“the only thing you want is to understand the fans” — roberto martinez, everton fcBack
It’s late in the afternoon at Everton’s training ground, Finch Farm, on the last day before November’s international break. The corridors are stirring with the relaxed activity of a school after hours on the last day of term.
We hear Duncan Ferguson before we see him, singing cheerfully as he marauds down the stairs on his way to the Academy pitches, breaking off to give us a quick hello-goodbye, whoever we are. Gerard Deulofeu is quieter as he passes by, but still all smiles; people hold doors for each other, and us, bringing us into the camaraderie that develops when a football club is still doing its thing, hours after training has finished.
When Roberto Martinez dashes into the media room his first words are to apologise for keeping us waiting, followed by an explanation that the day before a break is a day without breaks for the manager. It’s not a day spent working to win the next game; it’s a day spent working to make sure every player, every department, wherever they’re going and whatever they’re doing, wins the next ten days, so that when they come back, then they’ll win the next game.
“But now,” Roberto says with an apologetic smile, “Now I have all the time you want.”
Roberto is suited to days like these, and he doesn’t look like the hours of work he has put in before talking to us have bothered him in the slightest. Some people wish there were more hours in the day so they could fit in everything they have to do. Roberto Martinez would welcome more so he could do more.
At Everton, Roberto has to manage more, and differently, than at other clubs. Part of the challenge is the same as it was when he managed Swansea City and Wigan Athletic: manage the situation on the field on Saturday so that you win the football match, and do it within a hothouse environment created by passionate, partisan supporters.
Part of the challenge is different. At Goodison Park, Roberto is managing within a tradition that neither Swansea or Wigan had, clubs where glories had either been grasped briefly, as with Swansea’s seasons at the top in the early eighties; or were distant dreams, for Wigan in the Fourth Division days at Springfield Park. In those jobs, Roberto was creating history, like managing Wigan to their first ever major honour, the FA Cup in 2013. At Everton, tradition demands that he emulate history. If he brings the FA Cup to Goodison, it’ll be its sixth visit. If they win the league, it’ll be for the tenth time.
And part of the challenge is unique. Only Everton Football Club have, over the park, Liverpool Football Club to compete with; only Liverpool FC have Everton over the park to compete with. Only on Merseyside do you find a rivalry tuned so tense and wound so tight, like cords of a steel wire suspending a bridge in the air, that it supports the daily life of a city.
You might, as a manager in a two club city, choose to ignore the second club and concentrate on your own; but no Everton fan could ever honestly ignore events on the field a stone’s throw from their own pitch of attention. And Roberto Martinez’s approach to the management of Everton FC won’t allow him to dismiss any aspect of what matters to an Everton fan. What matters to the fans is what brought him here.
“The way I see it is that you want football to be a vehicle to bring success to a family,” says Roberto. “Because I grew up like that. My dad was manager of a team locally, and we would suffer the disappointment of losing at the weekend; or, if dad won, we were all happy. So I always felt that was very important.
“Swansea and South Wales is a very, very intense environment, where you feel very close to that happiness during the week after a win, and to how important the results are.
“In Liverpool that is even more important, because it is not just your result, you have got someone else’s result that can affect that happiness. It is a responsibility you thrive on, to become better day by day. Obviously as a football club we want to become successful and win titles, but the way we are as a football club, the biggest stimulation for me as a manager is to become better as a club to give more happiness to our fans in the city.
“It is a very different feeling when you bring that happiness into a city. It is not just the fans; every club has fans, and obviously the good results bring happiness. But here it is like you can see certain aspects of the city being affected by an Everton win or an Everton defeat. And that’s a responsibility you thrive on.”
Happiness is not a gift easily given to football fans, an awkward tribe of tribes, varying in their hopes, wants and reference points, depending on whether they were raised on Kendall or Limpar, Ball or Baines. But Roberto is an enthusiast for hard work when the project and the direction of travel are clear, and by making the happiness of the fans the project, he is giving Everton, the club and its players, a simple mission, and a powerful tool to achieve it.
“We are very proud of the heritage and the history that we have, and of what we represent as a football club,” says Roberto. “I think that is what we are.
