DCSIMG

Respected and cultured, Martinez could prove a real coup for Celtic

HE HAS distinguished himself as a football pundit and has no past association with Celtic.

The Parkhead board could be accused of same old, same old as they make efforts to name Roberto Martinez as successor to Gordon Strachan, whose performances on Match of the Day 2 earned him a reputation as an entertaining studio guest.

But Martinez deserves to be compared to fellow Catalan Pep Guardiola, the young, intelligent and, most importantly, successful manager of Barcelona. Like him, Martinez has developed a reputation as an advocate of stylish, passing football. Having first agreed to become Sky's regular Spanish football expert in 1999 it is hard to believe Martinez is not 36 until next month. The similarly precocious Guardiola is just 38.

They represent a new breed of football manager. Martinez, although clearly operating at a different level to Guardiola, has achieved eye-opening success in his short spell in charge at Swansea. He has said he has been preparing for his opportunity in management since he was a boy. His father, also Roberto, managed Spanish lower division sides Lerida and Balaguer. He used to bring his son into the dressing room with him.

"You are both with it or you are not," Martinez junior later said of football management. "I was born with it. It is all I have known since I was a little boy."

His time with Swansea has been marked by a rapid improvement in the club's fortunes. He replaced Kenny Jackett as manager during the last months of the 2006-07 season. They easily won the championship in the Spaniard's first full season in charge and narrowly failed to make the play-off places in their first Championship campaign.

It has proved a powerful first entry on his managerial CV. Jackett released Martinez as a player from Swansea in 2006 and the Spaniard signed for Chester City. Jackett's decision to let him go hit the player hard. When asked to comment on subsequent speculation linking him with jobs elsewhere Martinez often reflected on this difficult moment in his career. "Swansea forced me out as a player and they will have to force me out as manager," he said. The comment may not provide Celtic with much encouragement as they seek to recruit his services. Martinez has four years left of his contract and has always advised players to be loyal to the club.

He has, however, felt the impact of a club reneging on an agreement. He was made redundant by Motherwell in April 2002 when the club fell into interim administration. The midfielder had played only 16 times for the Fir Park side, then under the management of Eric Black.

He made only one appearance against Celtic, when coming on for the last minute of a 2-1 defeat at Fir Park. He was an unused substitute on the two other occasions the teams met that season. Martinez's spell in Scotland was not an entirely unhappy one since he met his long-term girlfriend when at Fir Park. This summer she will become his wife.

It is one reason why he has kept up with the Scottish scene since his departure from Motherwell. Swansea's success has been built on the capture of goalkeeper Dorus De Vries from Dunfermline and St Johnstone's Jason Scotland. Martinez has also secured the services of Stephen Dobbie from Queen of the South for next season's promotion push.

Martinez's assistant Graeme Jones is another with connections to Scotland. The former striker played for St Johnstone, Clyde and Hamilton Accies but met Martinez during their time together at Wigan Athletic. When Martinez asked Jones to join him at Swansea he was assistant to Billy Reid at Hamilton.

Jones was reluctant to leave the then First Division club but was convinced by Martinez. "He can go as high and as far as he wants," said the impressed Jones afterwards. The compliments have rained down on the Spaniard ever since he arrived in Britain in 1995, following a serendipitous meeting with Wigan chairman Dave Whelan in Spain.

Martinez made his La Liga debut for Real Zaragoza v Atletico Madrid in 1993 but by the time Whelan met him he was back at local club, Balaguer. Whelan, the owner of JJB Sports, was in Zaragoza to open a sports shop and brought back not only Martinez, but also compatriots Isidra Diaz and Jesus Seba. They were Wigan's version of the "Three Amigos", a phrase later in vogue at Celtic as owner Fergus McCann fought with the contract demands of Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete and Paolo Di Canio. Martinez, a tee-totaller, grew to become an ambassador for Wigan, as well as being a symbol of the uncelebrated club's new sense of ambition. He struck on his debut against Gillingham and became the first Spaniard to score in the FA Cup. In 2004 was named the club's all-time cult hero following a poll organised by the BBC's Football Focus programme, he was known as 'Bob' and inspired the appearance of sombreros in the stands and shouts of 'Ole!' from fans. As one fan noted: "If you've ever been to Wigan you will know that is quite a feat".

Martinez helped Wigan go from the Third Division to First but was released by Steve Bruce in 2001. Bruce himself left the club for Crystal Palace days later. The crazily paved path of football sees the men linked again. Bruce's impending departure to Sunderland, following a second spell at Wigan, has opened the door for Martinez to make a return to the club where he is a genuine hero. He has also been linked with a return to Spain with Real Sociedad.

These rival challenges for his signature could be Celtic's biggest obstacle as they attempt to bring Martinez back to Scotland, something chief executive Peter Lawwell seemed to anticipate when making an early morning call to Swansea yesterday seeking permission to speak to the highly-rated Spaniard.

 
 
 

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