Interview: Marvin Bartley on racist abuse at Tynecastle and Pizza Hut, Hibs’ cup win and moving into management

Livingston midfielder reveals he used to ‘hate’ football and thought his first away game in Scotland was a wind-up

Marvin Bartley has ambitions to manage in Scotland and won't be put off by the low number of black managers in football. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

When I call Livingston’s unrelenting enforcer he takes a while to answer. “Sorry,” says Marvin Bartley eventually, “but I was watching Homes Under the Hammer. I’ve got loads of them stacked up, which is ideal for lockdown.”

When you think about the way Bartley plays, a soporific daytime property programme beloved of retirees may seem an unusual choice. “It’s a vicarious thing,” he explains. “I enjoy people doing up houses because that’s something I’d be too scared to ever attempt myself.” So like swimming with sharks? “Kind of!” he laughs.

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But I’ve just remembered something about Bartley, which might have been the first time I saw him quoted in the papers. He was asked if he’d watched the 2016 Old Firm Scottish Cup semi-final, the questioner presuming he would have been agog, not least because the winners would be playing his former club Hibernian in the big showdown. “No,” he said, “it clashed with Antiques Roadshow.”

Kevin Thomson, captain Paul Hanlon and Marvin Bartley celebrate as Hibs keep their 2016 Scottish Cup dream alive at Tynecastle. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Bartley chuckles again when I bring this up. “It was true, nothing comes between me and the Roadshow! That’s a programme which reminds me of being a kid. Me, my mum and two big brothers watched it as a family. We loved it when stuff was valued as junk, the expressions on the faces. The brothers and me did go searching our house for treasure but all we found were spiders.”

Antiques Roadshow? Homes Under the Hammer? Hmm, I’m thinking, must be careful not to let this conversation drift. But it doesn’t. Bartley will talk about the two occasions he ended up in court, one as the victim, the other as the accused. About the time he was in Pizza Hut when the extra toppings he hadn’t ordered were the flashing blue lights on police cars. About what he said to Scott Brown back in March during their private war for the holding-midfielder berth in the Premiership’s team-of-the-season. About how a trip to Dumbarton almost caused him to flee Scotland within days of arriving. We’ll come to all of that but let’s go back to the beginning, when Bartley used to hate football.

“My background is Reading, council house, single parent, two older brothers,” he explains, “and my mum, Sandra, was Superwoman. She worked in Asda during the day and as a cleaner at night. Being out in the big wide world myself now, but just doing one job, I don’t know how she coped, paying the bills, looking after us. Later, when she worked for the local council, things were a bit easier but she still managed to put Mark and Michael through university. I became a footballer because I didn’t have their brains but I didn’t take to it right away.

“What was I into as a kid? One Christmas I was desperate for a Gameboy but never expected to get one. But I can still see myself in my Popeye T-shirt and my favourite shorts, hand-me-downs which were way too big, opening it up, green and black screen, fantastic. My brothers played football but I couldn’t understand the fascination. If I was ever roped into a game in the park I used to pick up the ball and run off with it.

“When Michael got scouted by Crystal Palace I began to hate football because we’d all have to pile into Mum’s little red Rover for his training and matches and sometimes the car broke down. And I hated it even more when Michael didn’t get a scholarship with Palace. Football had just broken him.”

Named after famous boxer

Bartley, who was named after Marvin Hagler and in his youth preferred boxing, athletics and cricket, doesn’t hate football anymore. It’s given him a career he couldn’t have dreamed about. After wandering around England’s lower leagues he was signed by Alan Stubbs to bring muscle to Hibs in the Championship. Four years at Easter Road brought a title following the cup triumph and cult hero status before Paul Heckingbottom deemed him surplus to requirements. The same judgement would quickly be made on the manager; meanwhile Livingston with the Bartman, as they say, demonstrating his predilection for a tackle are set to finish this curtailed campaign above his old club, although he insists: “Livi don’t get the credit we deserve.”

At 33 his aggressive marauding isn’t quite over yet but, while he’s been assembling a decent media profile with turns in a zingy polka-dot shirt on Sportscene and, during lockdown, Instagram chats with old friends and foes, Bartley has serious designs on management, hopefully in Scotland, a country he’d never visited before 2015 when he only knew the names of three clubs, Celtic Rangers and Aberdeen.

