At the heart of great man management is the ability to understand individuals and to be able to inspire them. Such qualities have been exemplified by Roberto Martinez as he has steered Wigan Athletic clear of relegation for two consecutive seasons. In May 2011 Wigan pulled off a last day great escape away to Stoke. A year later, despite a daunting end of season fixture list, 7 wins in 9 matches ensured Wigan’s Barclays Premier League survival. With the pressure on and the stakes high, Martinez’s team demonstrated a cohesive mental toughness and stepped up to fight to keep each other in the top flight. Martinez’s successful relationship with his squad mirrors his much coveted partnership with Chairman Dave Whelan. With a relationship spanning 17 years, theirs is a partnership based on trust, with a clear club business plan agreed from the outset. With the first three years of their joint project complete and the foundations of the next phase in place Roberto Martinez is aspiring to take Wigan to the next level.
You’ve now lived almost 50 per cent of your life in the UK and 50% in Spain. How has that shaped you culturally in your leadership style – how much of a multi faceted approach do you have?
“To understand individuals it is important to understand their background and any cultural barriers that might hinder their understanding of what you want them to do. When I arrived in Wigan from Spain in 1995 I really got a cultural shock. You tend to assume that the way you have been raised and what you know is the only way that exists in the rest of the world. When you leave your own country you realise that there are other cultures and other ways to understand things. You quickly realise that there is a variety of options of how you see life. So it’s very, very important to be open minded and be respectful of every way of working and understanding cultures means understanding individuals. So my approach has certainly been influenced by my time spent in both Spain and the UK.”
Your father had a very positive influence on you; tell us about his football career and how he influenced your values and the way you manage?
“My dad was a big, big influence on the way that I have subsequently done things. He always set standards in whatever he did. He was born in Zaragoza and was a footballer who moved around during his career before settling in Balaguer. When he stopped playing he enjoyed being very committed to spending time with our family. He opened a shoe shop whilst carrying on managing amateur clubs. In everything he did, he was so, so professional. He taught me to have real standards in whatever you do – it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been managing a local side or managing Barcelona, he’d have approached it in the same manner. I always have his strong values in my mind. He had a real commitment to the game and never viewed it as a job, a chore or an activity, it was his passion. I am thankful for his influence on me because you must have a passion for football to survive its intensity.”
You are committed to your style of playing free flowing, offensive football. How did your philosophy evolve?
“Being raised in Spain, I was a technical player and my philosophy of how I like to see the game played evolved from there. When I told people in Spain that I had decided to play for Wigan Athletic in the old 3rd Division they told me I’d only last 6 months because the British game and lower leagues wouldn’t suit me. In a way I saw it as a big challenge just to be able to be useful to my manager at Wigan. To be able to affect the game from a technical perspective enabled me to develop my tactical knowledge greatly. I couldn’t compete with the opposition in a physical way so I had to think tactically and hurt them by keeping the ball, being more patient and by finding the chance to score rather than chasing it. Effectively, I am a product of my playing experiences in Spain, what type of football I love to watch and how I had to play in the lower English football leagues in order to have a career.”
How would you describe your style of management – is it a conscious style of leadership or an extension of your personality?
“I like to lead through aspiration. In a way this is an extension of my own personality. I always had great aspirations as a player and as a person and that always enabled me to give myself direction. I feel that your own aspirations can be fitted into a team dynamic very easily. I’ve never believed in forcing people to do things. Even when you are the manager, at the forefront and setting the direction, you are still part of a team, a dream and an aspiration. I only want to manage players that want to achieve. I don’t see any long term benefit of being in a position where you have to force or punish players to reach certain standards. I like to build football clubs and put things in place so that the club is going to continually develop, and get their rewards. I fully believe that you can only achieve such rewards through aspiration.”
Inevitably during a football campaign players can lose form or become demoralised by certain results; how as the manager do you mend a players’ fractured confidence?
“When this happens you have to try to understand both the player and the human being. In football you need to appreciate that from Monday to Friday you are dealing with human beings and then you are dealing with footballers on a match day. Understanding the human being during the week allows you to understand the player. Sometimes people can get too focused on perfection and only highlight mistakes and weaknesses in the players and that doesn’t enable you to understand the individual. When you have got a player who has got the right ambition and the right aspiration sometimes they need to be understood in order to help them with any confidence issues. In such a long, exposed football environment where everything is detailed, players can suffer confidence issues so you do need to understand them as human beings.”
At the end of last season you went on an incredible run winning 7 out of 9 games to retain Wigan’s top flight status. How did you prevent any fear creeping into your players’ during such a crucial period?
“The approach that we took was to stop playing the opposition, which is very easy to say but difficult to achieve. We became intensely focused on what we as a team were doing. We as a team do click and as a group we have developed such a strong mental fitness to push each other in a healthy way to be as good as we can be. We had a real desire to collect points for the same cause and reached a very good level of consistent mental fitness during the season’s run in. During the last 9 games we actually finished top of the Barclays Premier League form table which was really pleasing.”
The nature of your relationship with Dave Whelan will be coveted by many; he’s committed to the plan you both drew up for Wigan and incredibly loyal. Why do you work so well together?
“From my point of view our strong relationship started on the first day that I’d signed to be manager of Wigan Athletic. We went for a meal and he said to me ‘For three years you are going to be the manager of Wigan Athletic. If we get relegated twice you are going to be the manager of Wigan Athletic in League One.’ From that moment on I knew I could trust him, I knew I could make decisions for the long term and that I could build a football club with his support. When, as young Spaniards myself, Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz arrived in Wigan in 1995 we were coming into the unknown. Dave Whelan was great with us; he gave us guidance and understood us. The Chairman played the game at a high level and he understands the game. I am well aware of how privileged I am to have such a good relationship with him. I have a great deal of clarity with him, I feel that he can trust me and I hope that he feels the same way. It’s rare to have that relationship where the Chairman says ‘I need to back my judgement; I think you are the best manager for this football club. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong with you.’ I think that is a quite unique way of dealing with football and that’s why he has been unique in achieving his dream for a family football club like Wigan Athletic.”
I imagine he also deserves great credit in your eyes for being so open minded and supportive when other clubs expressed an interest in you…
“We’ve always spoken about having an initial three year project. We wanted to achieve certain things during that period both on and off the pitch and financially we’ve had targets that we wanted to reach. During that initial period I wasn’t interested in speaking to anyone and during the same period he was giving me security in the job. After the three years I felt there needed to be a period where the Chairman could think about what he wanted to do next with the club. I needed to know whether he wanted to take the club to the next level and what the next challenge was going to be. I spoke with three different football clubs in different leagues and that was done in the open with the Chairman always aware of who I was speaking with. Everything was conducted with real respect between us and at the right time. He can be a very persuasive man and when he decided what he wanted to do next with Wigan Athletic he explained it to me and we now have the next chapter of the club in place.”
You have a Post Graduate Degree in Business Management. In what ways has studying Business Management been of benefit to you in your football career?
“As a manager you need to have as much information as you can when you need to make decisions. I’ve found that my Post Graduate Degree has been very beneficial in helping to put club strategy into place and draw up plans so that the clubs I have managed are not just working game by game or season by season. You can really set-out your football ideology and not only decide how you are going to win your game this weekend but how you are aiming to win your football club’s games three years down the line. Having this qualification has helped to challenge me and open my mind.”
Roberto Martinez is Manager of Wigan Athletic FC and was interviewed for the latest edition of the League Managers Association’s (LMA) magazine, The Manager. The full online edition is available here The Manager – Issue 13.
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