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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Football - Sam Dean

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

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