“Who’d have thought it?” he says. “Not me when I was a d***head back in Reading fitting double-glazing in conservatories.” Hang on, I say, didn’t he just tell us he’s useless with a hammer and can’t even hang a picture – has the glass been falling in all over Berkshire ever since? “Hopefully not. I was in a crew of four and could just about manage a jigsaw. We travelled around in a white van, classic stuff, knocking off at four like all tradesmen, only now when I hire some myself I think: ‘Lazy gits.’

“I’d suffered the highs and lows of academy life and been released so I was doing the double-glazing while playing amateur football but then my team, Burnham, freed me. The three Bartley boys played for them and Mark and I were both let go on the same day. That was actually the moment I decided I was going to try and become a pro.

“I thought I was making sacrifices but I was kidding myself. The pieman came round every lunchtime and I was drinking fizzy Lucozade – that was no diet for a footballer. I might have been fitter than the lads in my crew but that was all I was. My brothers had a word with me and I kicked on from there.”

Thought Dumbarton debut was a wind-up

After spells at Bournemouth, Burnley and Leyton Orient, Bartley will never forget his introduction to league football in Scotland. “Easter Road knocked me out then, first game, we were away to Dumbarton. I thought it was a wind-up, an initiation ceremony maybe, this funny little stadium with one tiny stand. Come on, guys, where’s the real ground? No disrespect to Dumbarton but I was really upset. I thought I was back in non-league and double-glazing again on the Monday. And didn’t Hibs get turned over in that game?

“I flew down south that night to pick up the rest of my stuff, not really believing what had happened. I thought about not going back to Hibs, turning off my phone until they forgot they’d ever signed me. Obviously it all worked out fine. I had a brilliant, brilliant time at Hibs and the club are very dear to me.”

For two seasons Bartley did a tour of modest lower-league colosseums. “Alloa was another funny one. The second time I played there the pitch was much narrower. In England, once clubs have declared their dimensions they have to stick to them, but in Scotland it seems they can be altered. Hibs lost there, too.” Now, though, because of the havoc caused to our game by the pandemic, the future of some smaller clubs is in serious doubt. “I feel very sorry for these teams right now. They’re the soul of football and it would be terrible if any were to end up going out of business.”

What about Hearts, does he feel sorry for them? Bartley was the Jambos’ bete noire, the man who neutralised their attacks, helped dump them out of the Scottish Cup twice from the lower tier, and generally made an almighty nuisance of himself. Until Neil Lennon turned up in the dugout, the loudest jeers were reserved for him. At Tynecastle one night, Lenny even made him captain, a great honour.
“The gaffer told me I reminded him of himself. Then, as he was waddling away, he said: ‘Of course I had more skill.’”

Well, the sympathy is there. “I feel sorry for Hearts because I would hate for Livi to be in their position, technically able to save themselves but denied the opportunity. It is harsh, but how else do we resolve this? Some club have to suffer.

“If I’m not going back to Tynecastle next season then I’ll be disappointed. I loved going there with Hibs and with Livi I managed to score a goal.” Not just any old goal either but an overhead kick. “I know. I think the Hearts fans were stunned because there was this silence which seemed to last minutes but obviously it didn’t. I hadn’t scored for four or five years so didn’t know how to celebrate. The Lenny aeroplane? Alan Shearer’s single hand? A knee-slide? In the end I just let out this funny little: ‘Wooo!’”

Playing the panto villain in Gorgie

Believe it or not Bartley began up front but “the combat” is what he’s about now. “There’s nothing better than a 70-30 situation in the other guy’s favour. Sports scientists who say ‘Do your squats’ won’t like me for this but hunger is a midfielder’s most important attribute.” He thinks back to Livi’s 2-2 draw with Celtic when his team almost did the double over the champs and his ding-dong with Broony. “Scott’s still got the hunger and that was two guys desperate to come out on top. I touched his neck – better say I didn’t grab him round the throat in case the SFA decide to retrospectively punish me – and he went: ‘Get off!’ I said: ‘No, I’m keeping hold of you – I want to be your friend!’”

