The loan signing of Emi Martínez from Arsenal in January has proven to be a shrewd decision from the Royals, with the Argentinian goalkeeper endearing himself to Reading fans immediately with his passion, commitment to the cause and, of course, his talent between the posts.
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His time with the Royals so far has been typified by an instant connection with his team-mates, Reading supporters and some fantastic saves that have proven vital to the Reading cause so far.
His performance at Ipswich at the start of March earned him the supporters’ votes for Man of the Match on social media afterwards – and it’s easy to see why. A series of vital saves in both halves helped propel the Royals to a 2-1 victory at Portman Road, thanks in no small part to the goalkeeper’s help in the defensive third. This was no means a one-off, though, having played his part in Reading's climb out of the bottom three as it stands.
While the player on the pitch is fiercely competitive, focussed and committed, the man off the pitch is polite, personable and relaxed about life in general.
As is a common trait among goalkeepers, Martínez has an unerring confidence in himself and his own ability, that is spoken about as a matter of fact, but never strays towards arrogance.
The 26-year-old took time out of his day after training to sit down with The Royal and discuss everything from his relationship with Arsène Wenger, almost knocking an Arsenal striker unconscious as a teenager, and why the Championship is the toughest league of all…
Emi started out in life in his native Argentina, growing up and receiving his early footballing education at Independiente – one of Argentina’s biggest clubs, with 16 league titles and seven Copa Libertadores crowns to their name, which is the South American equivalent of the Champions League.
Having grown up and shown promise in such a rich footballing nation, his life changed completely when Arsenal came calling, while he was still a teenager and an Argentina youth international.
On life growing up, Martínez said: “It was brilliant. It’s a beautiful country, I’m fully Argentinian - my mum and dad are Argentinian. I lived there 16-17 years before I moved to London – which was a big shock for me and my family. It’s a different language, different culture, the first year was quite difficult because of the language, but my wife is English, I feel at home here now. It’s been my home for nearly 10 years, I’m having a good time.
“As an Argentinian, the first gift you are given is a ball.
“Me and my brother were crazy about football – in my whole family, none of them play football, but we were fascinated about the sport.
“When I was a youngster, I played up front many times and when I go on holiday, I never play in goal. I like to play football as well, but my passion to be a goalkeeper is a different level.”
“I had many Argentinian players who were my heroes, especially goalkeepers. They’re not well-known, but as a young kid I always looked up to them. I came from Independiente, a big club in Argentina and the number ones there were the ones I looked up to.
“I was watching the Premier League a lot, Óscar Ustari was the Argentinian number one at that moment – there wasn’t really a European goalkeeper I looked up to at that time.
“He was also at Getafe, he’s in Mexico now and at Independiente he was a really good goalkeeper. He had many injuries in his career, now he’s not at the top but when I was younger, he was the one I was looking up to.
“I wanted to be a first team goalie, but I never thought I was going to get that far. I’m just delighted for the career I’ve had so far.”
Part of the springboard for the career he’s had was the move over to London, which came about after he was spotted by one person in particular…
“There was an Argentina scout who worked for Arsenal, who watched all the games when I was playing for Independiente. Then they came to watch me in the South American Under-17s for Argentina, I had a really good tournament – I was goalie of the tournament and Arsenal then contacted Independiente to buy me.
“I came to England for a week to see if I liked the facilities, if I liked the country, it was a big step in my career so I couldn’t say no.
“My mum came with me for the first six months, then my brother for six months – so I had family around but obviously, they have to go back and live their lives! I met the person who’s now my wife when I was 19, so that was a massive help for me as well to find her.”
Another way the goalkeeper has adapted to life in the UK is learning the language, something which seemingly came naturally to him – speaking three languages fluently.
“I had a really good teacher – she’s now Unai Emery’s English teacher!” He smiled. “I hadn’t seen her for so many years but now I see her every day at the training ground. I’m thankful for the English she taught me, it was a massive help for me.
“I was able to pick up the language quite easily, but in the first six months it’s always difficult. The main thing Arsenal wanted me to learn was the defensive words in football, ‘get out,’ ‘left, right shoulder’ and other things. I managed to get that in one week thankfully – I also speak Portuguese fluently and understand Italian as well.”
The majority of Martinez’s career in England has seen him learn under the tutelage of one of the greats of football management – Arsène Wenger. He took some time to discuss how the Frenchman has helped him along the way.
“It was a very good relationship, since day one. He really trusted young players,” Martínez mused.
“When I was an Under-23, the dressing room had Wilshere, Coquelin, Szczesny, Alex Iwobi, Serge Gnabry – all well-known players now. The quality in that room was ridiculous.
“Then with Wenger we were training with Robin van Persie, Thierry Henry, those kinds of players. The boys would come and talk to you as well, I’d never seen something like it. I owed him a lot, he was really, really helpful.
“I was enjoying the moment and, when I’m in goal in training, I’m just really focussed that nothing goes past me – that’s just who I am.
“In the first week, I nearly knocked out Nicklas Bendtner with a knee in the head from a cross!
“I was 17, 18 but I didn’t care who was in front of me, when I’m training or playing, I just give 100%.”
Having had experience on loan in Spain and England, alongside experience as a youth player for Argentina, Martínez is in a good position to be able to take stock of his career so far and assess just how difficult the Championship is by comparison to the rest of his career to date – but he feels equipped to take on any challenge as a player.
“The English leagues are very tough – especially the Championship. I’ve played in Spain, Argentina as well, but the Championship is the hardest league I’ve played in. I’ve played in the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, Premier League games as well but the Championship is one of the hardest.
