It’s late in the afternoon at Everton’s training ground, Finch Farm, on the last day before November’s international break. The corridors are stirring with the relaxed activity of a school after hours on the last day of term.
We hear Duncan Ferguson before we see him, singing cheerfully as he marauds down the stairs on his way to the Academy pitches, breaking off to give us a quick hello-goodbye, whoever we are. Gerard Deulofeu is quieter as he passes by, but still all smiles; people hold doors for each other, and us, bringing us into the camaraderie that develops when a football club is still doing its thing, hours after training has finished.
When Roberto Martinez dashes into the media room his first words are to apologise for keeping us waiting, followed by an explanation that the day before a break is a day without breaks for the manager. It’s not a day spent working to win the next game; it’s a day spent working to make sure every player, every department, wherever they’re going and whatever they’re doing, wins the next ten days, so that when they come back, then they’ll win the next game.
“But now,” Roberto says with an apologetic smile, “Now I have all the time you want.”
Roberto is suited to days like these, and he doesn’t look like the hours of work he has put in before talking to us have bothered him in the slightest. Some people wish there were more hours in the day so they could fit in everything they have to do. Roberto Martinez would welcome more so he could do more.
At Everton, Roberto has to manage more, and differently, than at other clubs. Part of the challenge is the same as it was when he managed Swansea City and Wigan Athletic: manage the situation on the field on Saturday so that you win the football match, and do it within a hothouse environment created by passionate, partisan supporters.
Part of the challenge is different. At Goodison Park, Roberto is managing within a tradition that neither Swansea or Wigan had, clubs where glories had either been grasped briefly, as with Swansea’s seasons at the top in the early eighties; or were distant dreams, for Wigan in the Fourth Division days at Springfield Park. In those jobs, Roberto was creating history, like managing Wigan to their first ever major honour, the FA Cup in 2013. At Everton, tradition demands that he emulate history. If he brings the FA Cup to Goodison, it’ll be its sixth visit. If they win the league, it’ll be for the tenth time.
And part of the challenge is unique. Only Everton Football Club have, over the park, Liverpool Football Club to compete with; only Liverpool FC have Everton over the park to compete with. Only on Merseyside do you find a rivalry tuned so tense and wound so tight, like cords of a steel wire suspending a bridge in the air, that it supports the daily life of a city.
You might, as a manager in a two club city, choose to ignore the second club and concentrate on your own; but no Everton fan could ever honestly ignore events on the field a stone’s throw from their own pitch of attention. And Roberto Martinez’s approach to the management of Everton FC won’t allow him to dismiss any aspect of what matters to an Everton fan. What matters to the fans is what brought him here.
“The way I see it is that you want football to be a vehicle to bring success to a family,” says Roberto. “Because I grew up like that. My dad was manager of a team locally, and we would suffer the disappointment of losing at the weekend; or, if dad won, we were all happy. So I always felt that was very important.
“Swansea and South Wales is a very, very intense environment, where you feel very close to that happiness during the week after a win, and to how important the results are.
“In Liverpool that is even more important, because it is not just your result, you have got someone else’s result that can affect that happiness. It is a responsibility you thrive on, to become better day by day. Obviously as a football club we want to become successful and win titles, but the way we are as a football club, the biggest stimulation for me as a manager is to become better as a club to give more happiness to our fans in the city.
“It is a very different feeling when you bring that happiness into a city. It is not just the fans; every club has fans, and obviously the good results bring happiness. But here it is like you can see certain aspects of the city being affected by an Everton win or an Everton defeat. And that’s a responsibility you thrive on.”
Happiness is not a gift easily given to football fans, an awkward tribe of tribes, varying in their hopes, wants and reference points, depending on whether they were raised on Kendall or Limpar, Ball or Baines. But Roberto is an enthusiast for hard work when the project and the direction of travel are clear, and by making the happiness of the fans the project, he is giving Everton, the club and its players, a simple mission, and a powerful tool to achieve it.
“We are very proud of the heritage and the history that we have, and of what we represent as a football club,” says Roberto. “I think that is what we are.
“I was very intrigued when I became manager of Everton to find out about that history, because then you can understand the thinking of the fans. And as a manager the only thing you want is to understand the fans in order to satisfy them and please them. That is something that has been fascinating to discover: how they feel, and the journey they have had over the years.”
To Roberto the journey, everything that brought Everton to where it is today, the bad times included, but at a club like Everton, the successes more, is Everton Football Club; and is the permanent foundation upon which the club should build. Winning matches week by week is vital because wins make fans happy, but happiness is easy to lose in a way that tradition is not.
“Happiness is something that is very much on the spot,” says Roberto. “Something that very rarely you can build on. You can build on a good feeling and then you get a defeat, and then you have to start from scratch.”
