When Roberto Martinez first turned out for third division Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup in 1995, it was against non-league side Runcorn. Now the journey has come full circle as he prepares to take his Premier League team to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final against Championship side Millwall.
Back in 1995, Wigan were averaging attendances of just under 2,000, and now they will be taking eight times that number to the home of English football to battle it out for a final appearance against current Premier League champions Manchester City or European champions and cup holders Chelsea.
In this exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Martinez speaks about the Latics' growth over the past four years, their current fight against relegation and his personal development.
FIFA.com: This season you’ve done a lot better in cup competitions. What do you think has been the biggest factor in that: a greater depth to your squad or the continual progression of your younger players?
Roberto Martinez: It’s been a combination of both. I’ve always felt that if you want to remain in the Premier League and have success in cup competitions, you need to have a large squad – and young players need to be ready to step up. Previously, we’ve never been able to be competitive enough and we’ve never progressed. I would never want to be successful in a cup at the expense of our league status, because that would be irresponsible of me. This season has been completely different. After four years of working in the club with the younger players, they are prepared, ready – and have been desperate to show what they can do – and they’ve done well. The cup competitions have helped to develop them, so much that they’ve also played a role in the league. So this season, our cup success has had a positive effect on our league campaign.
Now that you’ve seen how much it actually means for people to reach Wembley – such as your chairman – has it given you a deeper appreciation of the magic of the FA Cup?
I opened my eyes to the magic of the FA Cup when I first came here as a player. It’s true that this competition is not a normal cup competition, it’s not like any one in any other league in the world. I fell in love with it straight away, but I knew that we had to be ready to compete in this competition and this season we’ve shown that. Getting to the semi-final is an incredible achievement and it’s something we really wanted for our fans. Going to Wembley is a wonderful experience and it’s always great to write good chapters in our club’s history. It will be a moment for us to treasure.
Wigan are just one win away from competing in European competition next season. How does that make you feel?
First of all, our top priority is the league and I want to focus on that. Getting to Europe has always been a priority of ours, because I want to take Wigan Athletic to the next level – and the prospect of European football here would help us achieve that aim.
Turning to the league, you’ve had experience of similar relegation battles in the past. How much is that helping you this time around?
Well, it’s not something I’m happy to do every season, but that’s the situation we’re in and we can use our previous experience to good effect. It helps, but it’s still a very difficult job and we need to increase our points tally. This is a really exciting time for the football club off the pitch too, so we can’t afford to lose our status. But we are a better team than we were last season and we have been able to perform better. However, the difference hasn’t been enough to affect results – and there have been reasons behind that. The next step for us is to correct that. Once we do that, we could be a team that doesn’t have to battle against relegation any more. Our aims should be higher.
Last time we spoke, you said that playing for Wigan was one chapter of your life, and being the manager is another? Which chapter has been the most enjoyable for you?
Both! I would be lying if I said that I thought that stress and football went together. In any job, if you want to push yourself to the maximum, you need to have that pressure of achieving your targets. But football is a passion and if you play it, you’re the happiest man on earth and if you manage, you’re going to be the second happiest man on earth! Nothing is better than playing, but managing is an honour and enjoyable.
You’ve brought quite a few players from foreign climes to England, but in what ways have you seen Wigan as a town change since when you came here? Are you happy in the north west of England?
I do. More than anything, I enjoy the characters in the north west. The people are very friendly, very open – there’s a real transparency. I’ve always felt at home and welcome from day one. Obviously I spent many years away, but when I came back I got the same feeling. It’s a special place.
You’ve had 163 games in charge here now. In what ways do you think you’ve improved as a manager over the past three-and-a-quarter years?
The Premier League makes you a better manager. At Wigan, you don’t just win games by being OK, every point is earned. I think some teams have a status in the league where they can get results by having an average performance, but we have to be 100 per cent at our best in order to win a game. That is a challenge. It’s very difficult in football to be at your best in the preparation or the playing of a game. You have to be flexible from a tactical point of view, you can’t be one-dimensional. My staff and I have spent 150 games in the Premier League which have pushed and tested us, which has been a fantastic learning experience.