Martinez and Wigan part company in credit
It became a mantra for Roberto Martinez. As his first season as manager of Wigan Athletic ticked along, with the travails of Portsmouth, Hull and Burnley meaning that, unlike in the rest of his reign, their Premier League status seemed secure, he was invariably asked what his ambitions at the DW Stadium were. The answer tended to be similar: to take Wigan into Europe.
His audiences tended to indulge an incorrigible optimist. It would be crueller to disagree even if, privately, few thought it possible. Three years later, to everyone else’s surprise, Wigan are indeed in Europe. Victory over Millwall in the FA Cup semi-final ensured their participation in next season’s Europa League; by defeating Manchester City in the final, they ensured they will be in the group stages.
By then, however, Martinez will no longer be at Wigan. From relegation to probable resignation, his decision to go took two weeks. This, once again, is about ambition, something Martinez put on the backburner because of his loyalty to Wigan. He turned down the Aston Villa job in 2011 and was interviewed by Liverpool last summer. On each occasion, he returned to a little Lancashire club, happy not to hurry towards the top. With each year, his ethos became more evident, his tactics more radical and, despite demotion, his reputation more enviable.
His chairman Dave Whelan proclaimed Martinez the best manager in Europe last week. Even accepting the Wigan owner’s fondness for hyperbole, his standing is such that the Championship is no place for him. There has to be an element of self-preservation about it: burdened by the extra workload of the Europa League, losing four out-of-contract players, three loanees and, potentially, a contingent of high-class footballers to wealthier clubs, and requiring, by Martinez’s own estimate, 12-14 signings, are Wigan really likely to be promoted?
Because if not, the risk is that bigger clubs may stop calling. Martinez could become a passing fad, a manager tipped for the top who fell out of favour, a cleverer, more sophisticated Owen Coyle. It was a chance he could not afford to take.
Instead, he has options. Martinez has been allowed to speak to Everton. He is the favourite for the vacancy at Goodison Park for good reason. Like the departed David Moyes, he has shown a willingness to operate uncomplainingly on a budget, casting his net far and wide in the search for affordable players. He is a manager who can be trusted to run a club, rather than just a team. His possession-based ethos appeals to those who want a manager who doubles up as a philosopher. He eschews short-termism to focus on the future.
While this may surprise those who cannot look past the league table, demotion is not necessarily a deterrent to prospective employers. Jurgen Klopp and Rafa Benitez have both been relegated, the German with Mainz, the Spaniard at Extremadura, but there was a recognition that the odds were stacked against them. So, too, at Wigan, where Martinez’s FA Cup victory, his miraculous escapes from the bottom three in 2011 and 2012 and his landmark victories over blue-chip clubs mean he has credit in the bank. So, when they sell his discoveries like James McCarthy, should they.
It explains why, from the boardroom to the dressing room, Wigan have been united in hoping he would stay. Finding a manager who can conquer the pragmatist’s paradise that is the Championship with his passing methods will not be easy; nor, particularly now, will it be to persuade not just the crown jewels of McCarthy, Arouna Kone and Shaun Maloney but much improved players like Callum McManaman, James McArthur and Jean Beausejour to stay. Much as Martinez hoped to leave Wigan a legacy, his successor may have to start from scratch.
And when the 39-year-old is appointed elsewhere, it is likely to be in an environment where the bar is raised and he will be under greater scrutiny. It will be a test of his talent. While Wigan provided greater consistency in terms of performances than results, both will be required at a club with higher expectations; Martinez, who has an excellent eye for midfielders and wingers, has a more mixed record when recruiting strikers and stoppers; if Athletic had a defensive coach and if they could have married their tactical excellence with dependability at the back, they may have survived again.
Instead, the loss of their place in the Premier League has been followed by the departure of their manager. Ultimately, Wigan needed Martinez more than he needs them. The prognosis now is bleaker for the club than the manager. But when, in September, Wigan play their inaugural fixture in Europe, the man whose improbable dream became reality should be remembered fondly at the DW Stadium.