Patient Martinez makes most of his chance to be No 1
➤ Argentine is longest-serving player at Arsenal, but after six loans has established himself in the team following Leno’s injury
Sixteen years old, and a long way from home, Emiliano Martinez never intended to stay at Arsenal. “I was scared,” he says. “I said to my agent, ‘I am only going to trial and see what happens’. In my mind, there was no way I was going to leave my family.”
After the trial, Martinez returned to his home city of Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast of Argentina, and prepared to continue life as normal. He expected to sign a new contract with Independiente, deciding that European football could wait.
But that all changed within a week, when the goalkeeper’s family received a call they did not expect. Arsenal wanted the talented teenager to come back, to join them on a permanent basis.
“I saw my brother and mother crying, saying, ‘Please don’t go’, but I had also seen my dad crying late at night because he could not pay the bills. I remember the day that me and my brother ate, but not my mum and dad. I had to be brave. I said yes for them.”
Looking back a decade later, Martinez has no regrets. Arsenal’s longest-serving player has been forced to wait for his chance, but now it has come, he has seized it with a characteristically strong grip. Ever since Bernd Leno twisted his knee in June, Martinez has been faultless in goal, playing with such composure that it is hard to see how Leno can win his place back.
Tomorrow’s FA Cup final against Chelsea will mark the high point of Martinez’s bizarre Arsenal career. Before this season there had been six loan spells and only six league appearances. “When I signed for Reading I said ‘This is my last loan’,” he says. “I had a newborn baby and I was tired of going on loan and not having chances in my club. When I finished the season at Reading, I had offers to leave. But I always put Arsenal first. They trusted me.”
Last summer Unai Emery told Martinez that he would play in the cup competitions at least. “It would have been different if they said I was not going to have any game time,” Martinez says. “Then I would have had to go permanently.”
Having waited 10 years for a run of games like this, Martinez has no intention of surrendering the No1 shirt. “I never accepted that I am a back-up keeper,” he says.
Martinez was primed for action from the moment Leno went down. His lockdown training had been so intensive, he says, that he felt fitter after the break than before. “My wife was saying to me, ‘Why are you training so much?’ I have got a full-size goal in my garden. I had a mini-gym outside. I was doing proper goalkeeper training. ”
As well as the flying saves, Martinez has thrived with the ball at his feet. Bravery in possession is a nonnegotiable under Mikel Arteta and Martinez played a starring role in Arsenal’s team goal against Manchester City in the semi-final, completing a series of high-risk passes.
“I have known Mikel since he was an Arsenal player. We shared dinners together, I went to his house. I always knew Mikel would be a top manager but we never knew how good he was going to be. It is incredible.”
He serves as a confidant for Lucas Torreira and Gabriel Martinelli, his fellow South Americans. When Martinez first arrived at Arsenal, no one helped him. “That is why, when Gabi came along, I made sure somebody helped him. I know how much you suffer in the first year.”
These were testing times, but Martinez never lost his drive. “I said to my mum when I turned 18, ‘I don’t want to come back to my country with nothing’.”
If all goes to plan, he will have an FA Cup medal around his neck when he next goes home. Arsenal’s hopes of playing in next season’s Europa League rest on this game and Martinez believes they will “want it more” than Chelsea.
On a personal level, there is nothing Martinez has wanted more than this opportunity. “Hard work pays off,” he says. “Now is my time.”
Waiting game: Emiliano Martinez had made only six league appearances in 10 years