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David Martin exclusive interview: The long road to West Ham via Liverpool, MK Dons and Millwall
West Ham goalkeeper David Martin tells Sky Sports about living the dream at West Ham and his tearful celebration against Chelsea
Last Updated: 25/05/20 4:15pm
David Martin remembers kickabouts with Julian Dicks and Ian Bishop at West Ham's training ground. He remembers the smell of burgers and cigarettes at Upton Park. He remembers the roar of the crowd when his father, Alvin, lifted him onto his shoulders after their promotion in 1991.
West Ham is in his blood - "I was born into it," he tells Sky Sports - but these days he's the one wearing the shirt and his father's the one watching on from the stands. Their emotional embrace after his debut at Stamford Bridge in November showed how much it means to them.
"It's still not really sunk in now," he says, speaking from his home via video call. "The other day I was out doing a bike ride and it hit me again: 'I've made my debut for my dream club, against Chelsea, and kept a clean sheet'. The hug with dad was a bit emotional and a bit embarrassing, but it was just great to share it with him. It's something I'd dreamt of."
It's something he might easily have given up on too.
Martin had to wait until he was 33 to represent West Ham for the first time. His father, the former centre-back, had made nearly 500 appearances at the same age. But Martin Jnr's road from the terraces to the first-team was long and winding. It took him from Liverpool to Leicester, from Milton Keynes to Millwall.
He didn't even become a goalkeeper until the age of 14. "I was a centre-back at Tottenham at the time," he says. "I'd always been put in that position because of my dad. But whenever they needed a goalie, I'd always put my hand up. I loved it, diving at people's feet and the rest of it."
It wasn't easy telling his father that he wanted to change position - "it was a tough conversation," he says - but Martin Snr supported the decision and soon set him up with after-school coaching sessions with Les Sealy, West Ham's former goalkeeping coach. "That starting point with Les was the biggest help I've had from dad," he says.
Martin joined Wimbledon, who became MK Dons, and from there, only a few years after deciding to become a goalkeeper, he earned a move to Liverpool. "It was surreal," he says. "I was 19 and I remember going in on the first day and bumping into Steven Gerrard in the corridor."
It was a thrilling experience for a young player making his way in the game, but his time on Merseyside was not without its challenges.
"It was probably the toughest time of my career, mentally," says Martin.
"I was originally signed as a reserves goalkeeper, but they didn't have a goalkeeping coach for the reserves at the time, so a lot of it was training with the outfield players in possession drills and games. It was probably a blessing in disguise because it taught me to get my first touch right, to get into the right body position. But the first 18 months were really tough."
Loan spells at Accrington Stanley, Leicester and Tranmere followed, but Martin's persistence did not waver. There were occasional first-team appearances on the bench back at Liverpool, and it wasn't long before his progress was noticed by Rafael Benitez's goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero, who he has since been reunited with at West Ham.
"I went on the pre-season tour to Hong Kong in 2009, just by default because they had brought in a Bulgarian goalkeeper who couldn't get a work permit," he says. "After that, Xavi told Rafa to keep me on as third choice. It was tough - the standard was incredible - but that season changed it all for me. It put me in good stead for the rest of my career."
At the end of it, he returned to MK Dons on a permanent deal to become their No 1, staying there for seven seasons - "I loved my time at MK," he says - before joining Millwall in 2017. He made that move knowing he would be starting out as second choice - "a leap of faith," is how he describes it - but when he did finally get his chance near the end of last season, his performances were impressive enough to take him to West Ham.
Martin signed a two-year contract at the London Stadium in June, but once again he had to bide his time for an opportunity to play. When Lukasz Fabianski was sidelined by an injury in September, it was Roberto who initially got the nod. But the Spaniard's struggles soon opened the door for Martin to make his bow on that memorable night at Stamford Bridge, where his saves were vital in securing a 1-0 win.
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"Obviously my dad and my family were there, but I had friends in the stands too," he says. "It's my club and to be in front of those supporters shouting my name pretty much all the way through the game gave me goosebumps. When the final whistle went, I just thought, 'I've done it. We've won. And I've not let anyone down'."
Martin views the Chelsea game as the standout moment of his career so far, but he took just as much satisfaction from his second clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Southampton at St Mary's Stadium two weeks later. "That meant a lot to me as well, keeping another clean sheet at a time when we were under pressure," he says.
He is grateful to Manuel Pellegrini for giving him the chance.
"We played the Chelsea game on the Saturday and we were back in for training on the Sunday," he says. "I was on cloud nine. But when I was pulling my boots on to go out and train again, he sat down next to me and said, 'David, there's a saying in horse racing: any horse can win any race. The good horses win again and again'. It put the pressure back on me. I was always chasing that next clean sheet."
An unfortunately timed hip injury kept Martin out of West Ham's next few games. Fabianski has since returned to action and the club have also replaced Roberto with Darren Randolph to provide extra competition. But Martin remains an influential figure in the dressing room, his commitment and determination setting an example to the rest of the squad.
The goalkeeping line-up is not all that has at West Ham changed since Martin's last start. Pellegrini has been replaced by David Moyes and Randolph was not the only January signing. But Valero, who counts Real Madrid and Inter Milan among his former clubs as well as Liverpool, remains their goalkeeping coach and he has kept Martin busy during lockdown.
"Xavi is probably one of the best goalkeeping coaches in the world, and I'm not just saying that," he says. "He has kept on top of us, giving us things we need to review and things to work on. It's hard to train on your own as a goalkeeper because you can't exactly fire shots at yourself, unless you're kicking a ball against a wall, which isn't exactly realistic.
"But a lot of goalkeeping these days is about footwork and positioning. You can keep that stuff up on your own and I feel fit and sharp in that respect. When we do go back into contact training, whenever that may be, it will be interesting to see what sort of effect that has. I feel ready for it because of the work we have been doing."
It is likely to be Fabianski who starts in goal when the Premier League returns and West Ham resume their battle against relegation. But Martin will be ready when called upon and nothing will dampen his enthusiasm.
"Even now, I have to pinch myself when I go into training and drive past the West Ham badge," he says. "It's still a surreal feeling and it means so much to me and my family. I just want to enjoy every second of it."