Roberto Martinez believes that football has its own, universal syntax, that players of every nationality can pick up its euphonies. After all, he knows better than most that a passport can only tell you so much about its bearer's values. As soon as he arrived at Swansea City, initially as a player in 2003, Martinez sensed a kinship between his native Catalonia and his new environment.
"There are many similarities," he says. "For Catalans, the big enemy is the centralism in Spain, and here in Wales it is a little bit the same – you are always fighting the big brother. But here people don't realise how lucky they are, to have their own football team, their own rugby team, their own recognition as a country. Catalans would love that. But both are very passionate peoples, who use sport to express themselves. And that's huge, that's a way to live.
"Under Franco, Catalans weren't allowed to speak their own language. Many had to go abroad, artists and writers especially. So all of a sudden, once allowed to be themselves, you can see the passion in everything they do. They'd been caged for so many years."
This ancestral emancipation suffused Martinez as a player, and is now making him one of the most admired young managers in the game. He returned to Swansea 18 months ago to take up his first coaching role, aged just 33. In his first full season, his team won the League One title by 10 points – in the process dismantling the hoary precept that you must play "nasty, brutish and long" to get out of the lower leagues – and they have already impressed in their first Championship skirmishes.
As a player, even in Spain, Martinez had been considered lacking in physicality. "That was always my challenge," he said. "I was a technical player, not a box-to-box worker. So for me to be able to play has always been a fight, with any manager I played under. If you have the patience, you can find the formula. But I had to suffer a lot in the British game to come up with that."
If he is now bobbing along its faster currents, Martinez has certainly visited some of the more stagnant backwaters of the British game. Back in 2003, Swansea were dangling over the abyss, six points adrift at the bottom of the league. He has been to Walsall, Motherwell, Chester.
It all began when Dave Whelan, the owner of Wigan Athletic, opened a sports shop in Zaragoza in 1995, happened to take in a game, and signed three young players. "Obviously the culture shock was huge," Martinez said. "The first time we saw Wigan play was in a friendly somewhere up north. Taking the kick-off, they passed it back and then just kicked it long, behind the full-back's head – just to kick it out of play, and then the whole team squeezed up. We said: 'Hey, what's this? That's a rugby movement.' We'd never seen that in Spain; you would get told off if you gave the ball away. So we thought: 'Wow, this is going to be interesting.'"
Off the field, the contrasts were no less unnerving. Accustomed to siestas and late dinners, he would get up to find it dark at four, and shops closing at five, but Martinez, young as he was, persevered.
"Now that I was here, I was going to make the most of the experience," he said. "Beans on toast as a pre-match meal – that was a big shock. And coming back from a long trip, Plymouth or wherever, the boys were allowed to have a drink on the bus and some had to leave their cars when we got back because they were drunk. That was a big 'no' in Spain. Here, at 18, someone tells a young player who's professional, who's not. They don't have to fight any more. In Spain, 18 is when you really need to make the point, whether you want to be a professional or not."
Sipping coffee at the training ground, Martinez pores over coloured graphs, mapping sophisticated fitness regimes. He emphasises diet, sleep, has hired a psychologist, even a hypnotist. "A huge part of football you cannot control," he reasons. "So the more you reduce your margin for error, in the areas you can control, the better the chance you give yourself."
For all those Catalan genes, his most important legacy is more personal, his father having been a respected manager in the lower leagues. "He decided family was his priority and that he was not going to move us around," he said. "But the gift he had for reading the game, the man management, without a doubt he would have been a success at higher level. I see hisinfluence in everything I do. He always shared things with me. I have seen a manager's brain ticking 24 hours a day since I could remember."
That instinct for analysis brought Martinez to widerattention through Sky's coverage of La Liga, and he is an informed witness of the shifting balance of power in the European game. Naturally he was delighted to see Spain exorcise their demons during the summer. "I don't think this was the best squad we ever had, but the first that had the mentality of getting on a football pitch against Italy or Germany and knowing what was needed. I think to beat Italy on penalties and then beat Germany 1-0 in the final is a football joke, really."
Martinez imported three compatriots last season and has again been recruiting imaginatively, and thriftily, capitalising on contacts abroad. He only permits English to be spoken in the dressing room, but again gave the squad fresh perspectives with a pre-season tour of Spain. They finished off recovering a three-goal deficit against the Barcelona B team, an encounter he had likened beforehand to "playing the Red Arrows". After opening their league campaign with a luckless defeat at Charlton, on Saturday they won their first home fixture, outplaying Nottingham Forest. Admittedly Forest had themselves only been promoted on Swansea's coat-tails, but there was an authentic touch of class about this performance – not least a delicious debut strike from Gorka Pintado, pilfered from Granada during the summer for just £70,000.
"You look at the names and the potential in the Championship, and have to be realistic," Martinez said. "At the same time, I think what we have given the fans a 'no-fear' factor. Our dream has always been Premier League football – not just now, but when we were trying to get out of League One as well.
"How long is it going to take? It could be five years, 10 years, two years, we don't know, but what is clear nowadays is that you need to take solid steps in whatever you do, so that every day the club grows stronger. So that one day, when you get there, you will be able to compete. The fans, the players, the directors, everyone understands how difficult the road will be but so long as we are united, we shouldn't fear anything."
The Swansea fans dread only one thing now, for a reputation for instant results will surely provoke the interest of Premier League chairmen. During the summer, indeed, Martinez was among those tipped to replace Carlos Queiroz as assistant at Old Trafford. He dismissed the yarn, but added: "It's a compliment for Swansea City, because I don't think many people would have paid a transfer fee to get a player in League Two to be a manager in League One. If the board were to say: 'We want to be a mid-table Championship club', then it would be time for me to go because I want to go all the way but the board and fans want to go all the way as well."
Times have changed, however, since John Toshack pulled off three consecutive promotions here. "In football, it's very difficult to do something different," Martinez mused.
"When Toshack went to Spain he was competitive with Real Sociedad, with a group of young, passionate Basque players. And he achieved that through his tactical brain. Then you have Johan Cruyff – he took the game to adifferent level, finding the chance to score rather than chasing it. But in the end there is no right or wrong in football. Different cultures allow you different ways to play, and different ways to succeed."
Spaniards who have made a splash in Wales
(32 games, 7 goals)
Ugarte's claim to fame is scoring five times in one game, a 6-4 win against Hartlepool, and scoring in the LDV Vans final in which Wrexham beat Southend 2-0. He started his career with Real Sociedad and has also played for SD Eibar, Red Union Club Irú*and Barakaldo CF. He moved to England with Dorchester Town and was then signed by Wrexham. His goals helped Wrexham avoid relegation to League Two after a 10-point deduction for entering administration left them as one of the favourites for the drop in 2004-05. He retired in January following injury problems.
*Guillem BauzA Mayol
(28 app, 7 goals)
Bauza signed for the Swans in the summer of 2007 from Espanyol, where he played all his games for their 'B' team in the Spanish second division. Before joining Espanyol he had been at his hometown club Mallorca – for whom, in his only game, he partnered Samuel Eto'o in attack. Bauza, more commonly known by his nickname Bussy, won the Under-16's European Championship with Spain, playing all six games alongside Liverpool striker Fernando Torres. Bauza wrote his name in Swansea's history books in April, when his two goals against Gillingham secured promotion to the Championship.
Wrexham (3 games)
Now the goalkeeping coach at Liverpool, Valero made three appearances for Wrexham in 2005. Fernando Torres claims Valero is instrumental in helping him find the net, as he instructs him in training on how opposition goalkeepers react in one-on-one situations.Reuse content