Russell Martin interview: My brothers and I broke our family’s cycle of domestic violence

Southampton manager Russell Martin pictured for a club feature, at the Southampton Harbour Hotel, on December 19th, 2023 in Southampton, England
Russell Martin is enjoying success with Southampton as he attempts to get them back into the Premier League - Matt Watson/Getty Images

Russell Martin was 27 when he decided to change. Relegated from the Premier League, suffering from ulcerative colitis, he realised that, as a player, he had turned into a “robot”. He was not being true to himself as a sportsman and, maybe, as a person.

By then Martin had also become a father. At this point, a little context. There were two reasons for me wanting to interview him. Firstly, a fascination with the work he is doing at Southampton, the particular possession-based style of play he believes so passionately in, the bonds he creates, and also my belief, as a football writer, that he is a manager with a very bright future.

Having been relegated last season and with a complete overhaul of their squad, Southampton are second in the Championship and are on a formidable run of 25 matches unbeaten. They also have the highest possession stats in Europe. Their football is demanding, compelling and takes “courage”, as Martin, who took over in the summer, puts it.

And, secondly, there was another reason. Something a little more personal. Last November Martin did a brilliant interview with David Walsh for The Sunday Times in which he talked about the domestic violence inflicted by his father, Dean, during his childhood. I, too, had a violent father, there were clear parallels in my mind, and Martin’s interview was incredibly powerful.

“That interview upset a couple of people. Not people I am really close to and understand me but upset them because they felt no-one else needed to know. But I am comfortable with it. It’s also part of healing,” Martin says as we talk in his office at Southampton’s training ground.

“When you are honest, it’s really scary for some people. I have lost relationships along the way with friends and some family because they probably preferred the version of me when I tried to please everyone and do everything and fix everything and that’s just impossible to attain.

“I sleep better at night, that’s for sure. You have to accept the pain that comes with that. It’s the same I have to accept the pain when we play that way and it goes wrong. The same when you work with a player for six months and it still doesn’t quite happen. You have to accept that. It’s f------ painful when you choose to be that. When you choose to feel everything, it’s really painful. Really painful.”

Tactics are not random – they are done with feeling

Having tracked Martin’s managerial career from MK Dons, where owner Pete Winkelman told him “I couldn’t care less if you get relegated” as long as he did things his way, to Swansea City and to Southampton and without compromising on playing style I had originally intended to make this interview just an exploration and explanation of his football, why he is so committed to it and why he says he will never change.

Playing out from the back is one of the most “divisive” – his word – tactics in football, for example, and Martin’s reasoning of why his teams do it is fascinating. “In my view it is in order to get yourself to the opposition’s final third with position, structure and control and to enable yourself to stay there as long as possible. So it’s not random,” he states. “But tactics are nothing without feeling.”

Southampton manager Russell Martin during the Sky Bet Championship match between Southampton FC and Huddersfield Town at St. Mary's Stadium on February 10, 2024 in Southampton, England
Martin has spoken of the 'feeling' in his tactics - Matt Watson/Getty Images

Feeling is a word he often uses and it is clear what he does, and how he does it, is wrapped up in who he is, the trauma of his childhood, what he, his mother and brothers went through and how he has decided to conduct his life: the “authenticity” that he demands of himself. The curiosity, also.

“It was a conscious decision to be myself,” Martin states.

‘I believe my ulcerative colitis was caused by trying to please people’

As a boy, the second youngest of four brothers, with two foster brothers, Martin was not an especially talented footballer but he was determined. His father was a gambling addict – the family lost their home because of it when Russell was eight – who was in and out of prison, and a violent man towards his wife, Kerry.

Martin was captain of every team he played for as right-back and centre-half, culminating with Norwich City, and had spotted a pattern. If a manager was “too nice”, Martin would be the disciplinarian. If he was too strict, Martin would be “soft with the lads”. He filled the gaps. He tried to be a “pleaser” just as he had hoped, as a child, it would appease his father at home. He wanted to please him, calm him and make him proud.

