Loved, blamed, embraced, mocked: few Norwich players have been as divisive as Russell Martin. Francis Kelly salutes one of our own, and asks what his role will be this season
Russell Martin watched on, fixated by what was happening before him. Not an opposition-player-sliding-past type of view, but in the Norwich tunnel, inspecting the hordes of exuberant City fans racing around the Carrow Road turf, celebrating the playoff semi-final win over Ipswich.
Still dressed in his playing shorts, flip-flops replacing boots, Martin stared out. A wide smile broke across his face. He edged further forward, desperate for a better vantage point from which to see the fans. He knew the result’s importance: he’d led his fellow men in yellow out that day to a wall of East Anglian noise; to a win that would live long in local folklore. One that would take the club to Wembley for the first time in 30 years.
Martin continued to shuffle towards the action. The only Norwich player there, he lived the enthralling moment through those fans frolicking in front. A few words were exchanged with a Norwich official standing nearby – Martin seemingly keen to join in the festivities on the pitch. The slip of his smile indicated he’d been advised not to venture any closer. So there he stayed, lingering a little longer, and his grin returned: the type of smile when a rush of happiness bursts over you and you don’t quite know what to do with yourself.
We all felt it that day - fan and player alike. Martin was one of us.
There’s not been so much to smile about of late, however. Another season in the Premier League: another relegation. The opportunity for Norwich to press their case to become an established side in the division allowed to pass by once more. Now the introspection takes place - the what-ifs and hows spent attempting to quicken the period between football seasons, plotting the course City must take back to the top tier.
Who stays? Who goes? How many should be brought in? Nine members of the playoff-winning starting 11 are still on Norwich’s books. So do they simply retain most of the current side that got the club up before and played – well at times – in the Premier League but were unable to survive? Or do they look to shuffle the pack?
Having parachuted in and followed Plan A in 2015, Alex Neil could favour refitting the squad in his own vision this time. If so, a number of established players’ places are under threat, including the one who stood, watching us – the fans – on the Carrow Road pitch that day. Russell Martin. No one reflects the club’s recent fortunes, both good and bad, more than Martin. Hold a mirror to the Canary crest and an image of its number five shines back, so entwined in the club’s modern look is he.
Through the prism of Martin you can dissect Norwich’s plight: a bustling, better-than-most performer outside the Premier League but when thrust among the country’s best struggles for consistency.
In a decade where no homegrown talent has secured a spot in the Norwich line-up, Martin is the nearest thing to one of our own. He marked his 24th birthday by becoming a permanent part of the Norwich playing staff, following a brief loan from Peterborough, where he’d previously been captain.
He has declared he would love to manage Norwich one day. It was not a hollow summer crush kind of statement, simply trying to win over the girl and move beyond second base. There was truth behind it. After all, how many pros would love to manage Norwich? Seriously. That’s not a slight on the club. But unless you have feelings for the city, for its community and importantly the football team it is not most people’s destination of choice when thinking ahead to a managerial career.
Yet here we find ourselves, questioning whether he should be part of the club’s immediate future. He is not a pretty footballer, not one to make you sit up and take notice. Nor is he a tough-tackling, last-line-of-defence kind of unit that gets certain portions of the crowd cooing and clapping loudly after upending the opposition’s No.9.
No, Martin is a thinker, an eloquent grafter. Someone to snuff out danger before it occurs; a canary down the mine. He’s a player who takes responsibility for himself and those around him. Just ask the regional media guys how often it was Martin who spoke to them after defeats. That, of course, isn’t enough to warrant you a position in the team. Nor should it. But it is a mark of the man.
The captain’s armband that Martin has worn so proudly for the last three years may not be his any longer, for his position in the starting side is not guaranteed any more. Ivo Pinto demonstrated improvements at the end of last season at full-back, while the quest to mould Martin into a centre-back is in need of a search party of its own, so long has it gone on without returning clear results.
No, Norwich are at a juncture now where the linkages to the side that began this thrilling ride under Paul Lambert six years ago are all but gone. How they move forward is up to Neil, and that may mean Martin takes a back seat.
Whatever occurs over the next couple of months, we should be thankful for Martin and his time at Norwich; for those moments of unbridled joy and the smiles he’s shared with the City faithful. He is one of us.
You can follow Francis Kelly on Twitter at @_Franciskelly
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