A heritage of happiness, though, of success achieved a certain, Evertonian way, is something that can be used to motivate the club to something more vivid and sublime than Saturday’s result.
“Where we are at Everton, this is a moment to open up and absorb as much as we can in terms of what Everton is, the incredible landmarks we created in world football, and embrace that responsibility.
“And I think that comes with the certain type of players that we have at the club. We have got a core that know Everton, and they represent Everton, so it’s very easy for them to identify with the message. For the younger players, it then becomes very easy for them to understand the expectations. And I want that to be the focus and the direction of our football club.”
It’s simple to be an Everton fan: you’re born. But not every footballer is born an Evertonian, and not every player the club will want to sign will be an instinctive Evertonian, and players don’t become Evertonian without intervention. But Evertonian is what they have to be. Roberto’s career as a player and as a manager before coming to Everton made him synonymous with Wigan and Swansea, so much so that the circumstances of his arrival in the lower reaches of English football in 1995, one of the first three Spanish players to follow English football’s first, Nayim, have been forgotten as time has passed. It feels like Roberto Martinez has always been part of English – and Welsh – football culture, but Roberto hasn’t forgotten that hard work has to happen for a player to make that happen.
“When I first arrived at Everton I asked a couple of players, a couple of foreign players that were with us, if they knew how many goals Dixie Dean scored in one season,” he says. “And one player didn’t know who Dixie Dean was. At that point I understood that it was our responsibility to make the players aware of what they represent. Everyone who plays for Everton should know that Dixie Dean scored sixty goals for Everton.
“I have been very much aware of making our new signings understand, especially our foreign players; I want them to understand Everton. Straight away, from the first day that they arrive through the door, they need to understand the privilege of representing Everton, first and foremost.
“But then, do they understand the thoughts of our fans? Do they understand that the way our fan is going to judge a player is because that fan has a history, that has affected his thinking?
“We have put a lot of things in place in the last six months, more than ever, to speed up the process of understanding for a new player when he arrives at Everton. To understand what we are, the culture, the history that we have, and to get that feeling of our fans.
“We give them a welcome pack. It gives them a sense of being part of a football club with an incredible history. Just by the fact of arriving at Everton you need to recognise the privilege, and that you are a certain number in the history of the football club. It’s something you can be accountable for. Then it has a little bit of the surrounding expectation that there was around your signing to the football club, then looking through legends of the football club, big moments that everyone speaks about, big landmarks. And then possible targets that you could achieve as a player in our football club, that straight away gives you a bit of direction towards what should be a goal of yours.
“If you’re a midfielder, you can be compared to the Holy Trinity, to the magnificent midfielders we have had. Straight away we are getting into stimulating a little bit the thirst of a player to understand Everton.”
That’s one of the keys: that new players at Everton should not be daunted by the club’s history, but inspired by it; motivated to revel in it and extend it, animated by the desire to create new memories alongside the moments that, they have learned, the fans already treasure.
“What’s important is to understand that what you are as a football club, whatever you are, whatever history you have, it has to be a strength. But that strength has to be explained to the individuals so they can understand the fans. Because it can be very, very powerful if a football club has got a rich history; but in the same way it can be daunting if it hasn’t got the right connection.
“That’s something I’ve been really interested and excited about; finding out the small details that make our fans extremely, extremely proud of our football club. And if we get that connection with the players, that’s going to be powerful on the pitch.”
Critical to the welcome that Roberto Martinez gives new players to Everton is the immediate suggestion of a goal, a direction, a target to achieve. Roberto’s career has sometimes looked from outside to be a sequence of counter-intuitive decisions; from Zaragoza in La Liga to the bottom tier of English football and Wigan; from the First Division with Walsall back to the Third, and the bottom of the Third, with Swansea. But what has driven Roberto’s decisions has not been the level or the glory, but the project, and the way the people behind each project believed in what they were doing. People have been the important element ever since Roberto left home to play for Zaragoza, aged sixteen.
“My father gave me my passion for the game,” says Roberto. Martinez Senior managed the local team in Balaguer, the small Catalan town Roberto is quick, when it’s mentioned, to call “my home.”
“In a small town it’s even more accentuated because everyone expects the manager to have a son that plays well, and everyone speaks about football to you so you need to have an opinion about it. People would ask me what I thought about the weekend, and I was seven or eight years old, what opinion could I have? But I always enjoyed that sort of role that I had, being in a small town.
“My dad and I, we lived the game. It wasn’t his job, it was his passion. We would be watching football and then we’d have our conversations. I would ask him, ‘Why aren’t you playing him, he’s such a good player?’ He’d say, ‘Yes, but he doesn’t play well with someone else.’ And then I would try to see things in this different way. We had great conversations, and those memories, I will never forget those memories. Those were the most special moments that I shared with my dad, just talking about football.
