ON HIS only previous visit to what is widely recognised as one of world football’s finest arenas, Russell Martin was little more than a tourist.
It was the summer of 2007 when he was a member of the Wycombe Wanderers squad who visited Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion during a pre-season trip organised by the English League Two club’s manager at the time, Paul Lambert, who had been a Champions League winner with the Bundesliga giants ten years earlier.
For the then 21-year-old Martin, battling to build a career for himself in the lower reaches of English football, it was an eye-opening experience.
Seven years later, the Norwich City captain will return to the stadium as a central figure in Scotland’s bid to upset newly-crowned world champions Germany in the opening match of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign on Sunday night.
“It’s been a long old journey for me,” says the central defender. “But I’m glad I’ve done it the way I have, because it makes me really appreciate what I’ve got now and makes me even more determined to stay at this level.
“The stadium in Dortmund is a fantastic place, it’s special. With Paul Lambert being a bit of a legend there, he managed to take us over for a trip when I was at Wycombe. We didn’t play there – we played against one of the lower league local teams – but we did get a tour of the stadium and also watched Borussia play a match.
“It’s beautiful, with that huge terrace behind one of the goals, and the atmosphere is brilliant. I’m going back there with Scotland now and I can’t wait.”
Brighton-born Martin, who qualifies for Scotland through his father, is in line to win his 12th cap on Sunday. Despite suffering relegation from the English Premier League with Norwich last season, his international stock grew as he established himself as a first pick in Gordon Strachan’s back four.
He traces that status, and the development of his central defensive partnership with Blackburn Rovers captain Grant Hanley, to the morale-changing 1-0 win against Croatia in Zagreb in June last year.
“That was my first competitive game for Scotland. I’d only played in friendlies before that,” recalls Martin. “The gaffer told me a few weeks before that I was going to play in Croatia, so I had it in my head that it was my big chance. It was sink or swim, really.
“If I hadn’t done well against Croatia that night, then I might not be sitting here now and looking forward to playing against Germany. Fortunately I did well, we kept a clean sheet and got a result no-one expected. The Croatian manager was talking beforehand about scoring four or five against us, so it really galvanised us.
“If we had done that earlier in the campaign, we’d maybe have been at the World Cup in Brazil this year instead of the Croatians. But it was the start of something for Scotland and we need to keep that going now.
“There has been a big change in the last 18 months or so. It’s like a club mentality now, everyone gets on well, the training is good and the coaching staff are great. Everything is positive.
“At the back, my partnership with Grant has got better and better. We are different players, but the relationship we have on the pitch seemed to click from that night in Croatia. We didn’t work on it too much before the game, but it worked on the pitch.
“Grant is younger than me but he has already played a lot of games in senior football. We are both captains at our clubs and we both like the organisational side of the game. We like to talk through a game and we work well together.
“We have also played with Gordon Greer and Christophe Berra in there at different times and whoever steps in knows their role, because the manager has made it clear for them. It’s up to myself and Grant to make sure we keep performing for club and country, but all the defenders are ready when needed.”
Scotland will clearly need to be at their most solid defensively on Sunday night, although Martin is insistent they will not set out to mount a purely rearguard action.
“No chance,” he says. “If you do that against a team of Germany’s quality, then you are on a hiding to nothing. It would be a very long evening.
“We are going to try and impose our own game and play the way we want to play. The manager is really positive, as are the lads. We have improved a lot over the past year so we want to keep that going. One thing is for sure, we will go there and have a go to try and get a result.
“Every team, even the world champions, have some weaknesses. Our coaching staff have spent a long time looking at Germany and we have been working on things on the training pitch. We all know how good Germany can be, we saw that in Brazil this summer, but let’s look at one or two things they maybe don’t do so well and try to exploit them.
“They are difficult to play against because they have so much flexibility in their system. We experienced that against Belgium in the last qualifying campaign, they are quite similar in the way they play. So we are used to that. We have some real strengths too. The manager has been stressing to us this week that the focus is on us and what we can do, so we need to be positive on Sunday night.”