Roberto Martinez: 'I am grateful that destiny is taking me down there'

Spaniard, who began Swansea's resurrection, takes his Wigan side to South Wales with no regrets

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The Independent Online

The links between Swansea and the Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez, whose side become the first to venture outside of England for a Premier League game when they play in Wales' second city tomorrow, are genuinely indelible. The Spaniard was married in the place, mastered very basic Welsh there and, as manager at the Liberty Stadium, inculcated the passing ethos which has seen the club all the way into the top flight. Martinez is even intimately acquainted with the away dressing room, where he and his Swansea players recorded the video for a musical classic of its genre, entitled "Ole, Ole, Ole" and remembered locally as "Christmas with a Spanish twist".

Martinez doesn't recall so much about his wedding reception, perhaps because of the distractions of his imminent departure from South Wales to succeed Steve Bruce at Wigan. But it is safe to say that it was more benign than the one he will receive when he leads his present side against his previous one tomorrow afternoon. A segment of Swansea's fanbase have simply never forgiven Martinez for leaving them to take a shot at Premier League management, even though the Spaniard has probably played a bigger role than any other individual in taking the club from the brink of relegation to non-league to the top flight in the space of eight short and extraordinary years.

"In a way, when you see the real emotions that football fans can have, it is a positive thing," Martinez said of the likely abuse, as he prepared for this dragons' den. "My links to Swansea are so, so strong that I respect any views from the fans. I will take it and, in a way, I accept their views." Which was equanimous of him, considering the reception he received when Swansea brought 3,000 fans to Wigan for a Carling Cup tie last October was vitriolic, to say the least. "That was the only feedback I've had from them so far but I didn't read the banners, they weren't big enough!" Martinez joked. The messages inked on to bedsheets that night would have told him that "El Gaffer" – as he was always known on the banks of the Taff – had become "El Judas".

When Martinez first alighted at Swansea, as a player signed by one of the jewels of Welsh management, Brian Flynn, in January 2003, the club were in a very dark place: two points adrift at the bottom of the Third Division on New Year's Day and needing to win the last game of the season to save their league status. Flynn spotted him languishing in Walsall reserves. “I thought ‘What’s he doing here?’” Flynn recalled yesterday. “Tactically he was very, very aware of situations in games, always asking questions, a leader.” Flynn, an advocate of 4-3-3 systems since his days playing within them for Burnley and Wales , immediately employed Martinez as the defensive midfield core in his own, with Lenny Johnrose and Leon Britton, who is still a Swansea mainstay. Martinez would later borrow from Flynn’s ideas to form his own 4-3-3 model. He was crucial to the 4-2 win against Hull City which kept Swansea up in May 2003.

The 38-year-old was not reflecting yesterday on the fact that he was poorly repaid for his contribution. Kenny Jackett replaced Flynn as manager, promptly dropped Martinez and fairly brutally saw him off to Chester City. The suspicion has always been that the Spaniard's presence in the dressing room was seen as a threat to the new management team.

It is Martinez's departure as a manager which Swansea's supporters best remember, though. He was back at Swansea within a year to replace Jackett as manager – ironic, considering the manner of his departure. Then, at the age of 33, he set into train the belief, learned from his observation of Villarreal, Espanyol and Johan Cruyff's Barcelona, that a passing ethos could permeate every part of a club – from scouting to youth-team tactics and beyond. He learned something from Wales, too. "The language... is harder than I thought," he said. "But I tried to learn the formal phrases like 'bore da' – 'good morning'. Welsh people are very similar to Catalan people... they are passionate about their sport."

Martinez is too modest to suggest that the fruits of this strategy were seen at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium on Monday evening, where Swansea completed 486 passes in the face of formidable opposition. "I don't think it is down to me to say how much I contributed to Swansea being in the Premier League," Martinez reflected. "I am just really proud that while I was at Swansea I gave my life to try to be successful with the football club and I felt we did that. I felt we had to change the way to play and find a way to be different. We could not compete with other clubs financially and we had to be a little bit creative but I think we found the way.

"If you've got a team that's capable of going away to Man City and get 500 passes like they did, it's because they are very arrogant and confident in what they do – in the right way – and, tactically, I think they will surprise many teams in the Premier League." ("Arrogance" is an important part of the Martinez culture, incidentally – that's "arrogance" as in being able to look an opponent in the eye: the sign which greets his Wigan players to work urges "Courage, Possession and Arrogance".)

As a Swansea player, Martinez roomed with Leon Britton, the 5ft 5in holding midfielder who held his own with 6ft 3in Yaya Touré on Monday night. As a manager, he brought in a number of those players who are now the basis of Brendan Rodgers' passing Premier League side: Spaniard Angel Rangel arrived from Terrassa for £10,000, Ashley Williams (£100,000 from Stockport) and Nathan Dyer (a reported £400,000 from Southampton). Joe Allen, given a debut by Martinez at the age of 16, is another part of the legacy.

The fans' anger is, in part, because of those individuals Martinez took north to Wigan. Perhaps the most critical loss was Kevin Reeves, initially a long-time assistant to Flynn, whose role as Martinez's chief scout was integral to the Swansea ethos. Jordi Gomez – whom Swansea's failure to buy outright had frustrated Martinez – followed, with Jason Scotland. The Spaniard's promise that he would only try to buy Swansea players if another club did first is the one that the club's fans often quote.

Swansea haven't looked back since Martinez's decision to reunite with Dave Whelan, though, and it is another of the ironies of this story that the £2.5m compensation Swansea received from Whelan remains their biggest "transfer" fee – one which has enabled Brendan Rodgers to spend in a way his Spanish predecessor couldn't.

All told, Martinez's part in South Wales' first home encounter with the Premier League certainly seems to have been cast by the heavens. "Maybe it was not too bad a decision for the football club when I took it two years ago," Martinez reflected. "I am just grateful that destiny is going to take me down there."

Wales first: The price of Liberty

Swansea City are the first non-English team to play in the Premier League.

Of the English fans crossing the border this season, Newcastle's 'Toon Army' will have the longest journey, travelling 197 miles to face Brendan Rodgers' men.

As for local derbies, Cardiff missed out on promotion again last season, so West Bromwich Albion are the closest rivals, a mere 108 miles away.

Harry Yeates

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