“I was very intrigued when I became manager of Everton to find out about that history, because then you can understand the thinking of the fans. And as a manager the only thing you want is to understand the fans in order to satisfy them and please them. That is something that has been fascinating to discover: how they feel, and the journey they have had over the years.”
To Roberto the journey, everything that brought Everton to where it is today, the bad times included, but at a club like Everton, the successes more, is Everton Football Club; and is the permanent foundation upon which the club should build. Winning matches week by week is vital because wins make fans happy, but happiness is easy to lose in a way that tradition is not.
“Happiness is something that is very much on the spot,” says Roberto. “Something that very rarely you can build on. You can build on a good feeling and then you get a defeat, and then you have to start from scratch.”
A heritage of happiness, though, of success achieved a certain, Evertonian way, is something that can be used to motivate the club to something more vivid and sublime than Saturday’s result.
“Where we are at Everton, this is a moment to open up and absorb as much as we can in terms of what Everton is, the incredible landmarks we created in world football, and embrace that responsibility.
“And I think that comes with the certain type of players that we have at the club. We have got a core that know Everton, and they represent Everton, so it’s very easy for them to identify with the message. For the younger players, it then becomes very easy for them to understand the expectations. And I want that to be the focus and the direction of our football club.”
It’s simple to be an Everton fan: you’re born. But not every footballer is born an Evertonian, and not every player the club will want to sign will be an instinctive Evertonian, and players don’t become Evertonian without intervention. But Evertonian is what they have to be. Roberto’s career as a player and as a manager before coming to Everton made him synonymous with Wigan and Swansea, so much so that the circumstances of his arrival in the lower reaches of English football in 1995, one of the first three Spanish players to follow English football’s first, Nayim, have been forgotten as time has passed. It feels like Roberto Martinez has always been part of English — and Welsh — football culture, but Roberto hasn’t forgotten that hard work has to happen for a player to make that happen.
“When I first arrived at Everton I asked a couple of players, a couple of foreign players that were with us, if they knew how many goals Dixie Dean scored in one season,” he says. “And one player didn’t know who Dixie Dean was. At that point I understood that it was our responsibility to make the players aware of what they represent. Everyone who plays for Everton should know that Dixie Dean scored sixty goals for Everton.
“I have been very much aware of making our new signings understand, especially our foreign players; I want them to understand Everton. Straight away, from the first day that they arrive through the door, they need to understand the privilege of representing Everton, first and foremost.
“But then, do they understand the thoughts of our fans? Do they understand that the way our fan is going to judge a player is because that fan has a history, that has affected his thinking?
“We have put a lot of things in place in the last six months, more than ever, to speed up the process of understanding for a new player when he arrives at Everton. To understand what we are, the culture, the history that we have, and to get that feeling of our fans.
“We give them a welcome pack. It gives them a sense of being part of a football club with an incredible history. Just by the fact of arriving at Everton you need to recognise the privilege, and that you are a certain number in the history of the football club. It’s something you can be accountable for. Then it has a little bit of the surrounding expectation that there was around your signing to the football club, then looking through legends of the football club, big moments that everyone speaks about, big landmarks. And then possible targets that you could achieve as a player in our football club, that straight away gives you a bit of direction towards what should be a goal of yours.
”If you’re a midfielder, you can be compared to the Holy Trinity, to the magnificent midfielders we have had. Straight away we are getting into stimulating a little bit the thirst of a player to understand Everton.”
That’s one of the keys: that new players at Everton should not be daunted by the club’s history, but inspired by it; motivated to revel in it and extend it, animated by the desire to create new memories alongside the moments that, they have learned, the fans already treasure.
“What’s important is to understand that what you are as a football club, whatever you are, whatever history you have, it has to be a strength. But that strength has to be explained to the individuals so they can understand the fans. Because it can be very, very powerful if a football club has got a rich history; but in the same way it can be daunting if it hasn’t got the right connection.
“That’s something I’ve been really interested and excited about; finding out the small details that make our fans extremely, extremely proud of our football club. And if we get that connection with the players, that’s going to be powerful on the pitch.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Liverpool, issue 1