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the square ball week: roberto martinez

the square ball week: roberto martinez


“I can see the passion you’ve got about Leeds!” Roberto Martinez told me, which was a clue that my interview with the manager of Everton had perhaps run a little off course.

I don’t really regret that though. I do regret cheerfully saying to him as I left, when Roberto said he hoped Everton would be playing Leeds in the Premier League soon, “Or maybe you’ll come down!”

He’d smoothly overlooked the faux pas when I’d asked whether managing without being able to go and spend £20m on a striker was an enjoyable part of the challenge at Everton. “Well,” he said, “we just spent £28m on Lukaku…”

So ending our interview by wittering about Howard Wilkinson’s ten year plan for success at Leeds United was fairly inconsequential compared to some of what I got away with, when I interviewed Roberto for the cover story of The City Talking’s first issue in Liverpool. Besides, Roberto got the point of it and saw the parallel with what we’d been talking about; that although Wilko’s ten year plan ended two years early, when he was sacked in 1996, he could still take the credit for and feel pride in the young players that shot out of Thorp Arch in 1998 and cannonballed straight into the Champions League.

“He will have had satisfaction from a distance, to see those players coming through,” said Roberto. “That’s what happens. It’s his baby.”

It had come up because Roberto had been talking about the things that satisfy him as a manager. Winning, of course: “The pleasure of managing is winning,” he said. But also building a football club. “That’s what I enjoyed at Swansea, and when you see Swansea achieving something down the line, and you see Joe Allen moving after you put a programme in place to develop him, you get real satisfaction.”

Roberto has been involved in short-term projects — nineteen games with Brian Flynn when “we had to be perfect” to save Swansea’s Football League status — but as a player and a manager he has sought challenges that absorb him beyond the immediate target of winning the next game.

“The position of a manager nowadays makes it very difficult to find stability, because you know that you are three defeats away from being questioned. But the way I enjoy management is managing like you’re going to be in the job for a hundred years, and you need to make decisions that you know the club is going to benefit from. Maybe not while you’re in charge, but even further down the line.

“At Everton, it’s a bit different in the fact that you feel privileged to be the manager, to be the custodian of such an incredible football club. I’m only the fourteenth manager, which is an incredible statistic. And I enjoy managing the football club in a way that, whatever happens, the football club should be the most important aspect of any decision I make.”

Counting back fourteen at Leeds United takes you to Kevin Blackwell. Admittedly that includes John Carver, David Geddis and Gwyn Williams, but I have balanced it by only counting Neil Redfearn once, and by counting Steve Evans at all; our current head coach is, remember, only on a one-month rolling contract.

Steve Evans had just been appointed when I went to see Roberto Martinez, but already I felt, and have felt no reason to change my opinion since, that everything Everton were doing was right and threw into stark relief that everything about Leeds United was wrong.

You could feel it in the corridors of Finch Farm, Everton’s training ground, where players like Gerard Deulofeu smile and ask how you’re doing as they pass; where the man skipping down the stairs singing a cheerful song, who stops to say hi on his way to coach on the Academy pitches, is Duncan Ferguson; where when the manager comes into the media room for our interview he seems genuinely embarrassed to have kept us waiting for an hour and a half, offers a full explanation (it was the last day before the international break, so everyone had wanted to see him) and puts himself at our disposal by saying, “But now, now I have all the time you want.”

Compared to the dark, empty corridors I’ve encountered at Thorp Arch on occasions in the last couple of years, where the few gloomy players to be seen have been quick to grumble about the training or the lack of water in the pool, it was a joy to walk into the heart of a football club and meet people who were happy to be there, who were relaxed and confident and friendly, who you would trust to either succeed on the pitch on the weekend or to fetch your sick grandmother’s prescription if you asked them to.

Although I was there to write about Everton, I couldn’t leave my Leedsness at the door for the interview or empty my pen of that ink entirely when I came to write the story. You always bring your experience to what you write, and my football experience is hideously distorted by Leeds United; it’s impossible not to compare.

Everton are a natural comparison. Like Leeds, they’ve always been seen as a less glamorous club during their spells of success; like Leeds, they’ve felt the sins of others rob them of rightful successes — Everton could have won the European Cup in the eighties if not for the post-Heysel ban, while Leeds had referees sent by UEFA to keep our trophy count artificially low. It was to Goodison Park that Leeds travelled for the first game of our Wilko-inspired return to the First Division; and it was Goodison Park that always had the luck to be the venue for venting anger at the Ridsdale-inspired fall.

