x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Martinez's loyal seal of approval

The Wigan manager Martinez has validated his chairman's belief that football is not just about money and career by turning down Villa's offer.

When the Sunday Times printed its rich list for British and Irish sports people last month, the top spot was taken by a footballer. What a surprise.

However, the lead image did not quite seem to fit the story. It showed a player whose hair was cut in an old-fashioned style, arms folded, standing on one leg, with the other propped on top of an old leather football.

The picture was in black and white. There was no hint of airbrushing, and no logos were visible. There was no shirt sponsor.

It looked weird. It was archaic to the point of prehistoric, a history of pre-English football, which everyone knows started in 1992. That was when the Premier League was founded, when the commercial value of the game exploded and virtues like loyalty started to be eroded.

David Beckham, the second in the rich list, is the emblem of the post-1992 boom time, a fashion chameleon with a pop star wife who is an industry in himself. And he occasionally kicks a football around, using a pair of custom-made boots which he wears once, then discards.

The boots worn by Dave Whelan, who edged Beckham to the No 1 spot, in the photograph from his 1950s playing days with Blackburn Rovers were probably caked in dubbin. No doubt they lasted him for years.

Whelan may trump all of modern football's multimillionaires in terms of wealth, but he remains an anachronism. Rather than commodifying his employees, the Wigan Athletic chairman places an accent on loyalty.

Quaintly, he even had that loyalty reciprocated last week, when Roberto Martinez opted to skip the chance to join Aston Villa to stay as manager of Wigan.

In so doing, the Spaniard signed up for another year of purgatory. He could have opted for a cushy number with a better resourced club, followed by a greater number of supporters, with European football a realistic ambition.

He traded that to stay at a club where he will have to sell his best players, hope he can find some cheap gems elsewhere, and even then is likely to be battling uphill all season.

Martinez felt he owed many a debt to his chairman. Whelan brought him to the country as a player first of all, then re-signed him as a manager, even though the chairman risked attracting a modicum of embarrassment by doing so.

Whelan had recently railed against the abundance of overseas managers in the English game - saying, "I'd never entertain a foreign manager for Wigan" - only to then appoint the Martinez.

Theirs has never been a very modern manager-chairman relationship. At the start of last season, Whelan said he would never sack his man, even if they were relegated.

Given the prevailing practices in the Premier League, where Russian oligarchs sharpen their knives, then get serfs to do their bidding, sacking managers who won them the double only recently, Wigan seems sweet.

Loyalty is in the eye of the beholder, and for much of his career, it has meant different things to Whelan.

He made his money, post retirement from playing, via the retail industry. Clearly, he knows how to sell products. One of the best ways is by engendering brand loyalty among his customers. He branded it like Beckham - just a little bit better, so far.

Even now, his club can only thrive by preying on the loyalties - or at least by testing how far their incomes stretch - of his town's sports fans.

He used to be a majority shareholder in Wigan Warriors, the town's beloved rugby league club, and remains a fan. The oval ball code still dominates, but football is making its mark.

Whelan does not want to stand in Martinez's way for ever. He just wants one more year, the final season of his contract, out of him, then, we can imagine, he will give him a glowing reference if he seeks a move.

Whelan's confidence in Martinez's ability could be misplaced. The chairman reckons his man is going straight for the top, and will manage one of the top six clubs in Europe in the future.

That is far from guaranteed. Nice guys, like Martinez, tend to finish last. They avoided that indignity this term, but Wigan will conceivably struggle to stay in the top flight next season, and relegation looks average on a CV.

Martinez could well have missed a golden opportunity to advance his career by turning Villa down, but his potential future employers should now know good grace is a given.

pradley@thenational.ae