Scotland: Russell Martin eager for acceptance

Defender Russell Martin, right, challenges Scotland team-mate James McArthur in training yesterday. Picture: SNS
Defender Russell Martin, right, challenges Scotland team-mate James McArthur in training yesterday. Picture: SNS
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Russell Martin is, perhaps, the admirable antidote to players who are too quick to hang up their international boots, having grown tired of not playing as often as they think they should.

Indeed, not too many eyebrows might have been raised had the Brighton-born Martin decided to walk away after routinely turning up for matches and then being left to look on from the substitutes’ bench or even stand.

Indeed, would some even have noticed? Despite making weekly appearances on Match of the Day, Martin’s committed and dependably solid performances for Norwich City have not seen him register on the radar of Scottish fans. Even taxi drivers, supposedly armed with “the knowledge”, have struggled to place him.

As with the late Hibs great Joe Baker, whose Scottish-accented request to be taken to the England team hotel led a suspicious taxi driver to call the police, Martin has had to work hard to convince those ferrying him to the Scotland team hotel that yes, he is indeed an international footballer reporting for duty. “I get picked up from the airport all the time and the taxi drivers haven’t got a clue who I am,” he smiled yesterday, as he prepared to begin rectifying matters against Croatia on Friday evening, when it is expected Martin will make his competitive debut. “It’s great in one way. But the other side of it is I’m not well known and it’s up to me to come up here and change that.

“I want to show people what I’m about. This time next year I want to look back and say I have been playing in most of the games and people will be saying, ‘He’s not too bad, he’s worth a place in the team’.”

At the moment, however, on arrival at Glasgow airport he has his work cut out merely convincing people he is part of the squad. “I’ll get in the cab and ask them to take me to Mar Hall [the Scotland training base],” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘Oh that’s a nice place, what are you doing there?’ When I tell them I that I’ve come up to play football, they’ll ask, ‘Who for?’

“It’s when I tell them I’m actually here to play for the country that they start asking who I am. And then they ask if Paul Lambert is still the manager at Norwich. It’s happened on the last three or four trips.”

He knows there is only one way to establish himself in the thoughts of supporters – and that’s establish himself in the thoughts of manager Gordon Strachan. It seems he will have the opportunity to do this on Friday night, when he looks set to make a competitive bow for Scotland in fairly high-octane circumstances. Having not experienced a minute of qualifying action, he will be pitched into the heat of a group match, against a side which is, according to reports, anticipating a multi-goal victory.

“If I do get my chance and then that happens then I don’t think we’ll be sitting here having too many more of these conversations!” he says, self-deprecatingly. However, reassurance is at hand. Scotland are not in a place where they can afford to discard Premier League-standard defenders.

Rather than be cowed by the thought of what awaits in Zagreb, Martin is treating Friday’s clash as an opportunity to show what he can do against world-class strikers, such as Croatia’s Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic. It is not as if such tasks are alien to him, since he is challenged by high-quality strikers, including Everton’s Croatian forward Nikica Jelavic, every weekend in England, having served his time in League One and then the Championship, after being allowed to leave Peterborough.

“I can see why people outside the squad would worry about this match,” he says. “But, the other side of it, is that you have players like myself and others who haven’t been given a chance yet to prove what we can do. We want the chance and we are hungry to play for our country, so there is no worry inside the camp in that sense.

“We’ll give everything. I’m sure it won’t be a lambs to the slaughter job.”

When it comes to his Scotland ambitions, Martin has perhaps suffered for his versatility. In the season when Norwich won promotion to the Premier League under Lambert, Martin distinguished himself at right-back, and was described as “the Cafu of the Championship” by fans at Carrow Road. At times, however, he has been deployed at centre-half by Chris Hughton, Lambert’s successor, and it is here where he prefers to play.

“I’ve played most of this season at right-back but I played at centre-half for a few before that,” he says. “I hadn’t played right back until I was about 20, got pushed into it and did okay so I ended up staying there for a while. I can play both but I prefer centre-half.

“That’s where I’ll probably eventually settle and say at club level, ‘I play there or I don’t play’. At the minute, though, I’m switching between both, which my manager tells me is a good thing. You do what you have to do for the team. But my favourite position is centre-half.”

His lack of action for Scotland has been hard to accept, he concedes. Although he is regularly called up, he has only appeared in three friendlies, against Australia, United States and Slovenia, and versus Wales in the Carling Nations Cup. He has yet to appear under Strachan.

“Yeah it’s been frustrating really,” says Martin. “I’ve been in a lot of squads but only played four times, coming off the bench and stuff. I keep coming back and plugging away, and hopefully if I’m playing well for my club the chance will arise here. Hopefully it will come this week.”

Martin is eager to dismiss the notion that although a qualifying fixture, little rests on this week’s fixture with Croatia as far as Scotland are concerned.

“We don’t want to finish bottom of the group, that’s for sure,” he stresses. “People keep talking about being in that bottom pot next year for the qualifiers so we need to get as many points as we can.

“We want to restore a sense of pride because we are disappointed with how the campaign has gone so far,” he adds. “It’s up to us now to accumulate some points and give people a bit of belief for the next campaign.”