x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Roberto Martinez the eternal optimist

The Spaniard's belief in his Wigan players gives them a fighting chance of preserving their top-flight status.

Roberto Martinez, centre, is mobbed by the Wigan bench following Charles N’Zogbia’s late winner against West Ham United at the DW Stadium last week that gives them a fighting chance of survival.
Roberto Martinez, centre, is mobbed by the Wigan bench following Charles N’Zogbia’s late winner against West Ham United at the DW Stadium last week that gives them a fighting chance of survival.

Relegation campaigns tend to be fraught affairs that can turn even the most mild-mannered into screaming, swearing lunatics. In this, as in much else, Roberto Martinez has proved an exception. The youngest manager in the Premier League has maintained his sunny demeanour and polite, friendly approach throughout a season when Wigan Athletic have been constants in the scrap at the division's foot.

Such incessant optimism, the habit of forever taking the positives from every game, can lead to suggestions he was ignoring the reality of Wigan's plight.

Instead, his belief in his players was vindicated late at the DW Stadium on Sunday. Charles N'Zogbia's 94th-minute goal rubber-stamped West Ham United's relegation and granted Wigan an escape route.

While they remain 19th in the Premier League, victory at Stoke City on Sunday is likely to see Wigan ensure a seventh successive season in the division. For Martinez, who likened the West Ham game to giving birth, there is a lifeline.

Few understand or appreciate the unique nature of Wigan's rise as does Martinez.

In 1995, he was one of three Spaniards (inevitably nicknamed "the three amigos") recruited by a lower-league club with a dingy ground in an unglamorous town known for its support of rugby league, not football.

"First of all, I had never heard of Wigan, and when it was explained to me that they played in the fourth division yet were still professional I found it hard to imagine," he said in 2009.

If it seemed a strange move for the young midfielder, it became a career-defining one.

"Coming to Wigan changed my life and made me the person I am," Martinez, 37, said last week.

It was a culture shock. "The football was very different, too. I was a technical player, it was a massive shock. It was more like rugby," he said.

Together with his compatriots Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz, he lived in the town. Their shared house soon became a pilgrimage point for the club's fans.

"After games there would be two or three supporters knocking on the door for a chat. We'd have a cup of tea and discuss the match, and that seemed natural enough, too," he recalled.

While first Seba and then Diaz returned to Spain, Martinez stayed. Six seasons at Wigan were followed by spells at Motherwell, Walsall, Swansea City and Chester City before returning to Wales to begin his managerial career in 2007.

His two full seasons in charge of Swansea were unqualified successes; they were runaway winners of League One in 2008 and narrowly missed a play-off place in the Championship the following year. By then, Martinez had implemented the progressive style of play that survives at the Liberty Stadium to this day. His achievements attracted attention from elsewhere, with Martinez opting for Wigan ahead of Celtic.

In the process, he was reunited with Dave Whelan, the sports store magnate and owner who financed the club's rise.

"When I first turned up at Springfield Park [their former ground] the chairman told me not to worry, Wigan would soon be playing in a new stadium," Martinez said. "He also told me Wigan would be in the Premier League in 10 years' time, which seemed a little harder to believe, but it all came true.

"Everything Mr Whelan promised in 1995 he has achieved. That doesn't happen very often, and that's why this club is special to me."

Theirs is a mutual admiration society: Whelan has long said that Martinez will not be sacked even in the event of relegation, which appeared a strong probability after Wigan lost their first two games of the season by scores of 4-0 and 6-0. He has rebranded Wigan: Steve Bruce had already imported Latin American talent, but Martinez has switched to a quintessentially Spanish 4-2-3-1 formation, favouring technical talents over seasoned Premier League players.

It can lead to accusations of naivety, but Wigan achieved landmark wins against Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal last season. This year, despite their league position, they have been hard to beat, losing only four of their last 13 games, three of them to the top three.

With the club's comparatively small fan base and undistinguished past, survival is an achievement in itself for Wigan. Martinez's sights are set rather higher, however, his ambitious brand of football being matched by bold aims.

"We have to stay in the Premier League. Once we do that, I think next season we'll be able to compete for the best position we've ever had in this division," he said. "We want to look forward and develop the squad to get into Europe. That's the final aim. It's a long-term project and I'll give my life to achieve that."