I see that some Norwich fans are busily writing off Russell Martin again.
Not good enough for the Premier League by all accounts and set to be, if we can believe the rumours, the fall guy in a defensive reshuffle over the summer that will see Robert Huth come in from Stoke to replace him.
No no no no NO.
I hope I’ve made my views clear on that possibility. No sitting on the fence. I don’t want Huth in and I don’t want, or expect, Martin to be dropped or relegated to the Canary side-lines.
Now, before I reel off all the usual and predictable plaudits about Russ – about what a nice bloke he is, how much everyone in and around the club loves him, how much he loves the club and would willingly give you his last Rolo – I’ll qualify all of those statements by saying that no, having all of those qualities isn’t enough to merit anyone a place in our first XI.
If it was, then Simon Lappin would still be here. He oozed niceness and charm, so much so that if a film was ever made about his life then the soundtrack would have to be by Abba and the King of Spain’s part would need to be played by Stephen Amell... with Morgan Freeman narrating.
Everyone loved him. And he, it would seem, loved us. Remember when he scored in one of his last appearances for us, in the League Cup tie against Scunthorpe? Feel the man love around the ground and the loving caresses he was given by his team-mates. The Barclay, normally a bastion of icy stares and grim countenance melted in response to Lapps’ goal.
It was chocolate box football.
Yet Lapps don’t live here no more.
Russ is different. He’s more than just the square of his black pants, a twinkle in his eye and a nice smile.
He’s also just happens to be a bloody good footballer.
He was good enough for Paul Lambert. And Chris Hughton. Neil Adams as well.
Whilst Alex Neil, a man whose glare is so terrifying it is, along with Kryptonite, one of only two things in the known Universe deadly enough to be able to defeat Superman, has made no secret of his admiration for Martin, nor the faith he has in him as a man, player and captain.
Neil made Martin his confidante upon his arrival at Norwich and, as Martin went on to explain, has enough faith in him to share his thoughts on the team and how things are done.
Speaking to Herald Scotland, Russ said the following about his manager:
“He pulls me aside at times as the captain of the team to speak about things … he’s been really good for me as its clear he wants an open relationship with his captain … he’s taken my opinions on board and those of the other senior players.”
Do you think Neil would make that sort of personal and professional investment in Martin, or indeed any of his players if they were, just as Lappin was with Paul Lambert when he arrived, a player who was on borrowed time with the club?
No, me neither.
What with that and Martin’s three seasons of Premier League experience, I think it’s very safe to assume that, come August, Russ will still be captain, will still wear the number 5 on the back of his shirt and be as close to an automatic pick under Neil’s management as it is for any player to be, form and fitness allowing.
What’s not so certain is who he might be playing alongside, especially if Seb Bassong, who’ll turn 29 in the summer, gets a chance to return to France after seven years spent living and playing in England.
That’s a possibility I certainly wouldn’t write off, though I’d much prefer Seb to stay.
When he is on his game, the man is a class act, he really is. I remember his debut against QPR at Carrow Road when he stood under a high ball that had been delivered by West London’s finest artillery into our defence.
He stood and waited for it to descend through the stratosphere, nearing terminal velocity as it did so whilst, with baited and nervous breath, we inhabitants of the River End neglected our flasks and wine gums for a few seconds, memories of Gary Docherty in similar situations etched forever on our minds as we did so.
Memories that might have induced the odd nip of something reassuring from yours or someone else’s hip flask.
Yet, as the ball completed its drop, Seb sent out an athletic thigh to both kill its speed and bring it under control, letting it drop to his feet before, after an imperious stride or two, passing (passing the ball I tell you) out of defence, straight to the feet of an astonished Anthony Pilkington.
So shocked was Pilks at the level of skill shown by Bassong he had an attack of the vapours and had to miss our next three games.
A ripple of applause spread throughout the River End in response. And rightly so. Not for Bassong the mis-timed clearance or the header out of play. Kill the ball, control it, pass it to a teammate. And all in one easy movement.
We’d been used to Michael Nelson just killing the ball in previous years. This was all new stuff. A centre half who could play. Sod the wine gums, break out the Werthers Originals.
