Russell Martin interview: Taking Southampton to the Premier League would mean everything

23 May 2024, 15:22 | Updated: 23 May 2024, 16:48

Among all the chaos of preparing for the biggest game of your managerial career, there has still been some calm within the storm for Russell Martin.

For a manager so used to the rigours of the EFL, having more than a week with your whole squad to prepare for a single game is a very, very rare thing.

"If we had this every week it would be beautiful!" he tells Sky Sports with a smile.

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"That time you get on the grass is the best part of the job for me. It's a big motivation to get there personally, with this team and club.

"It would definitely be one of the perks of getting to the Premier League - having that time to train and to work and try some really crazy stuff on the training pitch.

"The dream is to put this team out on the biggest stage every week, to show what they can do and how brave they can be. Now we're just one game from doing that."

That game, of course, is the biggest game of all. The Championship play-off final at Wembley, which will see Martin's Southampton and Leeds United go toe-to-toe for a place in next season's Premier League.

Martin, still just 38, knows that while most things can stay the same, the preparation simply has to be tweaked.

"There won't be any different messages to any other game this season and we'll train the same way," he says.

"But we can't pretend it's a normal game otherwise, because it isn't. It's a huge occasion and that has to come into the thinking, because we have to prepare the players for that."

It has been a strange season in some ways for Martin and Southampton. Picking a club up off the floor is not always easy, and a total of 87 points they collected would get you promoted automatically in some seasons. For them to finish fourth with that tally is unprecedented.

Martin remains proud of what they've achieved.

"I presume most people would see finishing fourth in this league with Southampton as a failure," he says.

"But we were worse than the two teams who came down last season with us, we had three different managers and we had to sell players.

"I was delighted with the squad we had, but of course there would be some level of damage and hurt caused by the relegation. I'm really proud of what we achieved this season."

Martin's pride is also rooted in his belief that he is at a club to develop people, as well as players. It is a mentality that has seen him remain so popular at his old clubs as a player and manager - particularly at his most recent club Swansea, where he is still loved despite their failure to make the play-offs in his two seasons there.

"The people whose opinions I care about are those who know us and understand us," he says. "The fact we have so many people coming from Swansea to Wembley means a lot to me. It shows we had some level of connection there that went beyond the results and football. I hope it will be the same here.

"I have so much love and gratitude for the players and staff here, so if you can achieve that connection and win as well, it has to be the ultimate, really.

"I do what feels right for me, and that's to care and give as much as I can to people. That's always my intention. All I want to do is help develop players as people and footballers as best as I can."

The conversation naturally turns to the final again. In the opposing dugout will be Daniel Farke, the man who effectively ended Martin's time at Norwich while he was captain of the club.

It is not in Martin's nature, however, to treat it as any kind of drama or subplot. He doesn't believe it will make much difference to proceedings at Wembley.

"I've gone up against Paul Lambert and Alex Neil, too," he says. "It's always good catching up with my old managers.

"I didn't play for Daniel very much, so it's not quite the same as those guys, but I respect what he's done with Norwich and now Leeds. The work he's done at this level has been outstanding.

"You can know a bit about their work and their process, but I'm sure it's developed a lot and evolved since I played for him, because everyone does over time.

"Ultimately though it's not about us, it's about the teams, and whoever can manage the emotion and the occasion, and who has the best gameplan and carries it out."

What he does have on his record is two wins against Leeds this season already in the regular campaign. He does, however, also dismiss this in terms of importance - citing the fact that the other two EFL play-off finals were won by sides that hadn't beaten their opponents previously - Oxford and then Crawley.

"The two other games have shown it doesn't really matter, because the occasion takes over," Martin says. "The players know they can do it, but Leeds will also want to show they can.

"But whatever happens we'll do it together. We'll try and be the team we want to be, and leave nothing out there. If we do that there'll be no regrets."

Martin has won promotion himself as a captain, leading Norwich to Wembley victory in 2015. To do it as a manager, would mean simply everything.

"The responsibility of leading this club is big anyway, so to do it at Wembley is huge," he says. "I feel so grateful right now, I love what I do and who I do it with. It's a huge privilege, but I want to make it really memorable by winning.

"I get emotional thinking about it now because it would be incredible, the biggest achievement of my life outside of being a father, and one of the best days of my life.

"The memories and the moments we could create would mean everything. All the stuff afterwards that would come from it, like becoming a Premier League manager, would be secondary to that. It's about what you can make people feel."

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