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Nigel Martyn: ‘I trained as hard at 39 as I ever did in my 20s’

The former Everton goalkeeper, seen by many as the club’s best since Neville Southall, tells RBM how his 100 Blues games made for a perfect career swansong

Martyn spent three seasons at Everton from 2003 to 2006
| Photo by Matthew Ashton - PA Images via Getty Images

It was December 2004 when Nigel Martyn called in at the Wetherby Whaler, a Yorkshire fish and chip shop, to place what may still be their heftiest order to date.

On an electric Saturday lunchtime at Goodison Park, Lee Carsley had delivered the killer blow. The Everton midfielder’s long-range drive flew past the statuesque Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland and into the Gwladys Street net, providing the only goal of a gripping Merseyside derby. Another clean sheet for Martyn between the sticks. A first derby win in five years for the hosts. And a rise up to second in the Premier League table for the club who had finished 17th the year before.

Not a bad precursor for the team’s Christmas do in Newcastle that night, then. But if fingernails had been in short supply at Goodison, sustenance on the journey to the North East certainly wasn’t.

“I had, in the week, gone and chatted to the owner of the Wetherby Whaler, and placed an order for a coachload of footballers, which was hilarious,” says Martyn, who still lived in his current Yorkshire home during his three years at Everton.

“After the game, I drove home with my wife, dropped all my kit, got my going-out gear on, drove to Wetherby, just made it before the bus got there, and came out carrying all the fish and chips.

“That was a really good day. The bus was bouncing having just beaten them; Lee Carsley’s name getting sung every five minutes was really good fun.”

Everton v Liverpool
Lee Carsley scored the only goal in Everton’s derby win in December 2004
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

It is this sort of camaraderie which Martyn, 54, treasured at Everton, as the former England goalkeeper saw out his playing career gracefully at Goodison between 2003 and 2006.

But it could’ve been a far longer stint on Merseyside had things gone swimmingly in 1996. Allowed to leave Crystal Palace after seven years of service, Everton identified Martyn as the heir to the imperious Neville Southall’s throne. He and wife Amanda made the journey north to meet his agent and discuss a deal, but an eleventh-hour bid from Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United threw the transfer into jeopardy.

With manager Joe Royle and chairman Peter Johnson absent when Martyn arrived at Park Foods on the Wirral, it was director Clifford Finch who welcomed him. Only when he did, he essentially told Martyn to act fast if he wanted to pursue the move to Elland Road.

“My agent rang me and said, ‘Leeds have matched the bid. I think it’s in your interest to go and talk to them.’ But at the time, Everton were my first choice,” Martyn says.

“On arrival, my agent said, ‘Nigel’s going to go and speak to Leeds as well, but just to make it clear, Everton is his preferred destination.’

“It was left to a director to do the deal which I think, he was told, was just going to be a formality. But obviously, with Leeds coming in that afternoon as we were driving up, that put a spanner in the works. I don’t think he was expecting that.

“He went out of the room, made some calls and came back. We talked for a bit; everything was great. I remember him going out a second time making more calls, and he came back in and said, ‘If you’re going to speak to Leeds, you probably need to get a move on, because you need to get back through the Mersey tunnel and pick up signs for the M62, because it does start getting busy around this time.’

“It was quite surreal. We did as we were told, really. We jumped in a car and drove across, and when we got to this side of the Pennines, there was no way Leeds were going to let us go back. It was probably just down to a bit of flattery in the end.

“It had been mooted I went to Leeds because I was frightened because Nev wanted to play another season, but I hold him in as high an esteem as any Evertonian. He was a hero of mine growing up, so I don’t think there’d have been any problems in that department at all. But when I came across to Leeds, they made it really clear how desperate they were to get me. We just felt we were really wanted over here.”

So to Leeds Martyn went, breaking the UK record fee for a goalkeeper again in a £2.25 million deal, having become British football’s first £1 million stopper when he joined Palace from first club Bristol Rovers in 1989.

It’s hard to imagine he harbours many regrets. In the first six of his seven seasons at Elland Road, Martyn made at least 36 appearances in each, helped Leeds to five successive top five finishes and featured in UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finals. Everton, by comparison, ended no higher than 13th in that time.

Nigel Martyn of Leeds
Martyn spent seven years at Leeds

But things soured when, having returned from World Cup duty in Japan and South Korea in the summer of 2002, Martyn opted to sit out Leeds’ pre-season tour of Asia after a mere 12-day break. Furious, his newly-appointed boss Terry Venables vowed he would never play him.

“I just said I need a bit more time,” he says. “12 days isn’t enough straight off the back of 12 months of football.”

