move from one team to the other.

How exactly did you end up being involved with FK Aliance?

In terms of my involvement with Aliance I would have to go back a little bit. I helped create a football team back around 2006 called Riga United. It actually came about from a friendly kick-about, and then the club was officially created in 2007, with me being one of our co-founders. Later on, around the end of 2011, I returned to Latvia yet again. Myself and some mates decided that we wanted to take Riga United forward a little bit. We got much more serious and we started training three times a week. I did my coaching badges and I ended up being the assistant coach of Riga United. We got into the league system in 2013 and debuted in the Latvia League 2. I started playing for Riga United at that time as well as managing. I played for them on and off every year, even though I wasn’t permanently based there, all the way through to the 2018 season.

The story is slightly complicated. I was doing a lot of coaching. I coached the Riga United ladies in the Latvian Premier League. I coached Aliance for a very short period of time, more management than coaching really, and then I was manager of Matabeleland (you can read more about this in Justin’s book, One Football, No Nets) in Zimbabwe, taking them to the CONIFA World Cup. After that, the next time that I actually played football, I played for Cesis, also in the 2nd league in Latvia. I got three or four games for them in 2018. I then went back to Riga United but I was really just on the subs bench then. I haven’t coached since Matabeleland. It was such a massive project and after that at my age I just wanted to play football a bit more. I feel I play a bit better when I don’t have to worry about doing all the coaching and academy work and such things.

Last winter I was training with Riga United – thankfully we were able to keep training unlike a lot of countries through the pandemic, so from last June we trained all the way through. Aliance trained Sunday mornings and I just asked to join in with their winter training. They’re a league 2 team but they have a team in the third league too with the reserves. They’ve got a good bunch of lads and I just kept training with them. It was actually a much much better squad and level than at Riga United.  I got myself fairly fit, kept working through the very harsh winter, but then when it got to the spring I just decided to stay with Aliance because I really enjoyed it. Then their head coach, Janis Kleperis, asked me to join the squad for the season, so I pretty much accidently joined Aliance in January. Our season runs from June until November.

Winter training in Latvia

It is remarkable to see a 50-year-old play anything beyond pub league football. How proud are you to have done this for your team?

I was immensely proud to make my league debut in 2013 when I was 42. I had spent six months getting myself ready for that – I’ve never been that fit in my life to be totally honest with you. As the years went on it has gotten more and more difficult, but I’ve always said to myself, if I don’t think I can compete at training then I’ll quit. Matches are infinitely more difficult, but obviously you’re going to get limited playing time at my age anyway.

I still feel good in training. Most of the time I go home thinking I did OK. As for the league, I treat every game as if it were my last game, every season I think is my last season. I don’t want to quit, I want to continue as long as I can. I don’t particularly want to go and play veterans football while I can still play league football. If I can, I would want to play football all my life, and I think when you go down and you train with League 2 players, to survive you’ve got to be on your game.

I did the pre-season, I set myself the target of at least stepping on the pitch and unfortunately, despite being super fit by my own standards, life got in the way. I was feeling on form, but around the time the season started I had actually gone to Russia for the Euros where I proceeded to eat, drink and get drunk every night for three weeks. I didn’t sleep very well and had to quarantine for two weeks before having my mum visit. I lost about 6 or 7 weeks of fitness and training and missed the start of the season.

Justin in training

I made my debut this season in League 2, I literally came on for the last minute. I was meant to come on around the 85 minute mark but I had to tell the player/manager “no!” The game was poised at 3-3 and I had a feeling that they could go on to sneak a winner without me. It worked too, as we went on to score a winner in the last minute! Then the gaffer substituted himself off for me and I was on for about a minute or so. It was amazing to be on the pitch anyway, at 50 years old. With the small crowd in the stadium and with the lads in the changing room at the end, it was just great to be involved and on the pitch at full time, and all during a thunderstorm!

Just a few days later the coach gave me a start for the second team in League 3 and I was really pleased with that. We played a team called Bauska and I had an okay game. I had a hand in getting us a first half penalty, I tested a keeper from long range and had a few other good moments. The manager was hoping to keep me on for the second half but my lungs were burning and I asked him at half time to please get me off. We ended up winning 5-4 which was just fantastic. One lovely thing was one of the linesmen told me at the end of the match he thought I’d had a great game.

Last week we played at Jelgava, who used to be a Premier League club, now playing in a tremendous stadium in League 3. There was a crowd in, more than 100 which was unusual for that level, playing in a ground that the England Under 21s played in where Mason Mount scored a winner in 2018. It was just a great honour to be out there again. It was so surreal, they had a choir out there before the game, the stadium had an announcer and a stadium used for international football. It was just bizarre at my age to have that experience and I’m so happy to have had that privilege.

