Football clubs and their supporters like nothing more than adopting outsiders as their own. While local traditions and a shared history have and will probably always form the backbone of regional partisanship, the embracing of newcomers has time and time again proved to be fundamental in the evolution of both individual clubs and the way the game is played as a whole.
Barcelona’s current unrivalled position as the world’s most attractive football side owes much to a near forty year relationship with Dutch visionary Johan Cruyff, while Arsenal’s status as one of the most exciting sides in Europe is irrevocably tied to the football philosophy implemented by Alsatian Arsene Wenger. Few Nou Camp goers in 1973, nor many Highbury regulars in 1996, could possibly have imagined the paths which their respective clubs would take when the aforementioned foreigners signed on the dotted line. Fewer still can harbour regrets at the journeys since made.
In 1995, English minnows Wigan Athletic embarked on a football adventure of its own, one which has proved as fascinating as those of its contemporaries and continues, via a sprinkling of Catalan stardust and a tip of the hat to goings on in North London, to this very day. Their tale, which includes a ten year quick-fire ascent up the football ladder from the old Division Three to the Premier League, owes everything to chairman Dave Whelan, but also to a strange twist of fate which led to the recruitment of three young Spaniards spotted playing for Real Zaragoza.
While two of the so-called ‘Three Amigos’, Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz, played an interim role in raising the profile of Wigan’s football team in the traditionally rugby crazed town, the third, Roberto Martinez, would go on to have a far greater impact.
A cultured midfielder, Martinez spent six seasons playing with the Latics, helping them to the Division Three title in 1997 and the Football League trophy in 1999, before he waved goodbye to homely cups of tea with supporters for a stint in the SPL with Motherwell. Despite leaving before Paul Jewell’s time in charge and the outright assault on the top flight, his bond with Wigan and his close relationship with Dave Whelan ensured that the adventure in the northwest would in time be resumed.
Indeed sixteen years after arriving in the northwest as a bright-eyed 22-year-old Martinez is now firmly ensconced in the dugout at the DW Stadium. As might be expected from a Catalan native his management style has been heavily influenced by the technical education he received as a teenager with his sides roundly praised for their desire to keep the ball on the floor and attack quickly. His impressive two year spell cutting his teeth as a coach with Swansea saw generous comparisons made with trailblazer Arsene Wenger, while his desire to cultivate young British talent has also been roundly praised by the League Managers Association who awarded him with the League One manager of the year award in 2008.
Having taken over at Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2009, Martinez is coming to the end of his second season in charge and arguably facing his toughest test to date. With Whelan’s support the practical side of implementing his vision for the future of the club has been embarked upon, although having warded off relegation last term the threat again looms large and with it the prospect of an uncertain future.
With only two games of the 2010/11 season remaining, Sport.co.uk met Roberto Martinez to reflect on the extraordinary journey which a career in football has afforded him, how it could not have happened without Dave Whelan and why he firmly believes that Wigan have the quality to avoid relegation and become a Premier League force to be reckoned with
The ties between Catalunya and football are demonstrably strong. What was it like growing up in Balaguer as a youngster, who was your favourite team and who was the biggest influence on you during your formative days as a footballer?
Balaguer is a really small town, it’s only 15,000 people so as you can imagine everyone knows each other and it’s a very friendly place. I grew up with my dad being a big influence on my football. He played himself until he was 40 and then he started managing sides around the area. I also followed Real Zaragoza which was my Dad’s hometown club. I knew from day one that playing football was what I wanted to do and at the age of 16 I had the chance to sign for Zaragoza. It was a reverse circle, my dad had come from there to go to Balaguer and I was going from Balaguer to Zaragoza. My Dad will always be the biggest influence; he was a very professional man, he did everything with a real purpose, had high standards when it came to being a footballer and taught me how to use football as a way to live.
You arrived in England at just 22-years-old, can you explain how you came to be playing in Wigan and why you decided to take the plunge on such an unusual move at such a young age?
It was 1995 and the first year in European football that we had the Bosman ruling allowing free transfers from country to country. Everything started through the chairman of Wigan Athletic, Dave Whelan, who was also the owner of JJB Sports. At that time he had four shops in Spain and was trying to open a market there. The general director of these shops was based in Zaragoza and he saw us [myself, Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz] play a few times and that’s where the connection was made with Wigan. He saw us play at a very young age, we had good potential and it was the perfect time for us to get away from Zaragoza where it was very difficult for young players to play in the first team. We were fascinated with the story of Dave Whelan himself and also the project he had planned for Wigan Athletic.
