Football: Martyn's return wins rare respect

Leeds'goalkeeper revisits his old club in the FA Cup tonight. Guy Hodgson reports
There should be no boos the first time Nigel Martyn touches the ball at Selhurst Park tonight. Someone with a short memory might try but he will be hushed by those around him. In south London speak, Nigel is one of us.

True, he left Crystal Palace for Leeds United last summer but he lingered longer than most and that is appreciated at a place where better players have not been known for their adhesiveness. The club's fanzine has issued dire warnings for those who give Martyn a hard time in tonight's FA Cup third round tie, and if he could see to it not to give the home supporters a hard time too...

While it is never wise to get too misty-eyed about footballers where loyalty tends to have a wage rise attached, in Martyn's case the feelings of bonhomie will be reciprocated. He will be trying his utmost to get Leeds through to the next round of the Cup tonight but one win last May and he would have been in the opposite net. Happy to be there, too.

"If we'd gone up in the play-offs I'd have stayed at Selhurst Park," Martyn said, "but it had got to the stage where I was nearly 30 and needed to be in the Premiership. I still have a lot of friends at Palace and fond feelings for the place."

Martyn, a rare Cornish footballer, arrived in south London from Bristol Rovers just in time for the finest Palace team in history. In his first season they reached the FA Cup final, the next they were third in the First Division but images of a golden future dimmed when the side of Wright, Bright and delight broke up and two relegations in three seasons followed, albeit with a promotion in between.

Failure to keep the yo-yo going against Leicester in the play-offs at Wembley last May was the last disappointment for Martyn and he was gone, if not forgotten. "I had letters of support from Crystal Palace supporters when I moved to Leeds which was nice," he said. "They were thanking me for the years and saying they were glad I didn't just chuck it in the first time we got relegated or the second time. They understood this was my chance and they wished me well."

The wishes have come true. Since he arrived at Elland Road Martyn's form has been outstanding to a point where George Graham, a man not easily impressed when it comes to the defensive side of things, has advocated his inclusion in the England squad. "He has surprised me," the Leeds manager said. "I hadn't realised how good he was.

"I'd seen him play for Crystal Palace lots of times but when you've got a player like David Seaman on your books you don't appreciate the goalkeepers immediately beneath him until you work with them. He has a similar personality to Seaman, very gentle. He doesn't get excited the way some goalkeepers do."

These compliments might have been coming from Everton's Joe Royle, but the Goodison club lost Martyn when they seemed to have him. His wife has family on Merseyside and he was inclined to go there until he went for the interview. The manager was unavailable, the chairman, Peter Johnson, too busy and when he told director Cliff Finch that he was also talking to Leeds the reaction was, well, strange.

"He went away for 15 minutes," Martyn said, "and when he came back he gave me the directions to the M62 and told me to leave as early as I could because the traffic was building. I can understand they didn't want to get involved in an auction, but they had me there. If they'd worked harder they might have kept me. I came over to Leeds and was treated completely differently. They made more effort."

That early work has proved worthwhile because Graham estimates that his goalkeeper has made only two mistakes since the two joined forces. That, Martyn puts down to the eagerness to impress new supporters, colleagues and managers which gave him access to "an extra 10 per cent you didn't know was there" and to his goalkeeping coach.

John Burridge played for 18 clubs, including Palace, in a 25-year career and is passing on his experience to Martyn. "I missed out on goalkeeping coaching at Selhurst Park," he said. "When I first went to the club we had Peter Bonetti, but unfortunately he moved further north and he wasn't replaced.

"You try to do it yourself but perhaps you don't push yourself as much as you should do. It's hard to say what John gives me without getting too technical, but he gets you sharper in your mind, quicker on your feet."

Sharp enough to add to his three England caps? "You have always got to be hopeful," he replied. "Ray Clemence toured the country at the start of the season seeing English goalkeepers saying that I and they hadn't been forgotten, but I've heard nothing since. You just have to train as hard as you can, play to the best of your ability and keep your fingers crossed when the squad is announced."

If he is picked, Leeds will be delighted although Palace supporters will be pretty chuffed too. Particularly if he gets there despite a nightmare game tonight.