Football: Martyn: Keeper of the keys to the title

Alex Hayes meets the Leeds international with heights to scale
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The Independent Online
THE MORNING after the day, after the night before. And still that game is on everyone's mind. Hardly surprising, but this is not Manchester. This is the Thorp Arch training ground in Wetherby and these are the Leeds United players. Don Revie would be turning in his grave.

"Incredible performance," says a bubbly Nigel Martyn, the Leeds goalkeeper, as he settles down in the Portakabin the club jokingly refer to as the high-tech press room. "I imagine the whole country wanted them to win. I certainly did." Praise indeed when you consider the clubs' rivalry, though Martyn insists Manchester's success serves mostly as inspiration. Something Leeds will need in abundance when they face United at Elland Road today.

"That is what we're all aiming for," says the 32-year-old Cornishman, who sees unmistakable similarities between the present Leeds outfit and the Manchester United side of the early Nineties. "That is what the club aspires to. As soon as David [manager O'Leary] took over, he made a point of bringing the youngsters in. George [Graham] went for the tried and trusted - and it worked for him. But I think that can only go so far. It was a bold move by David to blood young men who were obviously good players, but had no experience. And the youngsters have taken to it."

Not least Jonathon Woodgate, who last week was called up to his first full England squad. No mean feat for a player who did not make his first- team debut until O'Leary took charge last November. "Woody is a good footballer. He's consistent and deserves what he's got."

In many ways, Woodgate's elevation symbolises Leeds' impact on the Premiership this season. "It's true," says Martyn. "The way we want to play football is, I think, the right way. We don't always get from A to B as quickly as we can, but we try to play football, even in defence."

Martyn, who started his career at Bristol Rovers before cementing his reputation at Crystal Palace, is the senior shepherd among the O'Leary lambs. And he is enjoying the responsibility. "I guess it is quite nice. You give advice about lots of things, football-related or not. You know, it must be strange for the youngsters coming in and playing for the first team. They must sometimes wonder what they are supposed to do."

After finishing fifth last year (and looking to go at least one better this time), Leeds can justifiably claim to be the fourth club in the land. If they are to compete with the likes of Manchester, Arsenal and Chelsea next season, though, they will have to bolster their squad. "When we have injuries in key areas, we struggle. If Jimmy [Floyd Hasselbaink] misses a match, for example, we lack that cutting edge to our game. But the manager knows what new players he wants and which established ones he will keep."

In the meantime, Martyn is satisfied with his team's achievements, not least because of their limited resources. "If we finish fourth, that would almost be like winning another league outside the top three," he says. "But we haven't given up on a top-three finish this time. There's no reason why we can't do it."

No reason indeed as Leeds face all three clubs above them, and will probably play a pivotal role in the championship run-in. "We're aware of that. We've known for some time that we'd play all three of them. It's going to be difficult, but we have five games left and David has set us a target of 15 points. So that's what we will aim for."

Starting today, when three points against the Champions' League finalists would do nicely. After their exertions in Turin, Leeds could be forgiven for thinking Manchester United might be jaded, a notion Martyn dismisses instantly. "They've been doing this for years now; playing European games in mid-week and then performing in the league at the weekend. If we thought for one second they'd be tired, we'd probably get an awful shock. If anything, it might be harder for us. The match will have actually brought them closer together."

Martyn stops short of singling out Peter Schmeichel for the triumph, but he is a keen admirer of the Dane. "I remember when he arrived at Man U," he says. "Steve Coppell [the Palace coach] said he was the great keeper they had lacked. He just knew they would win the league with him in goal." Martyn hopes to be a similar catalyst for Leeds.

Aside from his club ambitions, Martyn has the added incentive of furthering his international career. A regular member of the England squad for the last two years, he feels his time will come. Unless David Seaman's shoulder injury fails to heal, Martyn is unlikely to play against Hungary on Wednesday. "David wants his 50th cap," he says. "Anyway, his performances for Arsenal and England have been so good, I could hardly knock on the manager's door and say I should be playing."

Talking of the manager, is he a believer in the Kevin Keegan effect? "Yeah, definitely. The atmosphere was subdued for the France game because nobody knew what was happening. But now we have an England manager with fresh ideas. Someone who, for example, is encouraging players to mingle more. It's actually really nice and positive."

Come 11.30am today, Martyn will banish any thoughts of England. Having helped Leeds win seven of their last nine matches, he now hopes the fast- maturing Yorkshire imitators can outwit the Red Rose masters.