Was there something specifically about Dave Whelan that attracted you?
In football you don’t get people like our chairman who tells you something, promise changes and make them happen inside ten years exactly as he said. You don’t get people like that and we were captivated by that approach and that promise of success. He said he would take Wigan Athletic to the Premier League, he said he wanted a new stadium to accommodate 20,000 people; he also said he wanted the rugby and football together. At that time, believe me, those sounded more like dreams than possibilities. He’s achieved that and it’s a fascinating story.
You’ve been in Britain for 15 years, played in England and Scotland, managed in Wales and married a Brit. Do you think you’ve picked up any British traits in that time?
Yes without a doubt. It’s fair to say I’m a mixture of my experiences. I will never lose my roots and that is something that I am very, very proud of, but there is definitely a combination of cultures. Sometimes when I go back to Spain I realise how I have changed and how I’ve blended with the new culture, but I’m very proud of these different traits. I’ve always found it fascinating that football can allow you to make such a big move in your life and also find happiness in a completely different culture through a way to live. Football is exactly that; a passion. I’ve never considered it a job. It is a passion and a way to live. I have been very fortunate.
You appear to have a unique relationship with chairman Dave Whelan stretching, can you outline how that longstanding friendship has helped you as a manager? And have there been any occasions when you’ve fallen out of club matters?
No, no, no. I’m very fortunate. I’ve got the best relationship in the Premier League. I’ve got time to work, I wanted to change many, many things and the chairman has been very supportive from day one. That’s probably the reason [for the close relationship]. I knew exactly what I was getting into; it was a very unique situation. We invested in youth, we wanted to take the football club to a different level and to do that we wanted to get away from being a team just fighting to avoid relegation. I feel we are very, very close two years down the line. I feel that with the playing staff and the club we have here we can stay up this season and then go to another level. We’ve been able to do that because of the patience and the understanding of the chairman. As you can imagine he’s a very successful man, he’s a winner and he demands only the best. At the moment we’re in a position in the table where it makes the situation really intense, but we’re all excited about it and being able to achieve success with Wigan Athletic.
Dave Whelan: The key to Wigan's success
You began your managerial career with Swansea four years ago, how do you feel you’ve developed as a manager since then?
Well I started to manage in 2007, but I started to think like a manager since I arrived in the UK because the British game is completely different to the way I grew up as a footballer. Straight away I had a big question mark about what was right and what was wrong and I soon learned that nothing was wrong and nothing is right. It’s all a matter of opinions, a matter of method and trying to implement ideas well. I just feel when I started managing I knew exactly what I wanted because I’d been through the process of thinking like a manager for many, many years. I have been trying different things and developing the method, but I think the philosophy has stayed consistent since I started.
You represent one of an influx of foreign managers and players into the British game. Do you think more managers and players from England should try and test themselves abroad?
Absolutely, there is no two ways about it. I think nothing teaches you more than football itself. I think the experience you can gain from going abroad is fascinating. You get really tested because you need to be able to perform and to be successful in a different contrasting culture. You get the best knowledge out of getting such experiences. I would encourage anyone to go abroad and to manage abroad. It’s not going to be easy, it will be a very challenging period, but you’ll see improvements in yourself in a very short period of time. One experience abroad counts as six or seven seasons in the domestic leagues of your own country because you’re not out of your comfort zone and you’re not really tested to the full.
You’ve spoken passionately in the past about giving young English players a chance to shine. How do you think this situation can be improved?
As I’ve said before, I feel we [in England] sometimes don’t help ourselves. I don’t think we create a structure where the youngsters can be developed to the full. It is something which is slowly improving, and it is needed. I think managers need to feel that responsibility. Young players have to play, young players need to be able to try things, to experience things. I feel that a young player with good knowledge is ready to play in the Premier League, but for that you need to be patient, you need to give them a lot of coaching and allow them to feel comfortable at that level. It is important that we realise the importance of developing young players, that it is going to help their careers and also the national team. Sometimes you need to step away from the pressure of just looking at results.
