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Russell Martin’s developmental football philosophy
Sunday, 21st Nov 2021 17:30 by Keith Haynes, Gruff Stephens and David Cornish

Russell Martin comes from a very different stock. At some point during his football journey, and it may well be when he started his management of the illness ulcerative colitis where he reached a crossroads. Now that may sound strange, how can an illness change a persons mindset in life, be that how you live, what you understand and how you learn ?

Let’s not forget before we move on Russell Martin has always been weird, not our words his, that’s said with a wry smile though. He is far from it, and is proving it every day.

Swansea Independent have been reviewing Russell Martin’s football philosophy over the last five years, how it has progressed, and where it is heading now as a result of his management of Swansea City. To get to the point where Martin is today we have to go back three years or so ago, when he took up a coaching role at Walsall. Not much has been mentioned regards that role. It was a short lived appointment with Martin also playing twelve games for the club. After three months he cited personal reasons regards his family and left the Midlands. Within days he joined MK Dons where he would finish his career. At the time Paul Tisdale was the boss at MK and Martin was instrumental in the club gaining promotion that season from League two.

Surprisingly Tisdale wasn’t given a huge amount of opportunity in his next season in League One, albeit results were very poor certain quarters felt he needed a bit more time. He wasn’t given it, and Russell Martin found himself in the position of being appointed the boss at Stadium MK. He didn’t pull up any trees initially, in fact he was to come under some pressure even though the brand of football was different, more entertaining and definitely a complete change to what the rest of the league were playing. Alongside Luke Williams they worked on a style of play that required discipline and ball retention, it definitely worked. MK Dons avoided relegation in that Covid hit season. That was all the owners of the club wanted, and he gave it to them.

In his first full season at MK, Martin and Williams started the full implementation of the possession based game so much enjoyed by Barcelona and Manchester City. Already famed for the British passing record before scoring a goal ( fifty six ) and the most touches in the opposition area in League one the philosophy was in situ and working. Zak Jules who played under Martin at the time said "The way we play, we almost demoralise teams. We keep the ball so much that when teams do get the chance to keep possession – they’ve got no legs and, within no time, we’ve got the ball back and they don’t see the ball again for a while“

That was the plan, and even though Martin and his team didn’t have the type of players in their squad required to consistently and effectively carry out his philosophy, they worked hard, very hard. Persistent drills, reflective practice, emotional learning ( more about those two learning skills later ) and emphasis on increased fitness ensured some of his players took on board exactly what he wanted. It wasn’t always successful, but when it worked it was a delight to watch. That season MK finished thirteenth.

News of his strategic mindset was already being talked about in football circles, so much so when the Steve Cooper saga ended earlier on this year Russell Martin was amongst a number of names the swans wanted to speak to. As we now know that part of his journey continues today, he is the manager of the club and has a loyal staff working alongside him.

So how does Russell Martin and his coaching set up educate and deliver their progressive footballing style to players of all ages ? Well, first off the player has to buy in to the philosophy. We’ve already seen what a disruptive influence can do to a side, and we have most certainly seen how they are dealt with. Ask Joel Piroe and Michael Obafemi. The player is required to drop all feelings of personal self, and is asked to become a cog in a far bigger unit. That takes a lot for anyone, especially in the environment of a highly paid footballer where their lives are fully catered for and managed.

This is delivered through emotional learning, the majority of this learning is delivered in group sessions, or in a developmental way in one to one meetings. Emotional learning requires the educator to be able to gain the trust of an individual, and then using their own life experience, be that good or bad to understand what is required of them. A simple way of explaining this is getting the player to think about a time when they were let down or really disappointed. Who gave them that feeling, and why do they think they did it. That’s easily translated in to a group situation whereby the player is asked how he thinks his colleagues felt about him when, say for example he turned up late for training, not just once but consistently. How would he feel if he had made the effort to be on time and fully prepared, when another colleague failed to do so. Adding to that the colleague doesn’t care, shrugs his shoulders and belittles the manager behind his back.

That’s where the player who has committed the disciplinary issue is confronted, not only one to one, but by the squad in a full plenary situation. Players are invited to feedback to their colleague how they feel about his behaviour, what impact it has on them, and how it upsets or saddens them he doesn’t want to be a part of the journey. Actually how they feel now he doesn’t want to be a part ‘ of them’ Thats the key, why don’t you want what we want ? Why are you being like you are ? We don’t have a problem, why should you ? Then of course the plenary will be facilitated in to a more safer environment, and the player being confronted will be able to see his colleagues do care, they want him to succeed, and they want to help him as well. That’s a simple example of emotional learning. The reflective practice, or experiential learning side of things will come once the player has received feedback, digested it, and then is confronted one to one by the coach. It’s at this point the player will either acknowledge their misconduct and action plan a period where they can correct it. Or of course, they look to January for a new club.

That’s the style of teaching and coaching Martin excels at. You can hear it when he talks about situations in interview. That’s why some supporters don’t like his style, or the way he is. It’s because they too are being confronted, and their own frailties are being highlighted by proxy. The way Martin responds verbally can challenge his critics even though nothing is aimed at them. It’s a very clever way of verbalising your own self. Personal awareness is also a big part of this style of teaching, especially younger players. Awash with ego they have to be quickly taught, and teach themselves from their experiences with Russell Martin that self is okay, but group is even better. That indeed what you say, how you say it, when you say it, and in what company is extremely important. The way you carry yourself and the messages you send don’t always have to be verbally. This is all a part of growing up.

Some people never do. That’s why they are where they are.

Russell Martin also has what some would call an alternative agenda, his politics are more green than most, this is reflected in his businesses outside of football. His desire to help young people develop, his own lifestyle and personal awareness and how he interacts with others is immaculate. His politics he has admitted has made him a far better person, his green agenda and habits away from football have increased his own personal development, Don't ever think Martin is saying ‘this is what I want YOU to do, but I’m not doing it ‘ He leads by example, that’s what leaders do. Since his daily battle with ulcerative colitis he will have reflected back on what he did before, his own lifestyle and attitude, and we can clearly see he has developed from that journey - and is now seeing that kicking a ball is just a part of coaching and mentoring.

Russell Martin’s journey is just starting, he had a few options at MK Dons to introduce his philosophy, now at Swansea he has far more tools to utilise. This is the journey of the whole of the Swansea City squad, together as a unit. They are learning together as each day progresses. That is clearly reflected in the way that the swans now play and deliver their style on the pitch. It can’t be argued with.

Unless of course you find the whole thing rather challenging ?

I know what it's like to live with Ulcerative Colitis, so I'm joining the ranks of other sports men and women - like Darren Fletcher, my fellow Scottish international - who are prepared to speak up about these little-known conditions.I hope that by telling my story, I'll inspire others to tell their own, to break the silence and contact the charity for support

More information via the link below.

Read more about Russell Martin’s journey here

Russell Martin’s journey

Photographs licensed from Reuters

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