From Barlinnie to Livingston: David Martindale opens up on his life - and what would be 'utopia'

It was a cheeky risposte. Hibernian in the build-up had been mentioning Trainspotting a lot, almost as if someone new at Easter Road had just caught up with the 26-year-old movie and become aware of the various green-and-white references. So when David Martindale’s Livingston ambushed the Hibees last Saturday, they couldn’t resist biting back.

Martindale admits he owes Livingston - and Heriot-Watt University - a huge debt for helping rehabilitate him.
Martindale admits he owes Livingston - and Heriot-Watt University - a huge debt for helping rehabilitate him.

“Choose plastic. Choose pasta. Choose roundabouts,” went the tweet. “Choose a designer outlet. Choose back-to-back promotions. Choose standing on Bubbles Hill for the game. Choose West Lothian.”

Actually, “ambushed” is the wrong word. There was no stealth involved and really not much surprise. Martindale is now a quiz question, having outwitted no fewer than four Hibee managers in successive games between the teams, and in the case of the first three, doing nothing for their prospects of remaining in post.

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What has he got against the men from Leith, I’m wondering, when I call on him in his office at the Tony Macaroni Arena. “Nothing,” he says. “We simply need points, as many as we can get.” But he can’t resist adding, even though it wasn’t in sequence, that Livingston got one over on Paul Heckingbottom as well.

Martindale urges on his team - and dream of Europe.
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The latest win was achieved in the now customary Livi way: an allsorts selection from Australia, Belgium, Russia, Colombia, Guinea-Bissau, the Congo and many points in between, craftily drilled by Martindale and his back-up crew, each player buying into a distinct and vigorous club identity.

And Hibs? We rarely hear managers comment on the affairs of other clubs but on the identity issue recently he feels something has got lost down Leith way. That’s Martindale, though: a boss like no other, with a story which bears absolutely no relation to that of anyone else.

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So when the Lions of Livingston do well, like just now, administering biffs on the nose to better-resourced opponents, football scrutinises the bullet-headed one and wonders: could he work his strange magic somewhere else and should he be given the opportunity?

Martindale smiles the way he does on Sportscene when he’s just thought of a funny for the post-match round-ups. He’s 48 and, from odd-job man to manager, has been at the club for nine years. But what if … ? “What if, ha ha, a club from England’s Premier League were interested? “Okay, I’d be offski. I think John [Ward, chief executive] and Robert [Wilson, chairman] would drive me there and I’d leave with their blessing. But that’s not going to happen. The English Championship would be incredible. Celtic and Rangers are global concerns and can recruit from anywhere … ” Another SPFL club, then. “I’m not sure I’d get the opportunity. I’ve never had it so far so why now?

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“Listen, I have ambition but what I’d really like to do is pick up this club and take them somewhere there’s more money. I just wish we had 5,000 season ticket-holders so the budget would go up by a million and we could really kick on and get into Europe. That would be utopia.”

Then Martindale checks himself. It’s rare for him to project ahead like this, even fancifully. Since 2004 when he was arrested on drug charges he’s been that old but necessary cliche: “One day at a time. That was the only way I could live my life.” He knew that ultimately – and it actually took two and a half years to arrive – he was going to jail.

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Should the day arrive that he’s offered a shot at a bigger club but the board wanted to keep him then he wouldn’t go. “That’s because I owe Livingston a massive debt,” he explains. “In my past I put money before anything else. I made bad choices and chased money for greed. I’m not going to let it be the motivator in my life anymore.”

We’re getting into the nitty-gritty of Martindale’s criminal history and I’m surprised. I was under the impression that having dwelt on those dark days in interviews leading up to last season’s Betfred Cup final, he was reluctant to keep doing it and wanted to change the narrative. But he acknowledges he cannot escape his past and nor does he want to do this.

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He brings up prison more than I do. Barlinnie wasn’t a barrel of laughs and neither were Glenochil or Castle Huntly but the experiences were transformative. He may not feel like thanking prison in the way he thanks Livingston for giving him his football chance, his wife Martha and kids David Jr and Georgia for sticking by him and always being there on visiting day and Heriot-Watt University for allowing him to append his name to a degree and not just a police record, but the man and the manager have been informed and improved by those three and a half years behind bars.

“I think I respond to adversity because of prison and have a mental resilience because of it,” he says, sat at his desk in his tracksuit, kids’ drawings of lions on his noticeboard and a file on today’s opponents Motherwell on the desk. “I think what I went through has helped me in football management because you have to be robust. You need a thick skin and a strong mind-set because this is a very tough and cynical profession. The support I get from my staff, though, is incredible and when good times come along I appreciate them.”

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Even now, Martindale is not about to skirt over his past, far less bowderlise it. Instead he heads in the other direction. For instance, it’s written about him that he blew himself out of Rangers as a youth player after breaking a leg in an unauthorised game with his mates. But he says: “If that hadn’t happened I’d have found another way to mess up my chances. I was one of the best footballers in my housing scheme. A ‘10’ before they were called that but one of these cheats who just wants other players to win the ball for him so he can bang in the goals – the exact profile of the kind of player I cannae stand today!”