True to his word, Martyn made zero appearances in 2002-03 under both Venables and his successor, former Everton midfielder Peter Reid. Reid gave Martyn, then 36, a chance to impress in the following pre-season, only to then tell him he would prioritise the emerging Paul Robinson, a more saleable asset.

Martyn took a circuitous route into football, having worked at a plastics factory until a carpet shop owner in St Blazey, Cornwall saw him in action and recommended him to the Bristol Rovers tea lady. Having made it the hard way, he was desperate not to let an illustrious 746-game career fizzle out so unceremoniously.

Attention turned to finding new employers. He declined the chance to join Chelsea’s Russian revolution, but a sudden phone call from an old friend led to a lifeline from David Moyes’ Everton.

“I needed to be playing at that point in my career. To waste a year on the bench was tough. Peter, to be fair to him, did say I can go,” he admits.

“Chelsea would’ve meant being behind Carlo Cudicini, and it would’ve meant going to London. I didn’t want to move. We were pretty settled up here.

“Then Chris Woods [Everton’s goalkeeping coach] rang me out of the blue. I played in the England squad with Chris, so I knew him from years ago, but I didn’t put two and two together straight away.

“He quickly said the manager needed somebody and if I’d be interested. I was so desperate to play. I didn’t want to end my career like that. I kept saying to Steve Sutton, the goalkeeping coach at Leeds, ‘I’m training now for my next employer.’ I would’ve gone anywhere just to finish my career in how I felt was the proper way to finish it.”

It took almost a month to finalise but eventually, and arguably seven years too late for Everton, Martyn moved to Goodison for a nominal fee on deadline day of the 2003 summer transfer window.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Everton v Manchester United - Goodison Park
Martyn joined Everton from Leeds in September 2003
Photo by Martin Rickett - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Even then, though, regular game time was no guarantee. Everton had shelled out £3.5 million for Arsenal’s Richard Wright a year earlier - a sizeable sum for a club operating on a shoestring budget - and Moyes wanted stronger competition after errors crept into Wright’s game towards the end of the previous year.

But a knee problem would mean Wright sat out a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool two days prior to Martyn’s signing, and when he was forced off after 26 minutes through another injury in Everton’s next game, a 2-2 Goodison draw with Newcastle, Martyn seized his chance.

“David Moyes was very clear,” Martyn says. “He said, ‘He [Wright] has now got this knee problem, and if he has to go out of the team and you come in and do well, you’ll stay in the team.’

“You’re just hoping you get your opportunity. I didn’t realise it would be as quickly as the first game, but I was desperate to show I could still play at that level.

“In signing me, you had a highly motivated player; OK, one of advancing years, but I still felt I could do it at that level at that time, and I was certainly going to take the chance if it came.”

Take it he emphatically did. An arduous 2003-04 saw Everton stay up by one place and six points, but they would’ve been in a far darker predicament if not for Martyn (say, the sort of hole Leeds found themselves in that year, as they were relegated).

A sparkling run reached its apex in January, when a stoic Anfield display saw him repel Liverpool’s countless goalbound efforts, notably from Steven Gerrard twice, Dietmar Hamann and Jamie Carragher. Everton had chances, too, but the 0-0 stalemate they left with felt the least Martyn in particular deserved.

Everton’s goalie, Nigel Martyn (R) saves
Martyn was inspired form at Anfield on that January afternoon in 2004
Photo credit should read STEVE PARKIN/AFP via Getty Images

“I remember saying to the gaffer, ‘That performance is for you,’” Martyn says.

“That’s what it felt like; that he’d given me my footballing dignity back, given me a chance to carry on. It was nice to repay him with that. That was obviously one of the highlights.

“It was a tough season; we were struggling against relegation the whole time. What we had there was a very good team spirit. We were very well-organised by the manager.”

So impressive was Martyn that, once he made his Everton bow in September 2003, he missed no Premier League games until January 2005. That extended into the fabled 2004-05 campaign, when Moyes propelled a side from unfancied also-rans to Champions League qualifiers.

With an ever-reliable goalkeeper, an impregnable defence marshalled by Alan Stubbs and captain David Weir, the industry of Thomas Gravesen and Carsley and the guile of Tim Cahill and Leon Osman, Everton became an increasingly tough nut to crack. Even the departures of Wayne Rooney in August and Gravesen in January hardly fazed them; largely the same squad who barely survived a year earlier finished fourth that term.

What changed? Well, Martyn attributes the success of a campaign he ranks as ‘right up there’ in his own career to two main factors: the bonhomie in the dressing room, and a subtle tactical tweak which suited Moyes’ men to a tee.

“He [Moyes] realised that, by playing four in midfield, we were probably too vulnerable, and that teams would be able to play through us too easily,” Martyn says.

“We changed our shape a little bit and just became more difficult to beat, going with five across the middle of the park, with Lee sitting a little bit deeper and Tim being the one to link up with Marcus Bent. Tactically, it was perfect for that group of players.