“And I understood then that, in football, you need to have a lot of thought; and you need to come up with a dream, first and foremost, a vision, and then you need to slowly work with the team to achieve that.
“I left home quite early, I was sixteen when I signed for Zaragoza and became a professional footballer. It was two hours away driving, which was a long trip, so my memories of home were really special in that respect.”
Roberto was young still when together he, Jesús Seba and Isidro Diaz – publicity dubbed them the Three Amigos – swapped Spain for Wigan; barely twenty-two.
“When you leave home it means you leave your family, you leave your comfort zone, you leave your safety net. And then it’s a choice. Wherever you go, it’s a choice.
“I’ve never been driven by materialistic things. I just want to be driven by good projects, and by wanting to achieve whatever the aim is from a football point of view. But for that you need to understand the football club, and you need to understand the people that are running the football club, and those relationships have, for me, been very important. Those human relationships become really important to understanding the football club.”
The relationship with Dave Whelan at Wigan, and the involvement in a dream as glassy and tempting as a cloudless night sky, transformed the potentially disorientating arrival of young Roberto in Wigan into what he now says, “Looking back, was such a natural process. And that’s why it was very successful.
“When I say natural it’s because Dave Whelan, as an owner of a football club, had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He wanted to bring flair, and he wanted to bring creativity, and he wanted to bring something very different into his changing room. And he wanted to get into the Premier League with a new stadium, at a football club where that was unthinkable.
“So our reason for arriving in the British game was well planned. And the vision was there from someone who was prepared to make us welcome, and who was demanding what we had.
“We didn’t arrive into an environment where we couldn’t give what we were expected to give, and we were protected and made to feel so welcome and so homely with everyone around Wigan; especially the chairman, obviously, but also the fans. It became a really strong bond between us and what we were asked to do, in a beautiful project.”
Roberto’s beginnings at Swansea were not as beautiful; he didn’t arrive in Swansea the way he had arrived in Wigan, to be part of a mission to the moon, but in “a very, very difficult moment” that, nonetheless, meant Roberto had a very specific job ahead of him when he exchanged trying to get into Walsall’s team in the First Division (now The Championship) for captaining Swansea, bottom of the Football League by four points.
“That was a very interesting football project,” says Roberto. “The manager at that time was Brian Flynn, and he had a very clear idea that he wanted the club to survive by playing good football. That’s what engaged me, because ten years ago everything was percentage football and getting the ball into the box. There was a motto that if you played good football you’d never be promoted. I always felt that in the British lower leagues you could achieve a lot more by playing good football. When Brian Flynn said to me that he wanted to survive by playing good football and I was going to be key to that, I just couldn’t wait to do it. I was in the First Division, but to drop into the Third – I’ve never been concerned about the level. It’s just about the project.
“Brian was very intelligent by bringing in players on loan for the short term that were better than the level. Few of the players had a long relationship with Swansea, but everyone had an incredible responsibility of keeping Swansea up, because that was the project. It was nineteen games and it was a very interesting situation because we were a group of individuals that had the same goal, and we had to be perfect in order to achieve the aim of staying in the league, which at that point was very significant for the history of Swansea City. I really enjoyed that challenge.”
Roberto was one who did have a longer relationship with Swansea, continuing as a player as the club won promotion to League One, returning as manager to take the club into the Championship for the first time in twenty-four years. It was an intense association with an intense football club, that was on a trajectory that tugged at the core threads of Roberto’s character long after survival was achieved; character that sustained him when Kenny Jackett became manager and Roberto was left on the sidelines with no illusions about his manager’s opinions, and decided to stay and fight his way back into the team that meant so much to him.
“When you’re involved in a team sport, when the focus is on you, you have to make a lot of decisions. When the focus is on the team, it is very simple. That means sometimes, if it doesn’t go your way, as long as you know you can make a difference and you can help the team in achieving something, you can get through very difficult periods. It’s about having strong belief in yourself and what you can do, and understanding you need to keep those high standards even when things are not going your way. Then, you can make the difference in order to help the team to achieve something. And throughout my career that has always been the case in football. When I was a player it wasn’t about me playing or not, it was about what I could do in order to help the team. And, as a consequence, you end up playing.
“As a manager I’m trying to manage the team in the same manner. I think it really helps to bring longevity to what you do, because it’s not about making a decision based on something that is materialistic or hasn’t got substance. If you are part of a project that a team wants to achieve, you will always have direction, and you will always find a way to work hard towards it.
“I have always believed in that, in terms of managing players; that they can be part of a team that has got a goal and an aspiration, that is going to benefit them individually, and you can build the football club around that. Setting a goal that everyone gets some sort of passion for, and then through that aspiration being prepared to give everything you’ve got in order to make the difference to achieve it.”
