Martyn's change of heart lifts England

Leeds keeper plays down problems and plaudits as he seeks to reverse his club's decline and raise his country's hopes
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The Great God of the Gloves has not smiled kindly on Nigel Martyn in recent weeks. When the ball strikes a divot at the Riverside and rears up over his shoulder to yield Middlesbrough a goal, when Patrick Kluivert's attempt ricochets past him in Amsterdam to give Holland the lead against England, there's definitely a feeling in a goalkeeper's bones that providence isn't with him. And then Thursday night. After a defiant display against PSV Eindhoven for 89 minutes in the second leg of their Uefa Cup, beaten in the most unfortunate circumstances by the one and only Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.

Dominic Matteo's chagrin was such that he took it out on the prone scorer after collapsing on top of him in the goalmouth. Or so it appeared from one television angle, and for one horrific moment it appeared that way to the Leeds goalkeeper, too. "Dom's fist was making the sound as if he was smacking the lad," recalled Martyn the following day. "I thought, 'God, what's he done?' In fact, Dom was pounding the wet ground in frustration because of the last minute goal." Fortunately a TV replay, for once being kind to Leeds, confirmed that fact.

Matteo's fury was understandable because the Yorkshire side's rearguard, including the England goalkeeper whose own form has been admirable in recent weeks, had displayed heroics under fire for most of the second half. But what TV, or, for that matter, first-hand witness, couldn't obscure, was the anaemic condition of Leeds as an attacking power. They bear little resemblance to the team whose red-blooded onslaught on the Champions' League last season thrilled even those without a single Yorkshire gene in their pedigree. Nine games in all competitions without victory since the FA Cup defeat at Cardiff on 6 January, and five goals scored in that period, testify to the decline.

The most obvious culprit is "The Trial" and all that has emanated from the verdicts late last year. Rumours abound about the supposed poor state of team morale, and manager David O'Leary's most recent remarks will have done little to stem them, but then that is inevitable when such a substantial investment as Leeds have made has resulted in a decline of the club's stock. Yet, it is surely inconceivable that off-field matters should have had such a corrosive effect.

"Personally, I don't think it's down to those reasons," insisted Martyn. "I believe that all that [the Woodgate-Bowyer affair] has no bearing on you once you're playing a game. We're footballers first and foremost and there's a game to be played, a game to be won. You don't have time for side issues. I think we're just going through one of those spells. Manchester United went through one, then they had that undefeated run. That's what we need to do now."

Only one of Leeds' remaining 11 fixtures – home to Manchester United – is against a top six club, so O'Leary's men could yet attain that crucial Champions' League place, without which there are concerns that the highly-vaunted personnel could seek enhanced salaries elseswhere. They should start today against Everton, a vulnerable team if ever there was one. Yet, nothing is certain with Leeds in their current mercurial mood. "The manager just tells us to maintain belief in ourselves and keep going out and performing," said Martyn. "We're not a bad team just because we've gone on this poor run."

We meet at the leisure centre of a country hotel near Leeds, where the city's ladies undergo some pre-lunch conditioning, with such treatments as a "Fat Blaster". Leeds sometimes frequent it the day after a match, although the sight of Danny Mills and Matteo parading in bath robes is somewhat incongruous. Some players receive massages, but not Martyn, who would prefer to be training. Even at 35, he possesses that goalkeeper's obsession with the attainment of perfection.

The Cornishman, blessed with that eternal broad smile, is at an age when those in their early 20s might consider him a natural father confessor. "No, I'm just one of the lads," he protests. "I'm not the kind to say 'I'm 35, I'm more experienced that you. Listen to me'. But if people come, and they have done, I'll talk to them. All that [the trial] has been very difficult for those concerned and for the club as a whole, but as players we were distanced from that, really. We had to take the attitude 'this is our job, we're professionals, that's a whole separate issue'."

Fortunately for Martyn's international standing, his own goalkeeping standards have been undiminishd by his team's decline. Three successive games for England, including that final, ultimately euphoric qualifier against Greece, almost make him a regular. Certainly, if ever a man deserved to board the train with a first-class ticket after being confined to the England waiting room so long it is the man originally from St Austell, who began his goalkeeping career with his brother's china clay works team.

But he is making no assumptions yet about Japan-South Korea, particularly with Arsenal's David Seaman having just returned from injury, David James in decent form for West Ham, and the younger contingent, such as Liverpool's Chris Kirkland and Arsenal's Richard Wright, capable of staking late claims.

"You can't go around saying 'I've played in the last three games. That's it now, I'll be starting in the World Cup'," said Martyn. "You really have to wait and see." But in goalkeeping, as in life generally, possession is 90 per cent of the law. Can there be any doubt that Nigel Martyn is England's No 1? "In all honesty, I don't think you can say that until everybody's back, fit and playing and you're still being picked regularly."

Martyn's annoyance at travelling but failing to be selected under previous regimes nearly caused him to remove himself from international consideration. "It was just born out of frustration," he says. "It's different when you're young, it's a thrill just to be around. But as you get older, you just want to play. With England you can be away from your family for several days – and for what? It got as far as me speaking to certain people in the England camp about it. Fortunately they advised me to hang in there."

To Martyn's advantage is the fact that he plays regularly behind England's best defender, Rio Ferdinand. "He's quality, he's a great player," said Martyn. "We're constantly talking to each other. Before games, he's always saying, 'Keep on at me, keep on at me'. You're his eyes at times, when there's a forward on his blind side. We talk all the time. A bit of information is as important as making a save."

The common perception is that a goalkeeper's quality is enhanced with the passing of the years, a view with which Martyn concurs. It explains why his understudy, Paul Robinson, who enjoyed a prosperous period when Martyn was recovering from a groin injury last season, can take heart. The 22-year-old could have been a full England contender by now had the senior man not returned. "I can understand Paul's frustration. I had that with England for so long. You think you're doing well, but if the other guy's playing well, too, there's nothing you can do. But Paul's chance will come. Bound to."

Just as, a decade after collecting his first England cap, Martyn may just be deservedly going to a major tournament as England's number one.