Football - Portsmouth v Norwich City npower Football League Championship - Fratton Park - 2/5/11 Russell Martin (L) celebrates with team mates after Simeon Jackson (Not Pictured) scores the first goal for Norwich
Martin spent 10 seasons at Norwich, including four in the Premier League - Tony O'Brien/Action Images

“I didn’t know when to say no. So, I would do everything to try and please everyone,” he says. “I had ulcerative colitis [inflamed bowel] really badly. I was taking all sorts of medication. I genuinely believe, I really do, that it was internalised stress because I went against my gut instinct so much. All the time. To try and please people. I didn’t listen to my intuition, my feeling.”

Eventually Martin allowed that natural curiosity to take over. He became a vegan. He read up on Buddhism. He meditated, tried “breathe work” and hypnotherapy. He opened his mind.

Every day, at Southampton, he has an ice bath, he also uses a cryotherapy chamber near his home, he swims in the sea at Hove all year round, he sees a therapist once a week – “I am not looking for any answers. I chat with someone completely outside of any bias or judgement” – and has spoken to psychologists and mind-set management people. At Southampton, Drewe Broughton, the former footballer, now the “fear coach” comes in. “He’s been great for us,” Martin says. “He’s really worked himself out.”

‘I’m not screaming and shouting at mistakes – but we need courage’

During his own journey Martin formed his ideas of how, if he became a manager, he would have his teams play. In fact, there was a key game: the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona took apart Manchester United. “The best I have ever seen,” Martin says. “I was mesmerised.” He has watched it back several times.

Southampton manager Russell Martin during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between Southampton and Watford at St Mary's Stadium on February 06, 2024 in Southampton, England.
Martin believes that analysing other teams' approaches is less effective than working on his own team's strengths - Matt Watson/Getty Images

Martin’s philosophy is simple: he wants to produce teams he would have loved to play in. It takes an incredible amount of hard work with 10-12 hour days with his staff and huge amounts of “detail” to the players. But it is based on “feeling” rather than through defined patterns of play. Unlike some coaches he does not use “mannequins” in training. “It is not one to two to three [passing]. It’s conceptual,” he explains. “We always say to the lads we judge them on two things: courage and aggression with the ball and without it and so when people talk about the values of the team and the philosophy, really it’s to dominate the ball as much as you can and when you don’t have it run really hard to get it back.

“It’s for me to feel it as much as they do so that when they make a mistake I’m not screaming and shouting. To scream and shout at them when they don’t show enough courage, that’s the difference. To play this way takes the ultimate courage as a footballer.

“The set-piece coach, Andreas [Georgson], who has just gone to Lillestrom [in Norway] as manager, came up with the best analogy ever: it’s like wetting yourself when you are freezing cold. It will warm you up, you will feel nice for a bit but then you will be way colder and in more pain.

“It’s the same here. If you take what you perceive to be the easy option – kick it or get trapped because you haven’t done the right thing – it’s going to lead to a problem for us.”

Samuel Edozie of Southampton celebrates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Southampton FC and Huddersfield Town at St. Mary's Stadium on February 10, 2024 in Southampton,
Martin's Southampton have dropped just four points in their last 10 games – all unbeaten – with Samuel Edozie (pictured) on the scoresheet six times - Matt Watson/Getty Images

For that reason Martin has one rule and one rule only: if any one player turns up late for training, every player has to run as punishment. “I say to them it relates to the pitch because if one person doesn’t want to show for the ball then you are in trouble and if one person doesn’t press properly we are all going to have to run more,” he explains.

“So don’t allow anyone to be late.”

It is also all part of the “connection” he wants the players to feel for each other and for the staff. “Football is a game that robs you of your identity because you have to conform to something that, a lot of the time, doesn’t sit comfortably,” he says.

It is why he is untroubled by apparent dissent – as long as it is for the right reasons.

