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Roberto Martinez on Chester days, Graham Barrow and Jon Walters

Belgium manager speaks to the Chronicle on his journey since leaving the Blues and friendship with Barrow

Belgium's coach Roberto Martinez looks on during a friendly match against Spain at the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels(Image: AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

If a week is a long time in football then a decade must seem like an eternity.

This year marks 10 years in management for Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez, a journey which has taken in spells with Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton before arriving in international football.

When the now 44-year-old departed Chester City in February 2007 to take up the managerial post at one of his former clubs Swansea few would have predicted what was to come.

Martinez’s nine-month spell with Chester during the 2006/2007 League Two season saw him link up with long-time friend Graham Barrow, then assistant to Mark Wright, and his time with the Blues, however brief, saw him weave his midfield magic on the pitch for the final time.

He had signed a two-year deal with the Blues in the summer of 2006 but after being handed the chance to manage the Swans in February 2007 he hung his playing boots up at the tender age of 33, with Chester being his last port of call.

But his career in the English game had started some 12 years earlier, with Blues legend Barrow the man to get him to trade the Catalonian sunshine for the dreary North West along with fellow Spaniards Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba, who rather unsurprisingly became known as the ‘Three Amigos’.

“It was 1995 and Dave Whelan had just bought Wigan and had some big plans for them,” said Martinez, who had been playing for his hometown club of Balaguer when Barrow spotted him.

“Graham was manager there at the time and he’d been sent out to Spain to have a look for some potential new players and he saw me playing and thought I’d be a good fit for Wigan and the English game and before I knew it the three of us had moved over and were playing in the Third Division.

“It was a culture shock, and it wasn’t just the football. It was cold, dark, wet and the shops closed at 5pm and there was nowhere to get good coffee. But the people were fantastic to us and we would walk around town and everyone would want to come up to us and talk. It was like a big family, really.

“But it was exciting and there was a real vision that Dave Whelan had for the football club, one that we all believed in.

“Graham is someone who just loves the game of football. He was always a man who could get the best out of his players, a good coach, someone with intergrity and who was loyal. I wanted to take him to Swansea when I left Chester but as soon as I got the Wigan job he was someone who I wanted to have as part of my team. He’s a great man with a beautiful family whose passion for the game runs deep.

“At Wigan I felt it was important to have someone like Graham, who knew the area and the football club and what it stood for, what it meant to the town. We needed that link as we grew.

“It was wonderful to be able to go on a journey with Graham. He was my manager in the Third Division when I first came to England and we ended up winning the FA Cup with Wigan 18 years later. He has been a great friend to me in football.”

Roberto Martinez in his Chester City days(Image: Paul Hollands/PHSPHOTOS)

Martinez spent six years as a player with Wigan before taking in spells with Motherwell, Walsall and three seasons at Swansea before arriving at Chester, with the Barrow link telling again.

Said Martinez: “The reason I came to Chester was because of Graham. I knew of his love for the football club and the regard he was held there and I still felt like I had something to offer on the pitch.

“There was a lot of experience in that team. You had Mark Wright and Graham and a lot of good players in that squad and it was something I was happy to be a part of and we had some good memories there.

“But the chance to manage Swansea was an opportunity that was too good to turn down. Things went downhill for Chester that season and Mark and Graham both left.

“But I always took an interest in how Chester were doing and it’s great to see how the fans have helped them bounce back after what happened.”

While Martinez and Barrow would go on to work successfully together in the future at Wigan there was another member of that Blues squad who would cross paths with the Spaniard down the line.

Jon Walters’ arrival at Chester from cross-border rivals Wrexham had created barely a ripple among fans during the summer but the striker would go on to use the Blues as a springboard to the big time.

Hard work, dedication and enough talent saw him shine with Chester and become a hit with the fans, and his performances in the FA Cup third round games with Ipswich Town in January 2007 would catch the eye of then Tractor Boys boss Jim Magilton, who swooped to sign Walters later that month for £100,000.

Success in Suffolk saw him earn a move to Premier League side Stoke City for an initial £2.75m fee. He would end up going on to be a popular figure with the Potters, earning international honours with the Republic of Ireland before joining Burnley this summer.

It was success that hadn’t come as a great surprise to Martinez.

“You look at what Jon has achieved and the journey he has been on and he is an example to any young footballer wanting to make their way in the game, but it’s not a massive surprise how far he has come.” said Martinez.

“When we were at Chester together you could see there was a hunger and desire in him to succeed. His workrate was phenomenal and he had real talent to go with it as well. He grasped his opportunity at Chester with both hands and it was his performances in the FA Cup that got him a move.

Chester City's Roberto Martinez escapes the challenge of Bury's Nicky Adams during a League Two clash(Image: Martin Ogden)

“Our paths crossed a few times in the Premier League when I was manager of Wigan and Everton and he has been a model professional in the game and had a fine career with Stoke and now Burnley as well as playing at the European Championships with the Republic of Ireland.

“There was always a sense of pride whenever we met because of our spell at Chester as it came at a time in our careers that would be turning point. Jon is a testament to what can be achieved if you are determined enough and willing to seize your chances when they come.”

The journey of Martinez from Third Division midfielder to international football manager has been a remarkable one.

After leaving Chester in 2007 for the Swansea hotseat he enjoyed almost instant success and the Swans narrowly missed out on a play-off place on the final day of the 2006/2007 season after losing just once in 11 games.

The following year would see them become League One champions and he won the division’s Manager of the Year accolade for his efforts in leading the Swans to English second tier for the first time in 24 years.

They more than held their own in the Championship and Martinez’s success hadn’t gone unnoticed and he would return to the club where his English footballing odyssey began, Wigan, in 2009.

The Latics were then in the Premier League and the Spaniard kept them among the top tier for the next four years, aided by Barrow’s efforts on the coaching staff, before they eventually were relegated in 2013, although they did win the FA Cup that season.

Shortly after relegation Martinez agreed a four-year deal with Everton and guided them to fifth in his first season, setting a new club-record Premier League points tally in the process.

The 2014/15 season was less successful as the Toffees finished 11th and similar struggles the following season saw him sacked as boss of the Goodison Park side in May 2016 with the club sitting 12th with one game remaining.

But in a surprising move Martinez was back in management in August that year as he was unveiled as the new head coach of the Belgium national side. His tenure has seen him lose just once in 12 games so far and The Red Devils became the first European side to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia earlier this year.

In 10 years the Spaniard has gone from Chester midfielder to managing at a World Cup. It has been a remarkable journey but he isn’t patting himself on the back and toasting a job well done just yet - far from it.

“I don’t think you get the chance to do that in football, to look back at what you have achieved,” said Martinez.

“The game moves so quickly and you are always on the go there is very little time for things like that.

“Being in international management now brings with it new challenges and I am relishing the task and looking forward to going to a World Cup, something I always dreamed of doing as a player.

“When I was a club manager there would be times when international football would cause problems for you but I see things differently now having experienced both sides.

“The opportunity I have with Belgium is one that I am honoured to have and it is an exciting time for nation.

“It has been quite a journey over the past 10 years but I’m only 44 and it’s still very much a path I am on. Maybe one day I will look back on all this with the grandchildren and be pleased at what I have achieved but I have so much more I want to achieve before that.

“The experiences I have had to this point, the teams I have played for, have all been important to me and Chester was very much a part of that.”

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