We are indebted to the Gaffer Russell Martin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us and answer a few questions. We are also extremely grateful to Andy Cullen for giving us access to the top man, and indeed to Antoni Fruncillo for making it all happen.
We hope you enjoy the read.
The most obvious place to start would be, where and how did your journey in football begin?
“I was with Charlton Athletic for a six-month period at 16. I thought I was going to sign a scholarship there, but I didn’t get one. After that, I went to college and played for Lewes FC in non-league. From there, I was invited to train with Brighton & Hove Albion on a non-contract basis for three months, but it didn’t really work out. I went back to playing for Lewes and also worked my way into the England College team. I then agreed to go on a scholarship to Connecticut in America but before I left, I wrote to every Football League club as one final roll of the dice and Wycombe Wanderers, Swansea City and Bristol Rovers got back to me. Because I was completely skint, I chose Wycombe as it was closest to me. I went there on a two-week trial and ended up staying for four years. That’s how it started.”
Who were your biggest influences in your playing career and why?
“Early on it was my Dad. He was my biggest fan but also my number one critic. He was ruthlessly honest with me at all times and would always challenge me – if I were sitting at home doing nothing, for example, he would always make me go out for a run or do something productive. I built up a lot of my resilience because of him. After that, there was a guy called Keith Ryan at Wycombe who was fantastic for me. John Gorman too – someone I know was here. He was brilliant with me, playing me in a number of different positions. I still speak to John now because he’s a top, top man. Paul Lambert then, obviously, because I played with him for so long at Wycombe and Norwich City – he was a massive influence, and he was the manager who established me as a right back. I’ve tried to take little bits off most people I’ve worked with but, if I look back, those are the people who really influenced me.”
You played and scored in all four divisions in England and in the Scottish Premiership, a unique feat, but were there any strikers out there that you particularly didn’t like facing?
“There’s been a few! Because I’m not the tallest of defenders, it was always the big guys that I didn’t like facing. Andy Carroll was always difficult to play against because he was so aggressive – he would do everything he possibly could to get on the end of a cross. I played against Robert Lewandowski a few times for Scotland and he was outstanding. Luis Suarez is another because he was just brilliant, although I didn’t play centre-back against him too often – the only time I did, we drew 1-1 and he didn’t score, so work out what you want from that! Sergio Aguero was another who was just brilliant, as was Robin van Persie.”
Many Dons fans feel that your arrival re-started our promotion push, and look at the goal you scored at Forest Green as one of the starting points, and joining in with your celebration was one of the high spots for the MK Army support, what do you remember about that day?
“I remember feeling as though I was having a really good game that day but, at half-time, I was told that I needed to give more. My job that day was just to get on top of Chris Doidge, and I felt like I’d dominated him. I was really annoyed in that second half and I got booked for a bad tackle on Doidge. They then scored, which was frustrating as they hadn’t had a kick in the game up until then. Luckily, the ball fell nicely to me late on and when it hit the net, there was a lot of frustration and relief coming out of me – which is where the celebration came from! It was a brilliant day in the end, and it was the first day where I felt the connection with the fans. You could see what it meant to everyone and it was an important day for us in that season.”
It has to be said your appointment as a rookie manager came as a big surprise to the fans, opinions were divided, did you realise you were going to have to win the fans over, and get them to embrace your vision for the club?
“Whenever a manager leaves, I know it’s natural for fans to want a big name to come in, but a big name doesn’t necessarily mean success. On the whole, though, I found that our fans were very supportive of me, especially considering that we lost our first four games. I received a load of messages from people, backing me and wishing me well and that meant a lot. There were a few who weren’t happy with it and I’m sure there are still some of them now but that’s part and parcel of the job. It’s never affected me or the team and on the whole, the support has been brilliant.”
Did you always plan to get into management one day, and what would be your dream appointment?
