This season has somehow, above all previous ones stood out as an especially torturous and wholly depressing one, an experience that could provoke heartfelt rantings that might stretch over many a page, but when you wallow in self-pity for too long, it’s possible to drown. At times you need to take a step back, an antidote, something that reminds you of why you love Leeds United in the first place…otherwise you’d never carry on.
So as we approach the close of another fruitless 9 months in which the ‘side before self’ mantra appears to have got lost, where egos and publicity campaigns have dictated ownership battles off the pitch, while on it, spineless performances have become the norm, where understated professionalism appears to have been more of a swear word, rather than a byword, perhaps there’s no better time to celebrate a player who personified such a traits as strongly as any other Leeds player ever has?
Step forward, Nigel Martyn. If ever there was a more softly spoken, modest LUFC icon, then I’d be troubled to identify him. True to his persona, Nigel’s route into the professional game was suitably a low key one, he wasn’t discovered by an extensive scouting network or in open trials, but rather by the Bristol Rovers tea lady; she saw him playing for St. Blazey while on holiday in Cornwall and invited him to the club for a trial. When he showed up, Gerry Francis sent him to work with the reserves, within minutes the coach was calling Francis over to take a look, and within a week he was starting for the first team.
Nigel was to become English football’s first £1million goalkeeper when he joined Crystal Palace only two seasons later in 1989, and when he joined Leeds in the summer of 1996 it was for another record fee of £2.25million, but true to form, even taking into account the dramatic circumstances of his move (Howard Wilkinson hijacked a prospective mood to Everton to get his man), Nigel’s arrival was appropriately understated; the arrival of Lee Bowyer, then the country’s most expensive teenager (and with a bit of a reputation for aggro), drew most of the media attention, before Lee Sharpe’s arrival eclipsed both moves.
Wilkinson alas, was not to have the opportunity to enjoy his new capture for long as an early season 4-0 reverse at the hands of Manchester United finally sounded a death knell to a glorious, but by that time, stuttering reign. Instead, George Graham was to benefit, Nigel being the bedrock that allowed a Leeds side that mustered a mere 28 top flight goals, to somehow escape the drop. The following season, Hasselbaink, Haaland and Hopkin headlined the new arrivals list and Leeds began to prosper, UEFA Cup qualification was due reward for progress. Leeds though, were to barely have the chance to dip their toes in the mild waters of European football before George Graham subsequently departed, leaving his old assistant to take the helm and a bright new dawn to break in LS11.
Amongst the slew of exciting young talents and behind a transformed Radebe, Martyn still stood out, his astonishing reflexes and agility, so often the deciding factors in victories as the new Leeds rumbled on to a second consecutive European qualification. That second consecutive UEFA Cup campaign heralded a second consecutive year of locking horns with Roma; while the valiant defeat of O’Leary’s young side in Rome had done much to win him the manager’s job, this particular afternoon in the Stadio Olympico was to define Nigel Martyn’s Leeds career.
Quite simply, Nigel turned in the finest goalkeeping display I can ever recall seeing; while Leeds defended manfully as a team in the face of a relentless Roma onslaught, the hosts still breached the backline with regularity, forcing him into seven or eight world class saves. True to form, while many of Leeds’ brightest lights of the O’Leary period (Smith, Viduka, Matteo, Ferdinand etc.) will be remembered for the Champions’ League campaign, Nigel was there first, producing (and outstripping) those displays on the smaller stage.
The only tragedy of Nigel’s Leeds career was how it ended. The emergence of Paul Robinson (and behind him, Scott Carson), left the Leeds management with a decision to make – first Venables, and then Reid decided to favour youth and Nigel was allowed to leave. Hindsight was to prove both managers foolhardy for a multitude of sins, but Eddie Gray was the man who ultimately paid the ultimate penance.
On 14th April 2004, Nigel made his first return to Elland Road, lining up for an Everton side that Leeds desperately had to beat to keep receding survival hopes alive. A young Wayne Rooney gave the visitors a 12th minute lead, but after that it was all Leeds as the home side lay siege to the Everton goal. James Milner did eventually equalise early in the second half, the crucial second was never to arrive…and the reason lie between the posts. Nigel pulled of a string of absolutely stunning stops, producing a performance on a par with any of his greatest on that Elland pitch – the Kop, half in good humour, half in desperation, chanted ‘Nigel, give us a goal’, but true to the man, there was to be no cheap concessions.
Come the final whistle, the team and the fans were broken, the abyss of the second tier loomed larger than ever, yet in the even midst of the despair, and despite his role as chief tormentor on the night, Nigel was afforded the same standing ovation at the final whistle as he was when he ran down to face the Kop at kick-off. Adulation, even in the face of practically condemning his old club to oblivion – truly the mark of a remarkable servant.
How good was he? Well, that’s a purely subjective debate, but to me, Strachan apart, Big Nige was Howard Wilkinson’s greatest ever signing. Tragically for Wilko, he was only to manage him for a handful of games, but Nigel’s contribution to the club rivals anyone over the last few decades. Many may understandably champion Radebe, but under Wilkinson the South African struggled, George Graham ultimately shaped the leader we came to love, and despite being at the club for four years longer, The Chief actually started only 235 games (the same as Strachan, fact fans) comparative to the 273 full appearances the Cornishman accrued between 1996 and 2004.
Club legend and the only player under 60 to feature in every ‘Greatest Ever Leeds United XI’ that’s trotted out, Nigel Martyn – proof positive that it’s the good guys who ultimately endure at Elland Road.
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