“We had good individual players. Marcus ran the line up front on his own really well. We had the likes of Gravesen, Cahill and Kev Kilbane, who would come in with goals. We scored from lots of different places; Stubbsy would weigh in with a free-kick, or a header from a corner.

“Everyone had a job to do and knew it, and did it really well, and all got on as a group, which is a manager’s dream, really. Let’s be honest, we overachieved; there’s no way we should’ve been finishing fourth over 38 games if you look at that squad compared to others, but we did that through that organisation and resilience.”

Undoubtedly, such traits characterise that Everton side more than scintillating, ground-breaking football on a weekly basis. Half of their 18 Premier League wins that season were by a 1-0 scoreline, while only Cahill netted double figures with 12. Even bottom club Southampton matched Everton’s final goal tally of 45.

But if that placed a heavier burden on Martyn, his serene disposition never showed it. Just three keepers bettered his 13 clean sheets that season, and he admits he thrived on the pressure of games which hinged on the finest margins.

One particular 1-0 Goodison victory, in fact, even now still makes his face light up as he recalls it.

“The one game I remember for atmosphere was when we beat Manchester United at home 1-0 [in April 2005], when Big Dunc [Ferguson] scored one of his trademark headers,” he smiles.

“That was definitely one of the loudest crowd noises I’ve ever been involved with. The whole place was rocking. It just makes you feel really special at that time.

Everton v Manchester United
The 1-0 win over Man Utd in April 2005 still stands out in Martyn’s mind
Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

“My wife used to say to me all the time, ‘Why have we always got to just win 1-0?! Why can’t we score a second?!’ She said it’s horrible watching, but I can remember saying to her, ‘I absolutely love it.’

“If we were 1-0 up and there’s 15 minutes to go and they’re battering us, I just felt so in control of the situation. If a goal went in and it wasn’t my fault, it didn’t affect me.

“We put a premium on clean sheets. Yes, you look at the goalkeeper and it reflects well on him, but it was a team thing. Clean sheets were something we took pride in. We were very good at getting over the line and winning those games 1-0.”

If there’s one tinge of disappointment, it’s how quickly Everton suffered a rude awakening from their fever dream. In 2005-06, they fell at the first hurdle in the Champions League to Villarreal, which Martyn says “probably came a few weeks too soon for us,” and in the UEFA Cup to Dinamo Bucharest, while they lost seven of their first eight league games.

Everton rallied and finished 11th, but time had begun taking its toll on Martyn, who had already been disappointed that a calf problem caused him to miss an FA Cup tie at boyhood club Plymouth Argyle the previous season. He was unavailable for half of December, before an ankle injury meant his 100th Everton appearance, against Chelsea in January, proved his last.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Everton v Chelsea - Goodison Park
Martyn played his final game for Everton in a 1-1 FA Cup draw with Chelsea in January 2006
Photo by Neal Simpson - PA Images via Getty Images

Once he’d helped steer Everton to safety playing through the pain barrier, Martyn went to get his ankle sorted. Initial MRI scans and X-rays found nothing untoward, but later CT scans showed he had suffered avascular necrosis (the death of bone tissue through loss of blood supply), and a crack in his talus. Ultimately, despite having been offered a new contract, Martyn had no choice but to call time.

“My ankle injury probably started in November,” he says. “Playing those games in pain wasn’t ideal; kicking the ball was extremely painful, as you can imagine. You’d want to say I wouldn’t have done it if I’d have known, but we were in such deep shit.

“The threat of relegation was hanging over us and as a player, you want to be involved and play in those games. The manager just said, ‘Can you play this one?,’ ‘Can you play this one?’

“We won at Sunderland 1-0 and beat Arsenal at home 1-0, and he said, ‘Play the cup game on Saturday [vs Chelsea] and then go and get your ankle sorted. Whatever it is, if it takes you a couple of months, we’ll get you sorted and get you back in the team.’ It felt as though I was quite important to him.

“The season finished, and I’ve got my foot in a boot because I’ve just had an operation to mean I can carry on walking, and I’m walking around the pitch knowing I’m finished.”

Even if that spelt the end of his Indian summer, it’s evident how much of a lasting impression Everton left on Martyn, as he waxes lyrical about the club and recounts his fondest memories for much of our 75-minute conversation.

