Football’s amigo in a league of his own

Seeds of Wigan manager’s success were in the character he displayed as a lower-league foreign import to England.

A couple of weeks into my life as a university student, I was at the Discotheque Royale nightclub in Manchester when the Champions of Europe walked in.

Four months earlier, Manchester United had beaten Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Champions League final in Barcelona, thanks to injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer that few football fans will need reminding of.

Their arrival at our student night was no small deal, and I went round shaking hands or exchanging nods with the likes of Gary Neville, Johan Cruyff’s son Jordi, and several others whom I don’t specifically remember – perhaps because the next player I saw whipped my attention away.

Standing beside Cruyff was a central midfielder who played for Wigan Athletic in the third tier of English football. His name was Roberto Martinez.

I immediately got down on my knees and began worshipping him in a fashion that was no doubt hugely embarrassing, but only natural for an 18-year-old Wigan fan meeting one of his heroes on a night out.

The bemusement on his face was matched only by that on the face of Gary Neville – or at least that’s what I recall.

But if my sweaty fingerprints were still on the European Cup, I wouldn’t expect a guy who had just won the Auto Windscreens Shield (1-0 vs Millwall) to be getting all the plaudits.

Roberto Martinez has always been loved by Wigan fans. And as we near the kickoff of the 2012/13 Premier League season – his fourth as Wigan manager – he seems to be close to that status in the rest of the football world as well. (If any Swansea fans take issue with that, fair enough. But he was ours first).

It was when I was listening to an American radio commentary of Euro 2012 this summer, and Martinez was brought in for some staggeringly sharp analysis from across the pond, that I realised how high his stock was – something that, on paper, does not appear to tally with Wigan Athletic’s finishes in the English Premier League.

Genuine character

But it is the nature of Martinez’s management, the stylish performances of a team who have seemed doomed more than once, and his warm and genuine character that makes him stand out in the often less-than-beautiful game that is English football.

To recap his most recent achievement, Wigan won eight of their last nine matches in 2011/12 to take them from bottom of the league in March, to seven points clear of the drop in May.

That run included wins over Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and a 4-0 manhandling of Newcastle.

Gareth Griffiths played alongside Martinez at Wigan from 1998-2001, and had met the Spaniard at the training ground a few days before I spoke to him on Skype.

“They say nice things don’t happen to nice people, but it’s great to see he’s getting his reward for his confidence,” Griffiths said.

“Just like everything in his life, he’s put his heart and soul into it. People take to him and his warmth, but that wouldn’t mean much without his ability and knowledge of football.

“I asked (assistant manager) Graeme Jones if anyone had any doubts about survival last year, and he said no. Roberto’s got an amazing level of positivity and it rubs off on everybody else.”

That belief, along with the money of chairman Dave Whelan, was a spark that helped get Wigan out of the bottom division during Martinez’s six seasons as a Wigan player.

He arrived as one of the “Three Amigos” from the Real Zaragoza B-team in 95/96 – the exciting trio of Martinez, Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz sparking a fashion for sombreros in a northern town not famed for its sunshine.

Watching them in action against the likes of Carlisle United remain some of my favourite memories – more so than my first match as a seven-year-old, when my Sunderland-supporting granddad was on the receiving end of some four-letter words that I had never heard at home.

The Amigos may also have been the first people in Wigan ever to drink a latte instead of a pint.

“He never had a drink, Roberto, but he wasn’t the sort of person who needed encouragement to be first on the dancefloor,” said Griffiths, who now gives financial advice to players and is a trustee of the Professional Footballers Association.

“We took the mickey out of him at Wigan because he used to have a little cappuccino brigade that went for coffees together.

“He enjoyed the social side, without a drink – which was a big part of it back then. He was ahead of his time, really.”

Style of play

In three years as Wigan manager, Martinez has been rewarded for sticking to an attractive style of play even during runs of defeats in the drop zone, and Whelan has been rewarded for sticking with him when many a nervous chairman would have made a change.

Indeed many of the DW Stadium backroom staff were there with Whelan and Martinez in the fourth tier, including Jones, whose record 33 goals in 96/97 made him another of my heroes.

Whelan’s faith includes faith in Martinez to make his own career choices. He would have let “Bobby” go to Aston Villa before last season, and he would have let him go to Liverpool when they were in talks with him this summer.

He has a magic touch now with fans, his players and the media – and it is exciting that he is staying for our eighth consecutive season in the top flight, after we first got there in 2005.

But it is most exciting for those of us who saw his magic touches from the old terraces at Springfield Park, when a team packed with foreigners playing Premier League football was still just a dream.

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