Full time after the Jelgava match

How long do you plan to keep playing for?

I’m not going to lie, it’s National League football but this is still amateur football, there’s a right old mix of ex Latvian Premier League players, the odd ex-international maybe around the age of 40 and lots and lots of academy lads trying to build up their game time in the lower leagues hoping to make it in the top leagues. There’s a lot of decent players, lads who have been playing non-league for years, and of course the occasional pub-league player. That being said, you rarely see guys coming across from abroad and just bossing it, scoring 40 goals a season and suchlike, that just doesn’t happen. It’s still a level where you have to be able to turn up and play a bit.

In my team, the oldest lad next to me is 38 and our youngest is 16. With regards to how long I’d like to play, as mentioned previously, I’d like to play football all my life. If it means playing walking football or just kicking a ball about on a beach, I hope that I can always play a bit of football in some capacity. I’d be truly gutted if I couldn’t for whatever reason. I will only continue at this level while I feel like I can continue to compete. I’ve played this season and my target is to play next year, when I’m 51.

Age is just a number for Justin

Can you tell us about your debut? It’s not something that many 50 year olds can claim to experience

My memories from the proper debut [for the third team in a 5-4 win vs Bauska] this season was that I could not sleep for two days before. I had a dodgy stomach, just so nervous. Am I going to be good enough? Will I let people down? It’s really hard to turn up for a game in that sense. I was half dreading it, but once the game got going and I really got into it… apart from the lung capacity! It was just great to be out there. You live for the small moments – after we got and scored the penalty one of the young lads said to me “well done with the pass Justin”, and I had that feeling that I’d contributed.

I was pleased to start and was pleased to come off too! Even at full time, it was just a great feeling running onto the pitch, shaking hands with everyone. The officials even let me know I played a good game. It was just a tremendous feeling, capped off with going for a pint or two afterwards. With such a high it really makes you wonder why I was so nervous to begin with. It really was amazing to be involved. You look around and see how young everyone is, most lads there were 17, 18, 19 etc. You do the maths in your head and realise there’s about 30 years between us… I could almost be their grandfather!

How were the legs the next morning?

The legs were fine actually! I think, as stupid as it sounds, I hadn’t been training much prior to the debut. As I said earlier, I had taken off 6-7 weeks so if anything, I was fresh. It was on a very good Premier League level 3G pitch, so that was a pleasant surprise.

What does the future hold for you?

In terms of the future, I’ve been a coach, I’ve helped run a football club, I’ve done academy coaching and helped with international school coaching, but I’m happy not to be doing coaching for the time being. I’m really enjoying training and playing. It is incredibly stressful at times, being a coach. I don’t define myself in life by what job I do. If I go back to coaching then we’ll see what that brings, but for now I’m very happy how things are.

Talking tactics with Bruce Grobbelaar

I am actually going to have a bit of a time out, I’ve got a big holiday in South America, and with the season coming to a close my year is done. My target is to use football to get fit again for next season, to use football to make myself feel younger, by being surrounded by young people and meeting lots of people. The social aspect is huge. It gives you special moments like the Jelgava game and the thunderstorm. Ultimately my target is to step on the pitch again next year, aged 51.

Beyond that, it would be lovely to play some kind of representative football in my 50s. I don’t know whether I would potentially be able to play a high standard of veterans football if I can stay injury free and fairly fit, or Under-60s international walking football. Basically, I don’t really know. It’s nice to set little goals for yourself that you might potentially achieve. I’m a big believer in chasing your dreams. I have actually played nine minutes of international football, in a friendly for Matebedeland against the Chagos Islands. I came on as a sub there, aged 47. There’s no harm in having crazy dreams, you never know what opportunities might pop up. I also played for Latvia once in their national journalist team, against Russia of all teams. Just keep dreaming, that’ s one of my principles in life.

9 minutes of international football aged 47, Matabeleland v Chagos Islands

What team do you support, and how difficult is it supporting them from afar?

I support Northampton Town. The reason for that is that my grandad lived in Northamptonshire, and he used to take me as a young lad. From about the age of six I went along. I used to follow them home and away. Over the past twenty or so years it has been harder to do so with living abroad, but I still travel back to the UK and try to watch them a few times a season.

The last time I saw them play was February 2020. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to get back now with quarantine life. I’ve seen them on Sky play in the cup, so that’s something. I also follow Leicester City. I am from Leicestershire, so I do watch all their matches on the box where possible. I’d definitely consider them a ‘second team’, and of course I’m a big fan of Jamie Vardy; big hero of mine. I usually go to one or two Leicester games a season under normal circumstances.

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