He regarded having to leave Yorkshire at 6.30am for training more of a privilege than a chore - he was never late, and only missed one day, when his village was closed due to snow. He struggles to single out a particular best mate from his time at Everton, reiterating how it was a collective effort, how they shared a laugh and a joke together but only when appropriate, how accepted he felt from all staff and supporters.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Everton v Liverpool - Goodison Park
Many regard Martyn as Everton’s best keeper since Neville Southall
Photo by Jon Buckle - PA Images via Getty Images

He feels indebted to Moyes, a manager he saw a more relaxed side of when arriving early at training, but who was also “very intense,” and whose meticulous drilling he credits as why Everton ground out so many points under him. Moyes maintains Martyn was his best Everton signing - high praise, surely, from the man who unearthed gems like Cahill, Arteta, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman?

“Yeah, that was nice. I felt like he was as gutted as I was that I had to finish. He probably signed someone that was a bit of a risk, if I’m being honest,” Martyn says.

“Signing somebody at 36 isn’t the most exciting signing, but I’d like to think he got a good couple of years out of me; that was there for all to see.

“I didn’t get any satisfaction out of Leeds getting relegated, but they got relegated with a better side [than Everton]. For me to go and help keep probably a lesser squad up was pleasing in a personal sense.”

It’s heartening, too, to hear Martyn consistently refer to Everton as ‘we’, not only when discussing the side he played in, but also when offering a glowing appraisal of Carlo Ancelotti’s high-flyers.

He sees parallels between Ancelotti’s outfit and the class of 2004-05, and has both praise and sympathy for the current Everton number one Jordan Pickford, who has taken his fair share of online abuse but has found a higher level of consistency in recent weeks.

“If I played in this era, I wouldn’t have bothered with social media. You know if you’re playing badly. What you don’t need is 20,000 people messaging you telling you so,” he says.

“The only criticism you take notice of is from your manager, your goalkeeping coach and yourself, because you know if you’ve played well or not. And on a Saturday, if you’re getting it in the neck from supporters, they’re not stupid. They know if you’re playing well or not. If you have a bad game, you have to bounce back.

“What he [Pickford]’s done better of late is he’s not getting as animated in games and not getting as caught up in things; just trying to be a little bit more relaxed in his approach. There’s nothing better than watching a goalkeeper play and seeing him calm the whole time.

“You can tell he’s desperate to do well, to make saves and show everyone how good he is. But the best way of doing that is to let it happen and your skills will come out. Sometimes, it just seems everything’s 100 miles an hour with him. He just needs to chill a little bit sometimes.”

Sound advice from the man who exuded composure on the pitch, and is now enjoying a similarly peaceful retirement. Perhaps he’s gone a little under the radar for a man who earned 23 England caps and was voted into Palace’s Centenary XI in 2005 and Leeds United’s greatest team in 2006 (the only post-Revie era player to do so). And, for many Evertonians, the goalkeeper who best filled their Southall-shaped void.

But Martyn wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s given him time to rekindle his love for cricket, turning out as a wicket keeper for Knaresborough, who he recently helped become champions of what he calls their ‘COVID league.’ Which, he beams, involved four teams who would’ve been in the division above them in normal circumstances.

And while he spent several years coaching part-time at Bradford City soon after his playing career ended, it’s not a route he’s looking to return to, saying: “One of the prerequisites of being a coach is to be able to warm the goalies up and do the sessions, and that involves kicking a football, and I wouldn’t be able to do that on a regular basis without messing my ankle up.”

He picks and chooses football, but needs a vested interest - Everton, Leeds and Palace still matter to him, Liverpool vs United on Sunday less so. He dabbles in media work, including an appearance on Everton TV in November’s defeat to Leeds, but has declined longer contracts requiring greater commitment.

England & West Indies Net Sessions
Martyn isn’t looking to get back into coaching
Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Instead, family is the priority, with more time to enjoy watching daughter Fay play netball or son Thomas, who graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2019, perform as an opera singer.

“Being a professional footballer is like being in the army,” Martyn says. “You’re told what you’ve got to do the whole time, and you miss out on a lot of your family time. I’m just enjoying life over here, albeit it’s a bit weird at the moment.

“You’re able to do things. I had control of my time. I was able to go and watch his [Thomas’] performances, to go and watch her [Fay] play netball. It’s just nice to be able to go and do it, because when you’re playing, you can’t be there on Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening. It’s a great life, but there are lots of sacrifices.”

After a supreme if perhaps understated career, nobody could deny Martyn the right to doing retirement his way. Even if he had to call it a day slightly more abruptly than he may have liked, it’s clear just how much those century of games in Everton colours meant.

“I absolutely loved my time; it was just too short. I was just grateful to Everton and David Moyes for giving me an opportunity to finish my career how I wanted to,” he says.

“I trained as hard when I was 39 as I ever did in my 20s. The manager did say, on occasion, if I fancied a day off and didn’t want to come in, he’d understand. But I knew if I ever took a day off or did less, it meant the time had come, so I just carried on driving myself.

“I was lucky. You guys accepted me in. You give your best, and that’s all you can do.”

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