Not every club have Manchester City’s mega-millions to enable Pep Guardiola’s beautiful football and in any case not every team want to play that way. “Guys in the English Premier don’t like the physical stuff, an arm across the face. They’re: ‘You have the ball then we’ll have it.’ My attitude has always been: ‘I’m going to come and take it off you.’” Homesick at Burnley, Bartley thought he was done with northerly postings but Scotland has become home to him in every sense. Him and his dog – a Rottweiler called Costa, after Diego, who he says was acquired to be “big and hard” but is anything but.

Playing the panto villain down Gorgie way is a role our man relishes. “The booing I get there, the hate from three sides of the ground … nothing motivates me more than being seen as the bad guy. Sometimes I wonder if I could play football if that wasn’t there.” On the occasions when the enforcer was enforced, he says Hearts fans celebrated like their team had scored a goal. He’s thinking about clattering challenges from John Souttar and Harry Cochrane. “John’s one was turned into a gif; I had to laugh. Harry’s a great young boy. We chatted on Instagram the other day. What was he when he kicked me – 16? He said I deserved it and I probably did.”

But there was an Edinburgh derby when the baiting of Bartley went way over the score. Although he spotted the flying coins as he was warming up at Tynecastle, he didn’t hear the disgusting racist abuse. It would eventually reach him via social media and there was an arrest. “The recording was played in court. The guy – I refuse to call him a Hearts fan – wouldn’t speak and only nodded when his name and address were read out. I guess he’d been told to stay silent but shouldn’t that have been contempt of court? He got off with it because his voice couldn’t be matched to the tape. It was played a few times and at one point a woman ran out and I think that was his mother. Members of his family sent messages apologising afterwards which was nice but the whole thing was pretty horrible.”

Being judged on the colour of his skin

The Pizza Hut incident happened when Bartley was at Bournemouth. “I was with six team-mates – five black, one white. The manager took our orders and said we had to pay first. I was surprised. ‘Is everyone else doing this?’ He said: ‘No, but we’re asking you to do it.’ The reason he gave was that he didn’t know us. How did that matter? There was no shouting but he hit the button which made the police think he was being robbed. It was like a scene from The Bill. Cops roared up in five cars and a riot van. A few of them were Bournemouth fans and they recognised us. ‘Sorry,’ the manager said, ‘I didn’t know you were footballers.’ I told him our professions were irrelevant: ‘You were judging us on the colour of our skin.’ The company apologised and the manager was sent for re-training.”

We talk about the incident where Bartley ended up in the dock. Three years ago he was convicted of making threats to a woman and fined £400 but maintains his innocence. He’d met her when he’d put up a signed shirt for charity to help her brother. They fell out later, Bartley insisting: “I’m a wind-up merchant but there were no threats. If I’d done anything wrong I would have accepted it but I hadn’t and there’s nothing worse. The thing was blown up because of the way footballers are perceived.”

Bartley is a 2016 hero among Hibs fans despite not playing a minute of the final. He helped turn the Tynecastle tie around, was vital to the win in Inverness and, but for Conrad Logan’s shootout saves, would have been the semi’s man-of-the-match. He was desperately disappointed to miss out at the last – indeed in the loos for a few minutes he was a semi-controlled explosion – but although he thinks Stubbs could have handled the call better he acknowledges managers have to make hard choices, as Heckingbottom did later, and is looking forward to the day when he’s in charge of the decision-making.

Bartley is not just watching telly pap during the lockdown; ten books arrived the other day full of the philosophies of football’s great strategists. He isn’t daunted by the scarcity of black managers in the game. “This is something I will do; that’s my mindset. I hope the colour of my skin doesn’t stop me and I don’t think it will. Maybe black managers who’ve been knocked back will say I’m being naive but I’m determined that when I go into coaching I’ll be aiming for the highest level. That’s my drive and ambition.”

Where does this come from? From his brothers – “My heroes” – not quite making it. From not, on any account, wanting to be back fitting double-glazing. “And from being freed at 18 by an amateur team who only ever had 50 fans at their games. Twelve years later I was on an open-top bus and 250,000 people cheered us down Leith Walk. I’m glad of the route I’ve taken in football. It’s made me grateful for everything I’ve achieved and will take me on from here.”

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