What Everton have now, both in terms of opportunities and restrictions, ought to feel achievable for Leeds United. Upper mid-table in the Premier League, playing attacking football with a squad of highly rated players, some young and some experienced, with the ability to make expensive additions when required; they are held back by the commercial implications of being based at Goodison and having thrifty owners, leaving them outside the big spending gang that have dominated the Premier League in recent seasons.

Why they have what they have, and why they have the potential to achieve so much right now, is because they have a manager who will make the most of what Everton have, who is able — through his own mental strength and through the security the club offers him — to set aside worries about his own future and manage like he’s going to be in the job for a hundred years, and as if he has been in the job for the previous 137.

One of the central arguments of the Soccernomics and Moneyball principles that are popular with clubs these days is that football managers don’t have as much influence on results and points totals as stats-backed recruitment policies; diminishing their roles to affecting, through coaching, the last ten percent or so they can add by setting the team up. Nothing a manager can do can have more impact than resources, goes the thinking. It’s not how Roberto thinks.

“I find it very lazy to just look at the finances and say, well, we’re not in the top four budgets in the league, so we shouldn’t be in the top four places,” said Roberto. “I just don’t believe football should be run that way.

“There is always, always a way of achieving in football, without relying on money,” and part of Roberto’s job is “finding the way” — finding the ways that he can influence results, in the short and long term, without giving in to received wisdom and a budget measuring contest. At Everton, Roberto is:

“Finding the way. Sometimes in football it’s very different from one club to another. At Everton, I think the power of our history has to be the main ingredient in order to stimulate and inspire players.”

That isn’t lip service to a club’s history, like a new manager with a scarf going on about privilege and a massive history. It’s a practical policy of educating Everton players in the history of the club they represent, making them understand not only the expectations of the fans, but the history that has informed those expectations; not overwhelming them with tradition, but making being compared to Howard Kendall into an achievable target, showing them the successes of the past that Everton fans want to experience again, and making them yearn to be a part of that.

“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,” said Roberto. “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.” And for the new players and the younger players, there are welcome packs.

“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.

“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.”

From a Leeds United point of view it’s ironic to be writing about this in the build up to a visit to The Valley. Last time Leeds were due to travel to Charlton Athletic, there was a clear division of players who didn’t travel, because their understanding of what is important to Leeds United fans was incomplete; because their loyalties did not align with the loyalties of Leeds United fans; because they, quite simply, didn’t respect the club or its supporters.

That might have been down to a failure to educate the players in Leeds United’s history; it might have been down to a failure to sign players who would respect Leeds United’s history; it might been because, after as many managers in a decade as some clubs have had in a century, there’s a recklessness at the club about our present and our future, a feeling that there’s nothing permanent at Leeds United worth preserving or building upon; not the way Everton’s history is worth preserving or building upon.

The last point is nonsense, of course. Everton is a storied club that has achieved many great things, but so is Leeds United. Everyone at Everton knows that about Everton, though, while I’m not sure that everybody at Leeds United knows it about Leeds. That’s dangerous, to play roulette with our history; it’s also wasteful, at a club that (no matter what we’re told about the next set of accounts) is stretched for resources, to squander a unique strength: the fact that we are Leeds United, and we do things a certain way.

We’ve been too willing, at Leeds, to let people with no knowledge or respect for the history to the club tell us what we can and can’t do, what sort of team we should watch, what standards we should accept.

At Everton I found a manager who has treated his first seasons at the club as an opportunity to learn about its history and traditions, because he recognises that in a sport of fine margins, you can’t ignore something so powerful as the collective memory and will of a club’s support. Well, you can; but you can’t do that and expect to succeed.

One of the other embarrassing moments in the interview, and another that I’ll stand behind, was when I paused, thought, and thought to heck with it: “Roberto,” I asked, “Do you want to come and manage Leeds? I know we just got a manager but I’m sure there’ll be a vacancy soon.”

Roberto just laughed. You can’t say I didn’t try, but he’s busy with his own thing right now.

“Everything goes back to that dream of winning the title,” he told me, “Of getting into the top four, competing with teams for Champions League positions. That’s because we are Everton, and our history demands it, and so you have to find a way.”

They are Everton, and their history demands it, so they have to find a way. I wonder when it was that Leeds United’s history demanded what we have now.


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The interview with Roberto Martinez is in The City Talking: Liverpool, issue 1, which was released in Liverpool this week; it will be online here soon.