“Yes, I did. I was quite open and honest about that through my playing career. I’ve just finished my pro licence which I always aimed to do by the time I was 35. I started that as a player, along with my LMA diploma. It’s always been a long-term goal of mine and it’s something I discussed with Norwich City while I was there – finishing playing early and going into coaching. I felt I still had more to give on the pitch and I’m glad I chose to carry on because it meant I could come here and experience what I have experienced. In terms of what my dream appointment would be – I’m just enjoying this one and seeing where it takes us!”
What would you say gives you the biggest buzz on matchdays as a manager?
“Seeing things happen on the pitch that you’ve worked on in training. Seeing the players work so hard for each other. Goals, obviously. Seeing the fans, when they are inside the stadium, really getting behind the team and enjoying themselves. The winning has never been the biggest buzz for me – by that point, you’re so emotionally drained.”
As a player or now as a manager, do you get nervous in the build up?
“I never really got nervous as a player, I just hated waiting around for kick-off. I didn’t enjoy the warm-up as a player – I’d have much rather just turned up and played straight away. As a manager, there’s a dead period between 2pm and 3pm where you’re in the office on your own while the team is warming up. I still wouldn’t say I get that nervous, though – I’m just desperate to get the game underway.”
All fans love a good away day, is there a ground you always look forward going to, and why?
“In terms of teams in this league, I used to enjoy going to Ipswich as a player with Norwich, because there was always a good atmosphere there. I really enjoy going to Sunderland and Charlton too – The Valley is a brilliant ground! Otherwise, Anfield was special. It was always tough there, but it was a special ground. The best in terms of experience as an opposition player was the Emirates because the facilities were brilliant. There are grounds that I don’t like going to for no other reason than I’ve never had a good time there. West Brom is one of those and Stoke is too. I never seemed to get a result there.
Did you find the transition from player into managing your teammates hard?
“Yes, but I didn’t find it too difficult. The dynamic did change really quickly – I went out for dinner with some of the lads on the Friday before the Tranmere game and by the Monday, I was talking to them in my office as their manager. I tried to stay the same as much as I could, but it definitely had to change a little. The players made it so much easier for me, though. They were brilliant and I am so grateful for that.”
Many fans like to see their manager have passion, can you tell us how the fist pump towards the Cowshed came about after that first victory, and more importantly can we expect to see it again when we can get back to watching live football?
“It came about through relief. It was a brilliant win against an Oxford team who had been unbeaten in 16 games. The crowd were fantastic that day too. I had also been in hospital the day before with my wife. Thankfully, she was okay but, obviously, after going through that and going on to get the win, there was just pure relief, and the fist pump was just me letting out all that emotion. Then, the next time we won, I went over to clap the fans, and everyone was waiting for it and giving the ‘oooooh’ – I couldn’t let you down! The players watch it and laugh at me, but everyone expects it now, don’t they? I hope we see it again because it will mean we’ve won a match!”
We understand you are bit of a singer, and your party piece is “Don’t Stop Believing”, is there a chance we will see you at some stage performing at the stadium, perhaps the End of Season Awards Night?
“I’m not really a singer. ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ was my initiation song with Andrew Crofts at Norwich and because we did a little performance which went down well, it stuck and when we got promoted, we had to sing it again. Then, it would come out at every Christmas party or charity event. I’ve definitely hung up the microphone now, though, so there’s no chance of that… unless we get promoted at some point! Then, maybe!”
White, Black or Red Kit?
“The white is brilliant, and I really like the black. It’s between those two.”
Baked Beans or spaghetti hoops?
“I don’t think I’ve ever had spaghetti hoops so baked beans.”
Any other comments?
“About baked beans and spaghetti hoops? I don’t think there’s much more I can say. Although, I did find some organic baked beans in an organic shop the other day that were fantastic! In all seriousness, a massive thank you, again, for all your support. Since day one, you have been terrific for the Club and your positivity is greatly appreciated. We just can’t wait to see you back at Stadium MK!”