End of an era

Roberto Martinez holds Wigan's first major trophy

Roberto Martinez holds Wigan’s first major trophy

So that’s that then, after four years and some of the highest highs coupled with the lowest of lows Roberto Martinez has left Wigan Athletic for a second time. This second departure has a very different feel to the feeling I had when he left in 2001, back in 2001 you knew he would be back one day in one form or another. This time I’m not too sure if he will be back.

Roberto Martinez joined Wigan Athletic alongside Isidrio Diaz and Jesus Seba who together formed the ‘The Three Amigos’. I had just turned eight years old when the Amigos arrived and had been watching Wigan Athletic struggle in the old third division for two seasons before their arrival.

The moves for Spanish players had been mooted for a number of weeks before they actually happened. Dave Whelan the ever astute business man and former Blackburn defender (he broke his leg in a cup final y’know) who had taken over as chairman of Wigan Athletic the previous Spring had been looking for openings in Spain for his growing sports wear chain JJB Sports.

Graham Barrow the former Wigan Athletic midfield enforcer and manager in 1995 was sent on a scouting mission to Catalonia. His orders involved watching three young Spanish players from the Spanish second division and one who was currently a Spain U-21 international, Barrow told the Independent at the time ¬†”I’m usually involved in free transfers and bargains from non-League, yet at the end of June, there I was on a plane to Barcelona on a scouting mission.”

After negotiations between Whelan, Barrow and the three Spanish youngsters they agreed to move to WIgan Athletic. Arriving in time for pre-season training in 1995, Isidrio Diaz a Valencia native had been playing alongside Roberto Martinez in Real Zaragoza’s B team and had also appeared for the same Catalan side as Roberto Martinez CF Balaguer, along with Jesus Seba another former Real Zaragoza player and Copa Del Rey winner with Villareal.

Wigan Athletic and indeed the Wigan of 1995 was a very different place to now, how must it have felt for three Spanish youngsters to sign for third division Wigan Athletic in 1995? The players moved in to the club accomodation at the time which was a Victorian terrace on Poolstock Lane, a main through fare to Wigan town centre. The terrace had been the childhood home of Dave Whelan and after his mother had passed away the house was used for new players acclimatizing to the way of life in Wigan.

That terraced house was directly across my childhood home, one Friday afternoon in August removal vans pulled up outside the home and an excited father bounced through in to the living room saying “You’ll never guess who’s moved in lad, the three amigos. After football training we’ll go and get your shirts signed.”

The next day came and a shy eight year old boy crossed Poolstock Lane with his father holding his hand to get his football shirts signed. The door was opened by Isidro in a dressing gown who upon seeing my shirts clutched in the hand of my Dad welcomed us in and offered us both a glass of orange juice. He was joined by Roberto and Jesus who came down and despite not speaking a word of English signed my shirts and hugged me whilst trying to converse with my Dad in broken English.

The joy and pride I felt of having The Three Amigos living across the road from me was unbridled. I crossed the road heading back home with a smile as big as the old 610 bus that used to pass by my front window.

The Three Amigos were taken to Wiganer’s hearts, they were the first Spanish players to play in England let alone Wigan and the Wigan Athletic fans took them to their heart. Jesus Seba struggled to settle at the club and returned to Spain before the end of 1995 whilst Isidro Diaz stayed a little bit longer but left for the final time in 1998.

It was Roberto who stayed longest and probably the only one who truly ‘got us’, and the player who found settling at the club the easiest. He was a classy player, a central midfielder who had a goal in him. Watching him was like nothing that the crowds at Springfield Park had ever seen before. He lacked the pace to make it at the very top but his vision was what set him apart.

Roberto impressed straight away in a league not known for it’s football quality and finished his first full season at Wigan Athletic as a division three winner and along with Diaz was named in the PFA team of the season.

From a personal point of view Roberto couldn’t do enough for me and my Dad. After seeing me wearing a Real Madrid shirt that had been picked up on a family holiday he arranged for his mother to bring a Real Zaragoza shirt over for me. I wore that shirt with pride and told everyone that “Roberto had bought this for me”.

He would often drive both of us to Springfield Park and drive me home from games. One memorable ¬†journey took part ahead of the Junior Latics Christmas Party, with a Dad working away from home Roberto offered to drive me to Springfield Park as a favour for my Mum who wouldn’t be able to take me across town to Springfield Park.

I sat in the old supporters club at Springfield Park with Roberto and his future assistant Greame Jones and club legends such as Colin Greenall and Ian Kilford. It felt so surreal but so normal as I got to know the man who became known to Wiganer’s as Bob.

Roberto left the club first time around in 2001 after failing to be offered a new contract by the outgoing manager Steve Bruce. He moved to Scotland and joined Motherwell, before spells at Walsall and Chester along with Swansea where he was to return as manager in 2006.

Roberto returned to Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2009, eight years after leaving as a player and ironically replaced Steve Bruce the man who had released him eight years ago. At Swnsea he had built a reputation for building attacking sides playing the brand of football that had been made famous by his beloved Barcelona.

After three seasons of struggle and relegation scraps not to mention a League Cup quarter-final and the small matter of an FA Cup win Roberto left Wigan Athletic on Wednesday 5th June and made the short journey down the East Lancs to Goodison Park, scene of arguably one of Wigan Athletic’s best performances.

As an injury hit Wigan Athletic scored three goals in three glorious minutes to put Everton to the sword and seal a return to Wembley along with their first ever FA Cup semi-final appearance. This could arguably have been the game that sealed Roberto’s departure at the end of the season. This was the beginnings of that glorious journey to the FA Cup final and also the time when Bill Kenwright took a first look at David Moyes soon to be successor.

I’m sure Roberto didn’t envisage leaving us in the Championship when he decided to return to Wigan Athletic. People often ask why he has been ‘rewarded’ with the Everton job after getting us relegated and yes no doubt he needs to take the fair share of the blame for relegation this season but there were mitigating factors away from his control. He has worked with serious financial constraints in his four years at the club with the wage bill trimmed by a fifth and the transfer budget severely reduced. Whilst this season he has had one of the worst injury lists to befall the club in recent years. Despite this he has still produced exciting attacking teams that each season he has been here have produced shock results.

The moments of joy he gave me as manager roll off the tongue and are too numerous to list; our first wins over Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in the same season. Relegating West Ham and securing survival at Stoke City. The run of games from the 2011/2012 season where we beat Liverpool, Manchester United, and Newcastle United to secure survival and then of course The FA Cup.

But he has also offered moments of despair, many Wiganer’s who prefer the blood and thunder style of football couldn’t take to him despite his status as a club legend. A lot derided him for his bravery and his refusal to play percentage football. But he gave me some of my finest moments as a Wigan Athletic fan and for that I can’t deride the man.

It’s taken me over a week to put these thoughts on to paper, not many people are lucky enough to meet their hero let alone get to know them. To have that hero return in 2009 was a dream come true for me and today has been a nightmare as Roberto moves on to ‘bigger and better’ things elsewhere.

I hoped he would stay and attempt to get us back to the Premier League and thought that the lull of being the first manager to take Wigan in to Europe would be a big enough pull to keep him at the club. Sadly it wasn’t, emotions may be raw at the moment but nothing in my eyes can diminish Roberto’s standing. That may be naive, that may be foolhardy but you don’t get much chance to look up to your heroes in Modern day football..

So thank you Roberto, thank you for the FA Cup, thank you for giving me some of the greatest moments of my life and thank you for BELIEVING in my little town and my little football club TWICE. We’ll ignore the lack of defending and heavy defeats.

Once a Wiganer, always a Wiganer…