From Boro to Belgium, via Iceland. The story of Gary Martin
Name: Gary Martin
Previous clubs: Middlesbrough, Ujpest, IA, Vendsyssel, KR, Vikingur, SK Lillestrøm
Current club: KSC Lokeren
Darlington-born striker Gary Martin look set to have a promising career in English football with his prolific displays in the Middlesbrough youth team. He carried that form on to the reserves, and in the summer of 2009 was training with the first team and featuring in a few pre-season friendlies. A loan opportunity arose with Ujpest in Hungary, before being released by ‘Boro in 2010. A disappointing time for any footballer, but Martin hasn’t looked back since.
Following on from his release Martin moved abroad and has since scored 69 goals in the Icelandic top flight, finishing as top score, featuring in the team of the year and also scoring in the Europa League. After a loan spell in Norway with SK Lillestrom under manager Runar Kristinsson, he then followed his manager to current club KSC Lokeren for their third spell together.
“My relationship with Kristinsson is very good. In Iceland he’s at the top of the tree. If he thinks you’re good then you’re good. I have the upmost respect for him so I’ll only give him 100%.”
Martin has only been in Belgium for a couple of months but it already a culture he has acclimatised to well. Not as much of a cultural shock as when he was in Iceland.
“Belgium’s not too bad, more like England than any other country I’ve played in so far. It was a bit tough in the beginning but my girlfriend is over here now.
When I arrived in Iceland I didn’t have a driving licence. A lot more people speak English here and I’m more grown up. Iceland was tougher too due to 24 hours of darkness in the winter and 24 hours of light in the summer.”
Martin is happy with the standard of football in the Belgian Pro League but is aware another move could always just be around the corner.
“I haven’t found the level of play too hard. I understand that contracts are shorter here than in England. If you play really well, they have to sell you. If you underperform, you run the risk of getting nothing.
For me the Belgian league is on a par with the English Championship and ideally I’d like to stay in Belgium for as long as I can if I don’t go higher.”
With Anderlecht and Genk into the Europa League Quarter Finals and Gent having only just been knocked out in the last round, it shows that the Belgian League certainly deserves more respect than is perhaps granted. Lokeren finished 11th out of a 16-team league, with the top 6 teams now heading into the end of season play-offs to decide the title but the other teams still compete in their own play-off system for a chance to compete in next season’s Europa League. (Think like the Scottish Premier League split, but a bit more complicated).
“You never know with playoffs. When you’ve got Gent, Genk and Standard Liege they need Europe. It maybe gives us the chance to play players who haven’t played much, looking towards next season. It’s difficult but not impossible (for Europa League) you never know.”
It’s interesting to discover how footballers like Gary Martin, brought up in the North East in his case end up travelling the world in the name of football, yet others are more than happy to linger in lower league football in England rather than seeking alternative opportunities.
Former Celtic player Willie McStay gave Martin his first taste of football overseas when he took him on loan to Hungarian outfit Ujpest and he still keeps in touch with him.
“Willie called me when we played Celtic in a Champions League qualifier and wished me good luck. I’ll never forget that. He had a massive influence on me. Top man. He tried to get me to Scotland when my contract at ‘Boro ended.”
Despite his success abroad, could a return to English football tempt Gary Martin?
“It depends. Personally, I like it here, but if the opportunity ever came up and was right for everyone, I’d love to play in Holland one day. I’ve lost my English mentality. I’d go to the Championship or a high League 1 side but I’d rather stay abroad.
But why aren’t there more players like Gary, and like the ones we’ve covered on Playing Away From Home that grab opportunities to play abroad, and compete in the top divisions in some great countries?
“I know why. They’re narrow minded. I wasn’t born into a lot of wealth, so when I could play abroad I jumped at it. I know players who are from England and now play in the Europa League in Scandinavia rather than League 2.”
Thanks to @MGGame89 for conducting the interview. Check out @walow_pbfl for more on Belgian football.
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