For a man who always ends his programme notes with the words sin miedo ("without fear"), Roberto Martinez is extraordinarily well acquainted with how that emotion can haunt a football club when relegation hangs over the place.
"Relegation is a very strong word," he says. "It affects collectively and individually in a huge way." And most vividly, it seems, on a Monday morning, when you walk into the club and you see the emotion written all over the faces which greet you. "You can find real anxiety certain days, real fear other days, sadness other days, other days you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and suddenly you see real excitement because people feel you are going to do it..."
Martinez is not actually describing the walk to his office at Wigan Athletic, though the course of the season now concluding – in which they have slumped to the bottom two times and only recently began revealing signs of recovery – has been one of fairly tortuous introspection. No. It was at Swansea that the Spaniard lived relegation in the raw – rode the "rollercoaster", as he remembers it – and while the £30m which is riding on the next three games takes your breath away, nothing will ever quite compare to the desperate scramble to ensure Football League survival for the South Wales club back in May 2003. "When you are experiencing the possibility of losing your professional status it is a huge, huge, turnaround in the football club," Martinez says. "You have many people losing their jobs in the office. The whole football club changes."
That Swansea side, which Martinez captained under the management of the brilliant, unassuming Welshman Brian Flynn, were two points adrift at the bottom of the league on New Year's Day 2003, and yet survived with a win on the last day of the season, bestowing upon Martinez a knowledge which he says is of vital importance to him, with a last home game with West Ham and a visit to Stoke to come after today's match at Aston Villa. "Huge," he tells The Independent, barely before it has been put to him that this past experience informs the present one. "It gives me a huge amount of understanding of the current situation. I can guarantee you that you learn a lot from those experiences – you understand things about yourself, understand the situation, understand the key things that are going to have an effect in that fight."
Which are? "Being able to perform without being affected by what you are playing for," he says. "You need to understand what's needed to win a game, what you're good at and to be able to do that without any influence from the outside." Amid the blood and thunder of the next three weeks, that may pose more of a challenge to Wigan's players than any others – because the human impulse to throw everything at it from now on is just not the way they do things at Martinez's Wigan. For two years now, the 37-year-old has been imbuing the club with a creed that "direct football and winning 50:50 balls", as he puts it, is not the answer.
In fact, ever since he pitched up at the club's old Springfield Park ground as a player in 1995 and formed the "Three Amigos" with Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz, he has found he can't win the English physical battles. "I had to find space; to find another way," he says – and what served him then will do so now. "Nobody guarantees you with a long chipped ball that you're all of a sudden going to win. It's harder for us to win like that because we don't rely on that style. It's very simple to say if you play direct you win but it's the opposite. I see other teams that try to be direct and they don't win."
The most striking part of the unfolding conversation in Martinez's small office at Wigan's training ground this week is not his air of calm – remarkable though it is – but his utter conviction that the "other way" which he has discovered for Dave Whelan and his club is going to keep them in the top flight. The club has been weaned off the desire to rush at football and things "clicked 11 games ago," to his mind. Last weekend's goal against Everton came after 17 passes, the goals against Birmingham after 20 and 18-pass moves and the fans get it, too.
"Even against Everton the other day, there were a few times late in the game when I heard a few fans say, 'Keep the ball; be patient'," he says. "That really gave me a great feeling; a sense that we all have the same understanding about how we are going to win games. I think the fans enjoy the possession now."
Wigan's eight points in six games – Blackburn have taken six in the same period, Wolves five, Blackpool three and West Ham one – bear out this belief, though Wigan have not won back-to-back games since he took over as manager and they simply don't score enough goals. They and Birmingham have found the net least (35 times) in the division. Top-scorer Hugo Rodallega has only eight.
But statistics don't capture the spirit that burns in Martinez, which is born of his acute sense of his club's remarkable role in the whole Premier League story. It is a sense perhaps best explained by the sign which welcomes players to the club's unprepossessing training ground at Lower Standing (not the most inspirational sounding place), which reads "Courage, Possession and Arrogance". The last word jars a little but Martinez explains that he does want his players to live up to this legend. "Arrogant in terms of having huge belief in their talent, in what they are doing and being able to play eye-to-eye to the top teams in the division," he says. "I want the players to be brave and I want them to believe that, yes, we are Wigan Athletic, this modest club in the Premier League but we are a fantastic story."