A cuttings check on our man also gives the impression that when he got into the pub game it was the financial difficulties which impacted on his premises that left him prey to the lure of drugs money. But when I ask how he thinks his life might have unfolded if the business had remained healthy he admits: “Ach, I would have ended up in prison anyway. The type of person I was growing up – stupid, always in trouble at school, gang violence, scheme culture – I never used to think about actions and consequences.”

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Martindale’s mean streets were here in Livingston. He’s portrayed as a son of Govan, which is true because he was born there, but the family uprooted when he was eight – “We were part of the Glasgow overspill” – and he lived for 25 years in the new town. Govan, then, became a place for holidays. I ask what was his worst scrape, pre-the drugs bust, and he says: “I was stabbed – loads of things.” Quickly, he graduated to gang leader.

“I was immersed in crime from childhood. I may not actually have been doing the crime but in the pub in my scheme there would be drugs on one table, knives on another table and sometimes guns on a third. I never ever, ever envisaged a career as a football manager for myself and nor did I know that Davie Martindale could go to university. I just saw the guy driving the fancy motor and wondered: ‘How do I get one like that?’ I could see how the guy got his so I’m afraid it was a natural progression for me to go down the same bad route.”

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It is little wonder that Martindale’s saga has been dubbed sport’s ultimate story or rehabilitation and redemption. At the time of the cup final there was excitable talk of it being turned into a film and at the very least a book. The offers still come in, he says, but right now they don’t really interest him. “Hopefully there’s a lot more to come,” he adds. That final ended in defeat; he’d love another shot at one with Livi. And of course to get to Europe.

The drugs squad finally caught up with him at the start of the Easter weekend in 2004. “When the police chapped on my door on Good Friday morning I think I’d been waiting on it happening for ten years.” After four nights in a cell he resolved to change. “I was let out on bail at half past four on Easter Monday and told myself: ‘I can’t go on like this.’ I got on the computer and found the course in construction project management. Really, though I’ll always be grateful to them. Livingston didn’t change my life, it was Heriot-Watt.”

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He knuckled down to his studies and stuck at them for 26 months, all the while resigned to the fact that when a complicated case eventually came to the High Court in Glasgow a jail sentence would result. “In a way those two and a half years were the worst of it. Every night I went to bed thinking about prison and every morning I’d wake up thinking about it. When the day finally arrived it was like closure.

“But I still had to tell my son, who was ten, that Daddy was going to jail. He didn’t really understand. That was horrible and I still get emotional thinking about it. It’s one of the moments I’ll never forget.” Martindale couldn’t, though, bring himself to tell Martha that the long-drawn-out case had reached its conclusion and that after many visits to court here was the moment when, pleading guilty, he would be sent down. “I took my wallet out of my pocket and my watch off my wrist and gave them to her,” he recalls, having been sentenced to six and a half years. “She broke down in tears and I had a huge surge of anger that I could have put people I love through such pain.”

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First stop, Barlinnie. “I was locked up for 23 hours a day. The hour out of the cell you had a choice: shower or phone? I always chose the phone.” Other regulations were that “personal property” could consist of a pair of trainers, two pairs of jeans, five pairs of pants and ten books. He read everything, swapping with other inmates. “I met a lot of decent people in prison and had a lot of positive experiences.” The Samaritans visited Barlinnie and trained him to be someone who could listen to prisoners who were struggling. At Glenochil he was trusted with a job in the gymnasium. At Castle Huntly, an open jail, he was able to reconnect with Heriot-Watt and, upon release, return to campus to complete his degree, gaining a 2:1 with honours. “I owe the uni a lot. It would be very easy for the professor to say: ‘Sorry, but you can’t come back.’

The prof, by the way, is a Hibs fan. Another Hibby was one of his Glenochil guards who summoned Martindale from behind the dugouts during a game at Easter Road, being pleased to see his former prisoner doing so well on the outside, even if it was at the expense of his team.

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Not all the shouts have been encouraging. Some disparage him over drugs but he can take the abuse. “Scottish football is emotional and passionate,” he says, reckoning that backing from other clubs and their supporters helped persuade the SFA to accord him the “fit and proper” rating to allow him to manage.

He continues to receive letters from inmates striving to take inspiration from his story and is keen to visit prisons to offer encouraging words. “There are many inside who don’t have the family support I had or who suffer from poverty or have a drug problem.” I ask if he’s political. “I’m too immersed in my football club right now but if I wasn’t I definitely think I would be.”

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From immersed in crime to immersed in Livi. The Scottish Wimbledon, some might contend. A Poundshop Atletico. A team with nothing in common with Barcelona’s tiki-taka, on a pitch that rivals might suspect has been showered with tin tacks. Martindale has heard all the jibes and scoffs at them. “It suits a beaten team’s narrative if they’ve been rubbish to call us long-ball but it’s lazy and it’s wrong. But I’m quite happy if they’re doing that. It means they’re not looking in proper detail at what we do here.”

Choose Livi. Choose David Martindale. Choose wising up. Choose going straight (not the same as launching it long). Choose repaying faith. Choose – just maybe – Europe.

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