April 22, 2021

From scared teenager to FA Cup finalist – Martinez’s emotional journey to Arsenal No.1

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The Argentine keeper will stride out for the Gunners at Wembley on Saturday, more than 10 years after arriving at the club as a youngster

When the full-time whistle went to signal the end of Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, a roar could be heard echoing around an empty Wembley Stadium.

It came from Arsenal keeper Emiliano Martinez, who had dropped to the turf in his penalty area and put his hands over his face.

While his team-mates celebrated in the centre circle, Martinez briefly lay there on his own, overcome by emotion, thoughts of his family flashing through his mind, as well as the decade long journey he had been on to get that point.

“I was emotional,” said the Argentine keeper. “Not because we beat City, but more because of how much I have been fighting to play in a final with the club I love.

“I was delighted, for what I have been through. Obviously you have to deal with frustration and lack of game-time, but I always believed that I could do it, and I had done it – but I still think that’s not enough. Obviously you need to beat Chelsea to complete what you have been fighting for. I have been fighting 10 years to win trophies, not just to reach a final.”

Martinez’s road to the FA Cup final has been a long one. He was spotted by Arsenal while playing for Argentina U17s and after he impressed during a trial, a £1.1 million ($1.5m) deal was swiftly wrapped up with Independiente to bring him to England.

He was just 16 at the time and the prospect of leaving his family behind was a daunting one, but it was a decision he felt he had to make, not just for himself, but for the loved ones he was leaving behind.

“I was scared,” Martinez recalled. “When I was on the plane, I said to my agent, ‘I am only going to trial and see what happens. I am not going to stay.’

“In my mind, there was no way I was going to leave my family. It was not a poor, poor background but my family struggled a lot in financial terms.

“I arrived back in Argentina and a week after I had the offer from Arsenal. They called my agent and my family and I thought it was all about signing a new contract for my club in Argentina because they wanted to offer me one at the time, but it was actually to sign for Arsenal.

“I saw my brother and mum cry, saying, ‘Please don’t go’, but I had also seen my dad crying late at night because he could not pay the bills. So I had to be brave at the time, because I said “yes” for them. Now I don’t regret anything. I have a wife and a kid here and I have a future in London.”

Whether that future is with Arsenal remains to be seen. That will decided after Saturday, but for now Martinez’s focus is purely on beating Chelsea and getting his hands on the FA Cup.

“As a club we have won it 13 times and to win it again is something the club needs, especially with what we have been through this season,” he said. “We have changed managers like we have never done before since I have been here.

“We had problems with fans and players like we never had before. It has been a tricky season so for the fans and the club to win a trophy, after Covid-19 and everything, it’s something that the fans will be really excited to see. We have to give them something and we know that. We are more than ready for the final.”

Saturday’s Wembley showpiece will be Martinez’s 12th successive appearance for Arsenal, his best run since arriving at the club more than a decade ago. It will also be his 23rd of the season in all competitions.

He has seized his opportunity since stepping into the void left by the injured Bernd Leno, and even though the German is back in full training once again, it will be Martinez who keeps his place this weekend – something Mikel Arteta confirmed immediately after last Sunday’s 3-2 win against Watford.

It’s an example of hard work paying off. Martinez has never doubted himself. He’s had loan spells at Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Wolves, Getafe and Reading, but through them all he’s maintained belief that one day he would make the grade in north London.

Before he left Argentina he made a promise to his father, Alberto, that he would become Arsenal’s No.1 and it’s a promise he’s been determined to keep.

“Talent is not enough,” he said. “It’s a mental game. You have to deal with frustration when you don’t play, you have to deal with the pressure. There are no excuses.

“A second-choice goalkeeper can sometimes say ‘oh it’s a lack of games, it’s different when you train compared to when you play’ but there is no excuse if you do everything right.

“My wife was saying to me in lockdown: ‘why do you train so much?’ Because I thought I might have my chance, I might do it, and look, I have it. After two games I was already fitter than when I left.

“So when Bernd got injured at Brighton, if you see straight after that I had to make a lot of saves, and I made it look easy because I was confident I had done the right thing to prepare for each game. I don’t do week in, week out. I do it day by day. That is why it drives me forward.”

Martinez’s form since stepping in for Leno has certainly given Mikel Arteta food for thought this summer.

The German had cemented his place as No.1 with his performances prior to his injury against Brighton, something highlighted by the fact he joins Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka in the running for Arsenal’s player of the year award.

However Martinez has ensured he hasn’t been missed and there are some who now believe that he should keep his place when the 2020-21 campaign gets underway on September 12.

So what does he think? Having enjoyed such an exceptional run in the side, can he see himself dropping back to the bench after Saturday’s final?

“I don’t think anyone wants to be a second goalkeeper,” he said. “Especially if you believe so much in yourself. I never accepted that I am a backup keeper. People say ‘oh you are the backup’ and it hurts your feelings. You work to be the No. 1, that’s me.”

Martinez added: “I am not thinking about next season. We have got a final.

“My agent called me the other day and said ‘how do you feel, what do you think about next season?’. I said I don’t want to talk about next season. I have a contract with Arsenal. I need to play in the final and have my mind clear.

“Whatever happens in the final and next season, it happens. It’s football. I can go anywhere but I have two years contract left in my Arsenal career. Let me win that trophy and ask the question again.”

Arteta’s arrival in December has been huge for Martinez. He got on well with Unai Emery and former goalkeeping coach Javi Garcia, but Martinez was a team-mate of Arteta during the Spaniard’s playing days at Arsenal and the pair were close.

Back then, he knew his friend would go on to become a top coach, but even he has been surprised at the impact he has made since replacing Emery just before Christmas.

“I remember when he was a player he would talk a lot with Arsene Wenger, asking about tactics,” said Martinez. “We always knew Mikel would be a top manager but we never knew how good he was going to be and it’s incredible.

“He always gives us a game plan. What we did against City is what we practiced in training. So we start to realise that we need to trust more in the training sessions because it happens in games.

“We all know how good he is. So I don’t think anyone would want to leave. Why would you leave when you know something good’s going to happen?

“We obviously didn’t finish the Premier League season how we wanted but we are in a final and if we can win it we are in Europe, and many players would think “OK, in Europe, with Arteta, with a year of work, we can reach good things here”. So I think he can be a real influence in signing some players to stay, even Auba.

“Obviously I don’t know what he’s thinking but he knows he’s got someone leading a team that is going to be competitive next season.”

For Martinez, however, next season feels a long way away. All he cares about right now is Wembley, winning the FA Cup and making his family proud.

Unfortunately his father, mother and brother will have to watch from back in Argentina due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the lockdown in his homeland meaning they won’t even be able to watch the match together in the same house.

Martinez will be thinking of them all this weekend: “I remember the day me and my brother ate and my mum and dad did not,” he said. “I know what they did for me to reach the top.”

Reaching the top may have felt a long way off at points during the past decade, but when Martinez strides out at Wembley on Saturday, that’s exactly where he will be.