Russ and Seb. Are they the new Watson and Bruce? Or even a new Forbes and Stringer?
Well no, of course not. And neither are they likely to be. Big Duncan ruled the Norwich defence at a time when centre-halves spent as much time kicking their opponents as they did the ball – and sometimes further. They were big, tough and gnarly. They didn’t take any prisoners. They were, in short, hard bastards, the immovable object there to repel the irresistible force of opponents who dared to enter their territory.
Remember that famous picture of Dave Mackay and Billy Bremner?
Now Mackay was a good player. A great one in fact. But don’t let that hide the fact he was harder than nails. Much much harder. As was another centre half of his era, Liverpool’s Ron Yeats.
Bill Shankly described him as a ‘colossus’, both in character and build. Indeed, after he’d signed for Liverpool, Shankly invited the gathering of admiring journalists there to witness his new signing to “take a walk around him.”
Leeds had Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter. Chelsea had John Dempsey and Ron Harris whilst we had Big Duncan and Dave Stringer. As hard as they come. One journalist said of Forbes that he “…got his customary booking; the referee ought to take his name in the changing room rather than on the pitch thus saving time.”
But being booked was part of Duncan’s job. It meant, more often than not, he’d had a good game. And, for a centre half back then, that meant stopping the opposing team from playing. By whatever means possible.
And sometimes, that even meant playing a little football. But just a little.
The game isn’t like that now. As great players as these giants of the 1970s were, they’d struggle in today’s playing environment. The game is faster, the players are fitter.
And the ball spends a hell of a lot more time on the ground.
Put it another way, can you imagine Russell Martin taking centre stage in a contemporary version of that famous Mackay/Bremner photo next season, one that shows him grabbing David Silva or Theo Walcott in such a threatening manner?
Nope, me neither. And just as well. It would be like watching the late Queen Mother mug someone.
Centre-halves play a different game these days. They need to be comfortable on the ball, to be able to play it out of defence with it at their feet rather than via a mighty kick of the same, and they need great positional and tactical awareness as, playing in the position they do, they have the whole of the field of play in their field of vision.
It is, in short, the best seat in the house, the one that lets you see not only what is happening in the game at any given time but what might be about to happen.
You can’t do that so well at right-back as you are far too busy being part of the game, a busy and oft-raiding participant rather than a fairly stable observer with less territory to roam and, as a result of that, much more time to watch what is going on around you.
And that is, I reckon, one of the reasons he has switched to playing as a centre half from right back.
Because it makes his job as captain easier. It’s also why, for a time, Seb took the armband as well. And its why so many of the leading sides today are, or have been, led by their centre-halves. And how.
During the 2013/14 season, our last in the Prem, only five of the twenty Premier League teams were captained by players who weren’t centre halves.
Football matches might be won and lost in midfield these days – they may well be the great battlefields of the modern game – but their destinies are, all too often, shaped by those players who, rather like Wellington at Waterloo, have the benefit of being able to sit back and watch it all taking place.
Players like Russell Martin.
Yes, Russ has moments he’d rather forget. But then Ron Vlaar has been valued at around £20 million by Aston Villa and he looked like someone who’d made his way out onto the pitch by mistake in the FA Cup Final.
And as for Gary Cahill? Well, England’s first choice centre-half he may well be, but don’t tell me you never get nervous watching him when he’s playing in an international.
He can be like Baresi one minute and Bambi the next.
The role and the responsibility of the modern day centre-half is enormous. The role is high profile, as is that of many of the men who play in that position – John Terry for example. And there are those who might cite him as an example of what centre-halves used to be like: big, tough, uncompromising and overtly physical.
Do me a favour. Chelsea had that in Ron Harris. Harris would have eaten Terry for breakfast; then and, even now at the age of 70, today.
Terry’s popular reputation for being no-nonsense and all blood, sweat and tears is a clever marketing ruse propelled by the man himself and his acolytes. But it isn’t true. He’s far more of a footballer than anyone would ever give him credit for. And England miss him.
Just as Norwich would miss Russell Martin if he was deemed to be no longer worthy of his place next season for the simple fact that he isn’t a Robert Huth. And indeed he isn’t. He’s much better than that.
Much, much better.