‘Heading to Wigan was like going to the moon’: How Roberto Martinez’s two-year English plan turned into two decades

Roberto Martinez Wigan Athletic
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Roberto Martinez hails from the small Catalonian town of Balaguer and started his career with Real Zaragoza, so when Wigan Athletic approached him in the summer of 1995, he was left more than a little confused. His first question: where's Wigan?

Signing as a 22-year-old, the move forced Martinez to grow up, an opportunity he didn't want to let slide. However, he never planned on staying away from his home country for so long - since leaving in 1995, the 49-year-old's career has yet to lead back to Spain.

Speaking to FourFourTwo about transferring to Wigan, Martinez had the added benefit of being joined by fellow Spaniards Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz, with the trio quickly dubbed "the three amigos". 

"Well, Wigan didn’t appear in too many Spanish textbooks! I had English as part of my physiotherapy degree, but heading to Wigan was like going to the moon," Martinez told FFT. "What we did find was this incredible welcome from everyone in the town. 

"I do think that there being three of us made a huge difference, because we could enjoy the experience together. It was interesting to enjoy the contrasting way of living the game and living life in general. The football club and its supporters made it a very easy move at that time. I can remember leaving home and saying, 'I'm going to make sure I learn English and I’ll just go for two years'. 

"Then, 21 years later I was moving to Belgium, never mind heading back to Spain, and seven years after that I’m in Portugal. It’s been fantastic to be able to live the way I wanted, through football. I’ve always felt very curious about taking on new challenges with football and being able to discover life and places around the world through football. Being curious helps."

Martinez continues, explaining why Wigan, a fourth tier side at the time, wanted to bring in three Spanish players when foreign imports weren't as common.

"I think it’s easy now to speak about foreign players in the Premier League, but in 1995 that definitely wasn’t the norm. Everything came about because of the vision of owner Dave Whelan. He bought the club and wanted to bring some flair. 

"He had experience of playing in the army and playing with a lot of foreign soldiers; he realised that all of these players were different and brought something to the side. That’s exactly what he wanted at Wigan. 

"He had business in Spain and that’s where the connection came from. He spoke to the manager of JJB in Spain and asked if there would be the option of taking three Spanish players to Wigan. He made it happen."

Martinez did arrive willing to dive head first into the cuisine Wigan had to offer as well, highlighting how he was made to feel welcome in the Greater Manchester town alongside Seba and Diaz. 

"I was very open-minded from the start! Obviously I came from a culture of the Spanish omelette and eating our meals in a traditional way – Wigan was a little bit different. I enjoyed eating the meat and potato pies. To be honest, I was pretty open to eating any type of pie. 

"But my favourite restaurant was an Italian called Milano. Unfortunately it’s not there any more, but it was owned by a Spaniard and outside of opening times he would just cook all sorts of food for the three of us. We would have really long meals there. I also enjoyed the Wrightington Hotel. 

"Those were the two places that – instead of simply feeding ourselves – we could enjoy the meal time and learn more about English culture, talk about football and discuss anything else that was going on in our lives."

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