As you know these days you’re normally three defeats away from getting the sack. Sometimes it is difficult to put a lot of time and effort into youngsters and to develop them individually because the overall picture doesn’t look to be too certain. I always feel that young players are able to learn playing philosophies quickly and can play as a team very quickly also. I feel that we need to do that openly because there are real rewards for a football club which tries to use youngsters as a core in their squad.
Martinez during his playing days with the Latics
How would you assess the relationship between Premier League managers? Is a shared desire to improve the lot of young players something which is discussed regularly?
I would say the communication in the Premier League is a lot better than in any other League in Europe. I don’t think in Italy or Spain managers communicate that much, but it is within our [Briths] culture. I think in the British game there is always that relationship between managers where they speak to each other, pass on information, talk about players. It happens mostly in the off season, but the relationship carries on during the season. There is a real respect for each other and a mutual desire to develop the league and develop youngsters.
Are there managers within the Premier League who you would call friends, or are they strictly working relationships?
I think it’s more a working relationship. You can probably only call friends the managers who you have had experiences with away from the dugout, where you shared dressing rooms playing together or other such things. It’s definitely a working relationship, but a very respectful one.
How would you weigh up Wigan’s season so far? You’ve often spoken after matches about good performances not being rewarded by the results you feel you deserve...
From our point of view I feel delighted with the manner in which we have progressed this season. We had many changes in the last two seasons. Last season we achieved our aim to stay in the Premier League once more, but we had a little bit of a combination of outstanding results and performances and then very poor moments. That’s something we’ve focused on this season; to be more consistent, to be competitive in every game. I feel that we clicked as a team twelve games ago and that’s why we are in this situation. We’re catching up, although so far we haven’t been getting points that performances deserve. In the next three games we need to perform on the pitch to give ourselves a chance of getting to the 38 point target from 38 games. I feel that only then will we see the real potential of this squad, which I feel is huge.
The Everton game seemed to sum up some of your frustrations last week...
In the Everton match we performed really well, we did everything we had to do to win the game. It was just the anxiety perhaps about the moment we’re in and our position in the table which affected us. We gave away two penalties which makes things very difficult to win a football game. But that’s where we are. We’re in an exciting time; it’s a real challenge which we’re undertaking as a whole football club. We’re used to this and that is a real strength, we’re a family club and we’re going to look forward to the next three games with a view to getting the rewards I feel that we’ve deserved over the last 11 games.
The class of 2011: Two games to save their Premier League status
Are there players in your squad whose development over the last twelve months has particularly pleased you?
I would say that everyone has had a real, real good progression. Obviously you’re looking at players like James McCarthy, who is only 20-years-old. Unfortunately, we missed him for three months, but his development once more has been sensational. Victor Moses at 20 has had another fantastic season. You can also look at players who are a little bit older like Mohamed Diame who is 23. We’ve got very talented players all over the park. The loan of Tom Cleverley has had a real impact for us. I would say that every single player had a very good season in that respect because we work in a way that means I want them to be brave, I want the players to think on the pitch and I want them to enjoy themselves. I feel that under the circumstances, where we’ve been under pressure to get results week in, week out, the whole group has really developed. We have a very good group of experienced pros who are helping the youngsters along and it makes the group stronger.
What have you made of the Premier League this season – it seems there has been a much greater emphasis on team play rather than individuals stealing the limelight...
I feel that we [the Premier League] still have individuals who have produced outstanding solo performances...and every good league needs that. Overall I would say that the teams who got promoted this season came up with a real arrogance, a good football arrogance, with a real desire to win games and being prepared to take risks. You look at the way West Brom, Blackpool and Newcastle approached their games and I feel that made the gap between teams a lot closer and has made the league very competitive. I’ve never seen so many points dropped by the top five teams and that is something which is really, really difficult to make happen usually because the difference is huge between budget and players.
It has been a really refreshing season. Looking at the bottom ten teams it has been a real competitive year where the small margins have made big differences, but it has been great. An average of a point per game in any league gives you safety and I highly believe that is going to be the case this season and that is credit to the performances of teams as a whole. You cannot point out one bad team that you feel deserves to be relegated. Obviously the bottom three will be relegated, but I don’t think like in other seasons that in December, January, February that any team could be identified as not being good enough for the league.
Roberto Martinez was speaking on behalf of 188BET, the principal sponsor of Wigan Athletic. For more information on the In-Play betting specialist and to claim a £25 free bet please visit www.188BET.com