“I’ve had the chance to come here, hopefully play 18 games for Reading and you can see that, when you play well in this league, everyone talks about you.
“Any team can beat anyone, it’s more physical, there are long balls, you fight for the whole 90 minutes. In the Premier League you get more time and space, you can play out from the back more and in the Championship, you just can’t.
“I said it in another interview, but I can play in any stage, in any team, and I will perform.”
And he has certainly done that since arriving as a Reading player. He is under no illusions about the situation in which Reading find themselves in the table, having to adapt from the demands of the top of the Premier League, to fighting to survive in the Championship – and he has noticed the difference in mentality on the pitch.
“You can tell when we score a goal, we drop back a little bit. A point for us is massive, obviously we want to get three points in every game but, in the situation we’re in, eight games left, the pressure is even higher.
“We’re talking about getting relegated to League One. The club won’t be the same financially, the players won’t be the same, so we know what we’re playing for. For me, as a loanee from Arsenal, everyone’s saying about next season, but I don’t care – I just want to help keep Reading up.
“We need big performances, win games, then the performances will talk about themselves. Wherever it takes me next season, it takes me.”
One thing Martínez has also gained in his short time as a Reading player so far is the appreciation of Reading supporters – who have been chanting his name and voicing their approval of the goalkeeper, something for which the man himself is clearly grateful.
“Maybe the fans can see that I’m giving everything. When you’re a fan and you can see a player who really cares about the club, who shares the same values, that’s probably where the connection comes. I’m giving the best performances that I can, I’m a Reading player today.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be a Reading player in the future but I’m a Reading player now, and I’ll give my best to help give the club the best possible chance to be in the Championship next season, then have a chance next season to promote to the Premier League – that’s what the aim is.
“I’m really grateful to the fans that, in six or seven games, they’re cheering my name. It shows that I’m doing a good job here, I just want to work and keep building my performances.”
The goalkeeper has started every match for which he has been eligible since arriving at Reading, getting a valuable run of games under his belt as well as aiding the Royals in the process, something that he hoped to have with the Gunners from the start of the season, but he’s glad to be a part of the Royals’ cause now.
“When I stayed at Arsenal, they promised me games but in five months, I’ve been training well, I had the whole of pre-season – had amazing games in pre-season, so I thought I would have a chance. But when you have 20 games and you’re only involved in one, I had to go out and get some games.
“I had some offers from abroad but Reading came along. I had a new-born baby, I know the league, I know the club, obviously Sal Bibbo was my coach at Arsenal and said this was a great club for me – that likes to play from the back, which suits my style.
“Now, my decision is paying off. Sometimes in football you can make wrong decisions, I feel like Reading suits me but it’s not over yet, we’ve still got 10 games left and we need to get more wins – but we’re on the right path.
“When I came here, what surprised me is how good the players are. It was a big challenge for me, going to a team that’s in the relegation zone in the Championship you’d think the squad might be broken, maybe the players fight in the dressing room, but you don’t want to get into that and not be comfortable in your work.
“But it surprised me, how the players are. It’s a really friendly club, everyone’s smiling, and I wondered how this club could have players this good and be in the relegation zone. We’d only lost one in seven games, then at Sheffield United we conceded after 40 seconds, so it would have been a different game if that ball wasn’t going in. We’re doing good things.
“When the starting eleven is united in the game, it makes a difference but when the whole squad is pushing forward, you can’t beat that. You need to have players like John O’Shea in the squad. When he’s won everything and he’s on the bench, giving support to everyone and giving you that experience before the game, it’s invaluable.
“I’m delighted to have made the right decision to come here, we just need to get more wins and keep pushing forward to get more points.”
On O’Shea in particular, Martínez was quick to lavish praise on his experienced team-mate, elaborating on how important it is to have people in the squad to pass on their wisdom as well as exhibiting their playing ability.
“He’s won everything, you see him every day, smiling, talking like he’s your dad or like he’s a manager. He’s John O’Shea, it feels like he’s been around forever, and he’s been at the top level, you can see why he’s 37 years old, still playing and still in a good club.
“His mentality is ridiculous – it’s something I haven’t experienced before, even in the Premier League. He’s top, top class.
“I think him and Petr Cech have a different brain from everyone else. They don’t just have a football brain, they have an intelligent brain where they know how to look after themselves.
“Football isn’t just about talent, I had friends back in Argentina who were talented enough to play for Real Madrid, but the mentality was wrong. John O’Shea and Petr Cech have the mentality to play football forever, that’s how you see it. When a player like that is in your squad, you want to be like them.”
That sense of pragmatism about a footballer’s career is something that Martínez shares, who rounded off by explaining how much the game means to him in his career – and how much he wants to keep helping Reading for the rest of the season.
“During the season, I have a 24-hour football brain. I do treatment outside, I do yoga during the week, I make sure I eat properly before the games, I don’t really think about going out, playing bowling, and my wife knows it.
“I’m travelling quite a lot. Three nights a week I’m staying in Reading, doing treatments, because I only have 10 or 15 more years in my career. Some of the players have got 20, but you never know when you can get injured. You have to look after yourself because, if you get injured, you lose.
“When you go on holidays in two months, you realise you want to play golf, play volleyball, whatever you want to do, but during the season I just focus on what my job is. Right now, my job is 150% to save Reading from relegation.”
The Long Read is a series of feature interviews with Royals players and staff, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal.
To read these interviews before anyone else, and find out more in your essential guide to the game, pick up your copy at any Royals home match for just £3.