“Stuey Armstrong [midfielder], I love, we have an amazing relationship,” he says. “But every time I take him off he wants to kill me. He should be p----- off because he wants to be on the pitch. Am I going to criticise him? No chance. What am I supposed to tell him at that point? ‘Don’t be p----- off? Don’t show emotion?’ It’s not the right message.”

Stuart Armstrong of Southampton celebrates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Southampton FC and Sheffield Wednesday at Friends Provident St. Mary's Stadium on January 13, 2024 in Southampton, England
Martin does not mind if players like Stuart Armstrong show passion, even against his decisions - Matt Watson/Getty Images

Messages are important. Martin’s father coached his sons’ football teams and Russell remembers that the final words to him when he went out on the pitch were always the same: do not make a mistake.

And now he manages Southampton, under the immense pressure of trying to get them back into the top flight, with completely the opposite view.

“I played with so much fear. Where I got to in my career was so much fear-based. It can hold you back,” Martin says. “But, also, people when they say they are fearless, that’s not true. Everyone has fear at some level. I have fear that as a dad I am not going to be able to provide enough for my kids and give them the platform to be themselves. I fear with the players here that I don’t give them enough detail to be able to go onto the pitch.

“Our job is to make sure they make as few mistakes as possible and that’s by repetition, practising properly, being really demanding but also showing a lot of love and care for them.”

It is why, for example, he does not go too deep into analysing the opposition – beyond their set-pieces. Martin’s approach is to concentrate on his players and what they can do. “It’s not ‘this team’s amazing on the ball how do you stop them’. It’s about ‘what are we going to do to be the best version of ourselves this week’,” he says. “At some point I may pay the price for that.”

Martin balanced his career with cleaning pubs and the local Spar

The 38-year-old’s career into football was not easy. “Imposter syndrome”, unsurprisingly given his upbringing, was always a factor.

“Feeling completely out of my depth so much,” he explains. “So that even writing off to every football club wasn’t easy and getting three replies and choosing which one and ending up at Wycombe on trial [when at non-league Lewes FC] and within two weeks being with the first-team with [manager] Tony Adams. Imposter syndrome you have at that point is really uncomfortable. Cleaning pubs [aged 18] in the morning for the two years before that, cleaning windows with my uncle. You have to do certain things to get somewhere, don’t you? I was always open to anything.”

In the evenings he worked in his local spar, over the road from his home. He never became disillusioned or lost hope. “I tried to find joy, I genuinely did. When I was cleaning I really enjoyed being with the people I was cleaning with. It was good fun,” he says. “Whacked on The Beautiful South album which they had in Priors Letting agents in Hove, which is still there. They had a massive CD player but that was the only CD I could ever find. ‘Old Red Eyes is Back’ was my favourite song and I tried to enjoy everything as much as I could. Waking up at 4am wasn’t great but I loved the people.

“People say that to me ‘Why are you so positive?’ I do believe that when you grow up in a certain way and you manage to make the best of it you can always… you have a choice. Pain is inevitable. And then, the Buddhist thing: there are two arrows. The first is pain. Everyone is going to experience pain. The second is suffering and everyone has a choice. It’s completely different. You can choose to suffer and in the environment we were in we could have been victims – my brothers, my mum. Or you can choose it as an opportunity to learn and grow and try and steer away from something you don’t want. That’s always been my mentality.”

‘My brothers are good dads – that’s down to my mum’

Remarkably, perhaps, his brothers have all also been successful. David and Pepe have a body shop and panel beating business and Jamie is an actor. “Yeah, and good dads,” Martin says. “It’s really good. I am proud of them, really proud of them and that’s down to my mum.”

When Martin became a father for the first time he “cried my eyes out”. “I spoke to my big brother the other day,” he says. “We went to our nonna’s [his father’s Italian mother’s] funeral two, three months ago now and you look around and we are breaking the cycle. And hopefully our kids will keep changing it, keep evolving. That’s the plan. That’s the way I look at it. I want to protect my children from everything but that’s not healthy. I want them to have a really comfortable life but there will be pain at times and not to over-parent.”

