x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Romance of the FA Cup still enthralls Wigan Athletic's Roberto Martinez

Ahead of their semi-final against Millwall, the coach Martinez says you need to experience the crowd's passion to understand what it means.

Wigan Athletic's Spanish manager Roberto Martinez has had a long affinity with the FA Cup since he moved to England. Olly Greenwood / AFP
Wigan Athletic's Spanish manager Roberto Martinez has had a long affinity with the FA Cup since he moved to England. Olly Greenwood / AFP

Seventeen years ago, on a cold, wet afternoon in Runcorn, Roberto Martinez experienced his first FA Cup match. This afternoon, he fulfils a dream, leading out the team he was playing for that afternoon, Wigan Athletic, at Wembley Stadium in an FA Cup semi-final against Millwall.

"The pitch wasn't great, the dressing rooms weren't great, but then you went on the pitch and thought: 'This is a big game' - because all of a sudden the excitement of the crowd hits you," Martinez recalled this week.

Brought up with Spain's Copa del Rey where, as he put it, "you are lucky if you get the opposing team's tea lady and two or three extra groundsmen", he was staggered by the size of the crowd, all the more so when he realised the majority of them had travelled from Wigan.

Martinez scored that day in a 1-1 draw and concedes he was preparing for extra time and penalties when he was told it went to a replay.

The experience kindled a feeling for the romance of the cup, traces of which can still be found even in the modern competition, for all it has been diminished by the commercial might of the Premier League.

"Sometimes, people in Spain ask me about the FA Cup, and it's impossible to describe," Martinez said. "I always tell them that they need to experience it. To have a semi-final at Wembley is the icing on the cake of an incredible experience."

The most ardent traditionalists would disagree, arguing that having the semi-finals at Wembley reduces the romance of the final, and even the commercial argument seems to fall flat when Wigan return 10,000 tickets.

Wigan have been criticised for that but given they were attracting crowds of only 2,000 when Martinez arrived at the club in 1995, it is a remarkable achievement to have sold the 22,000 tickets they have.

It is proof of his achievement in sustaining the club in the Premier League on such scant resources.

And it says much, too, of Swansea's perspicacity in appointing him - to succeed Kenny Jackett, who had made him captain at Swansea and who will be in the opposing dug-out this afternoon - in 2007.

He was with Chester, travelling to Swindon for a League Two game as a player when the clubs reached agreement on a compensation package. The next day he was at Yeovil watching the side as their new manager.

At that stage, he had completed no coaching badges; Swansea were working purely on their memories of him as a player. He was 33 and was fit enough to have played for another couple of seasons, but he had the mindset of a manager largely because his father had been one.

"I'd always wanted to find out about my method before doing the badges," he said in an interview with The Blizzard. "I always felt that the badges were very good when you had a clear picture in your mind of how you wanted to do things. Then the badges give you a bit of a structure. But I never felt that the badges were … original enough for an individual to find his own method."

Martinez is certainly original. He has pioneered a 3-4-3 formation in the Premier League, demanding a level of self-expression from his players at odds with the stature of the club. "Talent wins you games, raw talent," he said.

"That's my belief. Coaching comes in when the individuals play as a team and when they express themselves and, at the same time, take responsibility for their roles. I'm wary of over-coaching — that can take the raw talent of players away from them. Everyone becomes average and I want my players to be outstanding in the areas where they're good."

That marks him out as a romantic, which perhaps explains his affinity for the cup. Even he, though, must be aware that romance and the tournament do not sit so happily together anymore. In the past decade, it has become such a preserve of the rich that only one team has won it and not qualified for the Champions League in the same year: that was Portsmouth, now about to sink into League Two.

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