He is the best individual in Wigan to articulate that story because he was in on it from the start. He was there for the pre-season match at Burnley in the Lancashire Cup where a 2-1 win against neighbours who were a league higher sent Wiganers homes in paroxysms of delight. He was there for the 2-1 defeat at Gillingham in the old Third Division in August 1995 (his league debut), the 6-2 home thrashing by Mansfield two months later and the chastening day when he, Seba and Diaz arrived at training in expectation of a gym session because the pitches were under five inches of snow. "And all they did was put the yellow balls on," he says, grinning at the memory. "It was actually a great feeling that with football here there are no excuses."
So, while the other relegation-threatened managers know that their jobs and their clubs' status is at stake over the next three weekends, Martinez knows that the investment of effort and money which has taken Wigan out of obscurity is on the line. "Where we are now was just a dream back then and not many people believed we would do what we have done," he reflects. "We have been here for six seasons in the best league in the world. I know how difficult it was to get there. I don't want us to drop out. And the football we are playing now while we are a young squad, I feel the best rewards are still to come."
The supporters do seem to share the vision, even if the Sin Miedo clothing range the club tried last season wasn't a soaraway hit. Martinez's webchats have become a part of the currency of becoming an Athletic fan and he appears to have been convincing in discussions on the merits – or otherwise – of the long-ball game.
Whelan sees the vision, too, and has guaranteed that Martinez will stay, even if the club does take the plunge. The chairman, who secured the club's financial position in January by converting £40m of loans into shares, shares Martinez's belief that a Wigan academy system which has yielded one Premier League player in the past 10 years – Everton's Leighton Baines – is integral to the future. Four players from the development squad have made the first team this season, with 20-year-old forward Callum McManaman, a relatively late developer, the source of most excitement around the club. Like all the development squad players, McManaman is inured in the patient passing game that Martinez has asked to see throughout the ranks. Improbable though it may sound, a Johan Cruyff influence is being felt in this corner of Lancashire. "I was an 18-year-old at Zaragoza when he arrived in Spain and changed entirely the philosophy of Barcelona," Martinez says. "He wanted to encourage one-v-one situations and wanted to rely on the talent of the players to win football games." The manager has also drawn from his observations of Villarreal and Espanyol, as clubs whose creed is "developing young players, giving them the right football education and human locations to give them the chance to get into the first team".
It is with an air of calm calculation, then, that Martinez – whose meticulous study of his side's every move included 10 DVD viewings of the crushing 9-1 defeat sustained at Tottenham in November 2009 – takes his side to Villa Park today. There is a semi-irrationality in the manager's belief that the trademark brown shoes, which he has been wearing to games ever since dispensing with a black pair as Swansea manager and enjoying immediate positive effects, will help take his side to where they need to be by this evening. "It's more than superstition," he insists. "I was born on July 13 so I've never been able to be superstitious. It is a feeling that you are wearing your uniform, for your work, and I do believe in doing things that make you feel good, because it gives you a good mental approach." But nothing else is left to fate and the prospect of relegation will be stared square in the face.
"I don't see relegation as a negative word and we do talk about it," he reflects. "In football you've only got two options – face success or face adversity – and that's the position we're in; we have to face it. But once you've been in that adversity, it becomes an opportunity. We've got three games to go to achieve our aims. I do feel that this experience can have the same effect that it had at Swansea – giving you a kick up your backside to make sure you are never, ever in that situation." Sin miedo, as Martinez likes to say.
Life and times
Born: 13 July, 1973, Balaguer, north-east Spain
1991-94: Real Zaragoza B
1993: Real Zaragoza
1995-2001: Wigan Athletic
2003-06: Swansea City
2006-07: Chester City
Honours: Third Division, 1997; Football League Trophy 1999, 2006
2007-09: Swansea City
2009- Wigan Athletic
Honours: League One, 2008
My Other Life
There's a fair amount of work on the cards at the moment so there's very little time for much else but football – and the Wigan video system where you can watch games from any country at any time is relaxation for me. But Spanish food is obviously a passion and my wife (Beth) is learning to cook Spanish dishes, which is great. Of course, I have a favourite and it is tortilla de patatas – the Spanish potato omelette. It's quite thick and you can have it in a sandwich. My wife has definitely mastered that. It gives you a real refreshment – just what you need at a time like this.
- More about:
- French Football
- Premier League
- Real Zaragoza
- Southern Europe
- Swansea City
- Wigan Athletic