Understanding the heritage, and the tradition, and the thoughts of the fans, has become integral to playing for Everton under Roberto Martinez; without the financial power of the Premier League’s top four Champions League regulars, the club has to draw its power from alternative sources. With a history like Everton’s, present circumstances can’t be allowed to alter the overall aim and ambition.
“For Everton, the aim is to have a winning team,” says Roberto. “And winning a title. We have to. We have to get there. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win it tomorrow or this season. But the aspiration and the dream has to be that.
“If you look at what we’ve done, at how our squad is growing from transfer window to transfer window, the way we’ve been giving big roles to young players that are growing very fast, I feel that we are starting to have something really exciting and very special for the future.
“Everything goes back to that dream of winning the title, of getting into the top four, competing with teams for Champions League positions. That’s because we are Everton, and our history demands it, and so you have to find a way.”
Finding a way is a theme that often crops up as Roberto talks; a theme and a belief in the power of creative solutions, of locating your own power, of making a project that will drive a football club to where it needs to be, no matter where it is now.
“I find it very lazy to just look at the finances and say, well, we’re not in the top four budgets in the league, so we shouldn’t be in the top four places,” says Roberto. “I just don’t believe football should be run that way.
“I think there are other ways. You have to be more creative, you have to be more patient, and you need to have a long term strategy, but it can be achieved. I have always felt that throughout the clubs I have been at. We got promoted to the Championship with Swansea with one of the smallest budgets; but by finding the way with a different way of playing, changing the football philosophy, we did it, after twenty-four years. There is always, always a way of achieving in football, without relying on money.”
The way, at Everton, will be found in heritage that money can’t buy. The club is now in a position to spend huge sums on a player like Romelu Lukaku, but when it does, the investment has to continue; investment in making an Evertonian of Lukaku, and of every player that comes to the club. No other team can compete with something that is unique.
“In the Premier League now, it’s such a competitive league, the teams that are getting involved in the Champions League are running away from the other teams. We need to find a way of becoming a winning team without having the finances, and without needing the finances, of the teams that are involved in the Champions League.
“Finding the way. Sometimes in football it’s very different from one club to another. At Everton, I think the power of our history has to be the main ingredient in order to stimulate and inspire players. That brings expectations, but they need to be realistic expectations. If you work with expectations that are not realistic or you don’t understand them, it aggravates the situation and it becomes a lot harder. But if we understand those expectations, that’s going to be powerful.”
Roberto speaks so lucidly about the creative processes involved in finding the way, and with such passion about the heritage and tradition available at Everton for him to tap into, that we wondered if he might be absorbed in management for management’s sake. But he cut that notion short. Roberto, who week by week felt the impact of his father’s management of CF Balaguer in the town, who sees the difference across Liverpool that the weekend’s football results can make, has always known that football is a results business: the results on Saturday afternoon, the results at the end of the season, the results that go down in the history books.
“The pleasure of managing is winning,” he says. “And whatever it takes towards winning at the weekend – that’s a very diverse journey. It means affecting players, affecting ways of playing and preparing games, moments of form, being able to react, having strong people at the football club with hard work in different departments, engaging fans.
“It’s a very important week when you’re preparing a game. It’s not just the manager and the players, it’s the whole football club and the whole set of fans. That’s how significant the margins are now in order to win games. So as a manager that’s the satisfaction; how you get the winning goal, how you get the winning feeling after a game, because there are so many things involved in it.”
And if you don’t win?
“You have to find the answers. I become very bad company until I find the answers. Over the years that’s a key. The advantage of a manager when he loses is that he can do something about it. The disadvantage of a fan is that, unfortunately, he can not get rid of that until the next game. And I understand that. But I tend to find the solutions or the reasons quickly, so I can work straight away for the next game.”
In every game Everton play three points are at stake for the immediate league campaign; in the high pressure world of the Premier League, every game Roberto Martinez manages puts his future employment at stake. If you’re clever, though, and if you’re Roberto Martinez, you can raise the stakes and offer even greater rewards, by playing for the history and future of the club every time you play.
“The position of a manager nowadays makes it very difficult to find stability, because you know that you are three defeats away from being questioned. But the way I enjoy management is managing like you’re going to be in the job for a hundred years, and you need to make decisions that you know the club is going to benefit from. Maybe not while you’re in charge, but even further down the line. It’s building football clubs. That’s what I enjoyed at Swansea, and when you see Swansea achieving something down the line, and you see Joe Allen moving after you put a programme in place to develop him, you get real satisfaction.
“It’s the same at Everton. At Everton, it’s a bit different in the fact that you feel privileged to be the manager, to be the custodian of such an incredible football club. I’m only the fourteenth manager, which is an incredible statistic. And I enjoy managing the football club in a way that, whatever happens, the football club should be the most important aspect of any decision I make.”
First published in TCT