MOST of a Leeds United persuasion would categorically say the ignominious end to Nigel Martyn’s proud association with the Whites was something that the man voted the club’s safest-ever pair of hands didn’t deserve one bit.
Now 44, the Cornishman, happily retired in his adopted ‘home’ of Yorkshire with his family, has enough memories to fill a king-sized scrapbook, good and bad, from his seven-year association with the club, where he was no.1 for six successive seasons.
His time throughout the second half of the 1990s and early ‘noughties’ encompassed five consecutive top-five Premier League finishes and those twin imposters of triumph and despair in Europe, with glory nights against powerhouses such as AC Milan and Roma interspersed with tragedy one dark spring evening in Istanbul just over 11 years ago.
United were box office and hogged their fair share of the headlines on both back and front pages, from the infamous Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer court cases to a dramatic brush with death for players following a crash-landing at Stansted Airport back in 1998 – ahead of the spectacular freefall on and off the pitch after the legacy of the Viv Nicholson style ‘spend, spend, spend’ excesses of the Peter Ridsdale regime.
Ultra-reliable and popular custodian Martyn, who hung up his gloves in 2006, was a rare beacon of consistency throughout the rollercoaster years, although his exit from Elland Road in September 2003 after being largely ostracised throughout the previous year by Terry Venables for the ‘crime’ of putting family and himself before club represented an unfitting end to his time at LS11.
The decision to let Martyn join Everton for £500,000 after he had kept the bench warm from day one behind Paul Robinson during the club’s flirtation with the drop in 2002-03 ultimately came back to haunt the Whites with the stopper, capped 23 times by England, memorably turning in a world-class display to thwart the hosts on his return to Leeds with the Merseysiders late on in the relegation season of 2003-04.
Casting aside their disappointment that day, the United faithful gave Martyn a standing ovation at the final whistle following the 1-1 draw, which spoke volumes, with the man himself admitting he wishes more than anything that things could have been different in the tail end of his days at the club.
Martyn, who can look back on the most distinguished career with United, Everton, Crystal Palace, Bristol Rovers and England, told the YEP: “I did enjoy my career, although maybe wish that in the (2002-03) season I could have maybe done something if given the opportunity and offered a little bit more experience perhaps than what Paul (Robinson) had and maybe helped the team out a little bit more.
“But that’s something we’ll never know.
“I wish it had been different, absolutely. I’d played every game of the previous season. I remember I had literally no time whatsoever after the World Cup and going to it was like pre-season all over again; you start again without getting the rest. Then there was all the travelling and coming home.
“And after having just a few days off, I was then told we (Leeds) were going on a (pre-season) trip to the Far East and mentally, I just couldn’t. Not so much I didn’t want to do it, it was the rest and I explained that and was told I would never play for the club again.
“And that’s what happened. It wasn’t about falling out with the fans in that respect; I just think a bit of common sense needed to just be used.
“I was fit and ready to play if needed, but obviously wasn’t seen as being needed because the financial side of it meant I was probably one of the more sellable assets. But you have to play to be in the shop window.”
Not many keepers assume legendary status at all the club’s they play for, with Martyn one of the rarest of breeds.
His class was obvious after choosing United ahead of Everton and Chelsea in the close season of 1996 when he arrived for £2.25m from Palace.
And he proved a formidable last line of defence, winning the player of the year award at United in 1997, while earning the respect of his peers in being voted into the Premier League Team of the Year in 2000 and proving an able international deputy for former Whites product David Seaman.
That his feats were recognised in 2006 when he was named as United’s greatest-ever goalkeeper – the only player not from the Don Revie era to be in the club’s greatest XI – says it all about his sense of esteem among group of supporters whose respect has to be earned the hard way.
On that inestimable accolade, Martyn added: “That is a great source of pride, especially with the great team they had and to be the only one in not from that era. “Obviously, we were all trying to emulate what they did.
“Although I very nearly never joined Leeds (in 1996). I was actually driving up the motorway to meet Everton and then this call came through that Leeds had made a bid and it was then a case of having a chat with Howard (Wilkinson) and seeing what Leeds had to offer, really. They wanted a goalkeeper and really moved quickly for me.
“The first few months were actually quite difficult. The team weren’t playing well and Howard left us a few games into the (1996-97) season – and then a new manager (George Graham) came in and it all starts again.
“It’s about earning the respect, not only a new set of supporters and team-mates, but a new manager twice. It was one of those things you had to work hard at.
“To be fair, George came along and settled things down fairly quickly. The first season wasn’t the prettiest football, but I think it was necessary to keep us in the league.
“Under George, we had a couple of European qualifications and then went onto get to the semi-final of the UEFA Cup. But that one episode was marred by that one incident at Galatasaray.
“Football no longer mattered really at that point. For supporters to go along and support their team and not come back takes your eyes off things and you quickly realise there are more important things happening.
“The following season in the Champions League (2000-1), we did manage to enjoy. Playing without fear was our greatest ally, really. We didn’t know what to expect, but were hungry enough to have a right go at it.
“It was a similar set-up to what Tottenham have now with the amount of British players they have and it will be interesting to see how they do next season because after that (semi-final) season, we struggled. Although there are no signs of them imploding financially, like we did.”
Family now wins hands down for adopted Yorkshireman Martyn, after years of making sacrifices for his ‘day job’, which spanned the best part of two decades after being plucked from the obscurity of Cornish minnows St Blazey by Bristol Rovers in 1987 – having been spotted by the club’s tea lady, if the rumours are to be believed.
After announcing his retirement due to an ankle injury, Martyn did spend a spell as a part-time goalkeeping coach at Bradford City, but for the time being is happy to spend some quality time with the family, often denied during his time as a high-profile, international-class goalkeeper when his career took priority.
He said: “I’m just having an enjoyable time with the family at the minute, to be honest.
“I did really enjoy the coaching at Bradford. But this year it finished, purely because Peter Taylor wanted me to go full time.
“It then means travelling with the first team and in every day and also going with the reserves or maybe watching another game and scouting.
“Coaching means you are not able to do some of the things you want to. Now, my son sings opera and does concerts and stuff, while my daughter is into netball and the freedom I have enables me to watch them. Football does rule your life and after 20 years of it, it’s nice to be able to go away at half term and have Christmas off and do things as a family – things that you couldn’t do before when the kids were young.
“I remember my daughter was doing a themed thing at school and it was 2006; the first year that I’d been retired. She had to do a thing at school about the family and it was a picture of us all on Christmas Day together and she put underneath: ‘The family is back for Christmas” and little things like that tell you how good it is now.
“The kids absolutely love the area and Yorkshire reminds us of Cornwall in some respects in terms of the way the people are and the beautiful scenery and beaches on the east coast. It does amount to home, although we get back to Cornwall as much as we can.
“I didn’t even move away when I played for Everton and drove over the M62 every morning; although whoever has to do that has got my sympathy.”