“in football, you need to come up with a dream” — roberto martinez, everton fcBack
This is part two of our three part interview; click here for part one.
Critical to the welcome that Roberto Martinez gives new players to Everton is the immediate suggestion of a goal, a direction, a target to achieve. Roberto’s career has sometimes looked from outside to be a sequence of counter-intuitive decisions; from Zaragoza in La Liga to the bottom tier of English football and Wigan; from the First Division with Walsall back to the Third, and the bottom of the Third, with Swansea. But what has driven Roberto’s decisions has not been the level or the glory, but the project, and the way the people behind each project believed in what they were doing. People have been the important element ever since Roberto left home to play for Zaragoza, aged sixteen.
“My father gave me my passion for the game,” says Roberto. Martinez Senior managed the local team in Balaguer, the small Catalan town Roberto is quick, when it’s mentioned, to call “my home.”
“In a small town it’s even more accentuated because everyone expects the manager to have a son that plays well, and everyone speaks about football to you so you need to have an opinion about it. People would ask me what I thought about the weekend, and I was seven or eight years old, what opinion could I have? But I always enjoyed that sort of role that I had, being in a small town.
“My dad and I, we lived the game. It wasn’t his job, it was his passion. We would be watching football and then we’d have our conversations. I would ask him, ‘Why aren’t you playing him, he’s such a good player?’ He’d say, ‘Yes, but he doesn’t play well with someone else.’ And then I would try to see things in this different way. We had great conversations, and those memories, I will never forget those memories. Those were the most special moments that I shared with my dad, just talking about football.
“And I understood then that, in football, you need to have a lot of thought; and you need to come up with a dream, first and foremost, a vision, and then you need to slowly work with the team to achieve that.
“I left home quite early, I was sixteen when I signed for Zaragoza and became a professional footballer. It was two hours away driving, which was a long trip, so my memories of home were really special in that respect.”
Roberto was young still when together he, Jesús Seba and Isidro Diaz — publicity dubbed them the Three Amigos — swapped Spain for Wigan; barely twenty-two.
“When you leave home it means you leave your family, you leave your comfort zone, you leave your safety net. And then it’s a choice. Wherever you go, it’s a choice.
“I’ve never been driven by materialistic things. I just want to be driven by good projects, and by wanting to achieve whatever the aim is from a football point of view. But for that you need to understand the football club, and you need to understand the people that are running the football club, and those relationships have, for me, been very important. Those human relationships become really important to understanding the football club.”
The relationship with Dave Whelan at Wigan, and the involvement in a dream as glassy and tempting as a cloudless night sky, transformed the potentially disorientating arrival of young Roberto in Wigan into what he now says, “Looking back, was such a natural process. And that’s why it was very successful.
“When I say natural it’s because Dave Whelan, as an owner of a football club, had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He wanted to bring flair, and he wanted to bring creativity, and he wanted to bring something very different into his changing room. And he wanted to get into the Premier League with a new stadium, at a football club where that was unthinkable.
“So our reason for arriving in the British game was well planned. And the vision was there from someone who was prepared to make us welcome, and who was demanding what we had.
“We didn’t arrive into an environment where we couldn’t give what we were expected to give, and we were protected and made to feel so welcome and so homely with everyone around Wigan; especially the chairman, obviously, but also the fans. It became a really strong bond between us and what we were asked to do, in a beautiful project.”
Roberto’s beginnings at Swansea were not as beautiful; he didn’t arrive in Swansea the way he had arrived in Wigan, to be part of a mission to the moon, but in “a very, very difficult moment” that, nonetheless, meant Roberto had a very specific job ahead of him when he exchanged trying to get into Walsall’s team in the First Division (now The Championship) for captaining Swansea, bottom of the Football League by four points.
“That was a very interesting football project,” says Roberto. “The manager at that time was Brian Flynn, and he had a very clear idea that he wanted the club to survive by playing good football. That’s what engaged me, because ten years ago everything was percentage football and getting the ball into the box. There was a motto that if you played good football you’d never be promoted. I always felt that in the British lower leagues you could achieve a lot more by playing good football. When Brian Flynn said to me that he wanted to survive by playing good football and I was going to be key to that, I just couldn’t wait to do it. I was in the First Division, but to drop into the Third — I’ve never been concerned about the level. It’s just about the project.
“Brian was very intelligent by bringing in players on loan for the short term that were better than the level. Few of the players had a long relationship with Swansea, but everyone had an incredible responsibility of keeping Swansea up, because that was the project. It was nineteen games and it was a very interesting situation because we were a group of individuals that had the same goal, and we had to be perfect in order to achieve the aim of staying in the league, which at that point was very significant for the history of Swansea City. I really enjoyed that challenge.”
Roberto was one who did have a longer relationship with Swansea, continuing as a player as the club won promotion to League One, returning as manager to take the club into the Championship for the first time in twenty-four years. It was an intense association with an intense football club, that was on a trajectory that tugged at the core threads of Roberto’s character long after survival was achieved; character that sustained him when Kenny Jackett became manager and Roberto was left on the sidelines with no illusions about his manager’s opinions, and decided to stay and fight his way back into the team that meant so much to him.
“When you’re involved in a team sport, when the focus is on you, you have to make a lot of decisions. When the focus is on the team, it is very simple. That means sometimes, if it doesn’t go your way, as long as you know you can make a difference and you can help the team in achieving something, you can get through very difficult periods. It’s about having strong belief in yourself and what you can do, and understanding you need to keep those high standards even when things are not going your way. Then, you can make the difference in order to help the team to achieve something. And throughout my career that has always been the case in football. When I was a player it wasn’t about me playing or not, it was about what I could do in order to help the team. And, as a consequence, you end up playing.
“As a manager I’m trying to manage the team in the same manner. I think it really helps to bring longevity to what you do, because it’s not about making a decision based on something that is materialistic or hasn’t got substance. If you are part of a project that a team wants to achieve, you will always have direction, and you will always find a way to work hard towards it.
“I have always believed in that, in terms of managing players; that they can be part of a team that has got a goal and an aspiration, that is going to benefit them individually, and you can build the football club around that. Setting a goal that everyone gets some sort of passion for, and then through that aspiration being prepared to give everything you’ve got in order to make the difference to achieve it.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Liverpool, issue 1