Southampton manager Russell Martin pictured for a club feature, at the Southampton Harbour Hotel, on December 19th, 2023 in Southampton, England
Southampton is Martin's third managerial job after Milton Keynes Dons and Swansea - Matt Watson

I nod in agreement.

“You’re a fixer. Same as me,” Martin says. “They need to work it out and I want them to have gratitude for what they have got. Without becoming a broken record: ‘Well, I didn’t have this…’ It’s to make them aware they are very lucky. I talk to them about when I was a kid and my oldest goes ‘oh dad!’ but they need to understand. They are very fortunate.”

Martin’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family to whom he was devoted, died last autumn. His father died four years ago. Martin’s mother stayed with him for 27 years before finally getting out, moving to London with his elder brother David, kicking their father out of the family home and looking after Russell and Pepe. Later, when he joined Wycombe, Martin lived with his mother. League Two Wycombe, where he signed for an initial three months, was his last hope in England, and he gave up a scholarship in the United States to risk it.

Martin talks to his children – aged 12, nine and eight – about his parents and it is tough when he speaks honestly about his own dad. “They loved their granddad. He used to speak softly to them and bought them sweets. He was very different from the version I saw,” he says.

Empowerment at Southampton also comes with days off. “I want to see my kids. I want to see them play football on a Sunday. People say ‘what if you have a Tuesday game? Why are you not in on a Sunday?’ and I say ‘I trust the guys. They will do what they need to recover’, Martin says.

He also encourages his players to have their own views; not to be that “robot” he was in the early part of his career. “It’s like the whole ‘concentrate on your football, don’t think about anything else’. It’s not healthy,” he says.

“I created opportunity through curiosity, through a willingness to learn and take myself out of my comfort zone and work really, really hard. I do think you can create opportunity for yourself if you are willing to be uncomfortable and I was uncomfortable a lot of the time when I was younger. But I was also willing to drive through that and carry on.”

‘I don’t feel I disrespected the Prime Minister’

His honesty has occasionally got him into trouble – “I maybe need dragging back sometimes!” he admits – such as when he said he had “no interest” in meeting the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Southampton fan, after the 2-1 win against Plymouth Argyle in December.

“I don’t feel like I was disrespectful,” Martin says. “I said what I felt at that time and I got told off for it a little bit! I don’t mean him any ill will. But I got asked it four times and, at that point, I just wanted to talk about football and how good the players had been. We had just won again. So why were we talking about this? I said I hoped he enjoyed the game, I really did.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Southampton fan, attends the Sky Bet Championship match between Southampton FC and Plymouth Argyle at Friends Provident St. Mary's Stadium on December 29, 2023 in Southampton, England.
Rishi Sunak turned up to St Mary's but Russell Martin did not meet him - Robin Jones/Getty Images

“What I said was not meant with any malice. People will take it how they want. I know he’s a fan and I know he spoke about me doing a good job recently, which is really nice. So hopefully he wasn’t offended and people can move on.”

Martin has been a Labour voter in the past and is a former member of the Green Party – partly because “I became a bit disillusioned” with politics but also through a friendship with his local MP, Caroline Lucas. Following her decision to step down at the next general election Martin supported Eddie Izzard’s unsuccessful bid to become the Labour candidate for Brighton Pavilion.

“I had a good chat with them and I really liked the passion to disrupt. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. It will at some point,” he says. “Again, I am not like set to one party. I like people who are passionate and want to disrupt things. Caroline was that.”

Has he ever considered politics?

“No, I don’t know how you can go into it and remain honest and authentic,” Martin says. “You have to end up doing deals and compromising a little bit.

“I love people. I love energy. Maybe I will always be involved in football but if I am not, who knows? But if I am going to get sacked then I am going to get sacked doing something I love and really believe in. I am comfortable with that. I am not driven by fear of losing my job. My fear is not giving the players enough to enable them to give the best versions of themselves.”

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