Milton Keynes Dons manager Russell Martin is one of six in League One about to start his first full season in management, and he has the distinction of being the youngest in the division at 34. However, he has already achieved more in those 34 years than most players achieve in a lifetime, with a string of successes on and off the field. Not many have the opportunity to play almost 600 professional games, earn 29 international caps, win five promotions, start their own charitable foundation and have their own restaurant by their mid-thirties.
Born in Brighton on 4 January 1986 (the day Phil Lynott died, for the rock fans out there), versatile defender Russell Kenneth Alexander Martin played youth football for Varndean College and Woodingdean Youth before a spell with Brighton & Hove Albion’s academy. The 2003-04 season was to prove very interesting: he appeared in the FA Youth Cup and also played regularly for England Schools at U18 level. Of interest to Lincoln fans is that the England squad also included future City midfielder Tom Champion. Martin was released by Brighton in mid-season at the age of 17, and signed for Isthmian League club Lewes for the second half of the season where he appeared for their U18 side. He had the distinction of appearing in the match played to celebrate the centenary of the English Schools FA against the Rest of the World at Villa Park on 8 May 2004, which finished 2-2 in front of 8,000. A number of clubs offered trials after that game, and in July 2004 he signed for League Two Wycombe Wanderers on a monthly contract.
Wycombe had just been relegated from League One under former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams and were looking to bounce straight back. Martin made his debut on the opening day of the 2004-05 season as a late substitute in the 2-1 home win over Cambridge, and made his first Football League start in the 1-0 home defeat by Yeovil on 6 November. That game proved significant because Adams resigned three days later with Wycombe well off the pace in seventeenth. His replacement John Gorman brought in some new players and did not select Martin for the first team again until April. Wycombe eventually finished tenth, and Martin was given a permanent two-year contract. In 2005-06 he did not appear in the first team until October, after which he became a permanent fixture in the side. Wycombe had a great start to the season, their only defeat in their first nineteen games being an astonishing 8-3 home defeat by Aston Villa in the League Cup after leading 3-2 with 25 minutes to go. He scored his first goal in a 5-4 home defeat to Macclesfield on 2 January 2006, but the season went wrong with six successive defeats in March and April. Wycombe went on to finish sixth, but the play-offs ended with a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Cheltenham in the semi-final.
Manager Gorman resigned in May after the unfortunate death of his wife, and was replaced by former Scotland international Paul Lambert. Wycombe got off to a great start in 2006-07, with eight successive wins in all competitions in August and September taking the side to the top of League Two. League form fell away as the season progressed, but one of the reasons for that was a great run to the semi-final of the League Cup where they met Chelsea. Wycombe drew the first leg 1-1 at Adams Park, but a side containing Lampard, Drogba, Shevchenko, Cole, Mikel, Essien, Ballack and Makelele coasted to a 4-0 victory in the second leg. Wycombe remained in the play-off places until mid-February, but a run of only one win from their final thirteen games saw them finish twelfth. Wycombe remained in contention for the play-offs for the whole of the 2007-08 season before eventually finishing seventh, a massive nine points clear of eighth-placed Chesterfield. Unfortunately, the play-offs ended in disappointment for Martin for the second time, with a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Stockport.
Martin’s own personal stock was rising by this time, and on 29 May 2008 he signed for ambitious League One club Peterborough United on a three-year contract. He made a total of 142 appearances for Wycombe, scoring five goals. Peterborough had just been promoted from League Two under manager Darren Ferguson, and it was to prove a great move for Martin. Having been named captain in September, they swept straight through League One, securing automatic promotion in the penultimate game at Colchester. The Championship in 2009-10 was to prove much tougher, and Ferguson departed in November with the side bottom of the table with only two wins to their name. A couple of weeks later on 25 November, Martin joined League One Norwich City on loan. Norwich were managed by Paul Lambert, Martin’s old manager from Wycombe, and were challenging strongly for promotion back to the Championship after relegation in May. Martin made his debut in a 3-0 win at Southend on 1 December, and Norwich won five and drew one of Martin’s six games on loan. It was no surprise when the move was made permanent on 4 January 2010, his 24th birthday, and it was the start of a nine-year association. Norwich coasted to the League One title with a club record 95 points, Martin’s second promotion in successive years.
If that season was a good one, 2010-11 was to be even better. Quickly dubbed ‘The Norfolk Cafu’ by supporters, Martin was ever-present as Norwich went straight up to the Premier League at the first attempt. Legendary status was secured when he scored in the 5-1 win at neighbours Ipswich as they closed in on second place. It was Martin’s third promotion in successive seasons. It was also the season when he became an international footballer. Eligible to play for Scotland through his Glasgow-born father, he had been on the edge of a call-up by Scotland U21 that never came. However, he was called up for the full Scotland squad under somewhat strange circumstances: he had just landed in Las Vegas with his Norwich team mates for a celebratory holiday in May 2011 when he received the phone call, and had to fly home two days later. He made his full international debut on 25 May 2011 in a Nations Cup match against Wales at the Aviva Stadium (Lansdowne Road) in Dublin, appearing as an 81st-minute substitute in a 3-1 win.
Any fears of a struggle in the Premier League in 2011-12 were quickly dispelled. Martin made his Premier League debut in a 1-1 draw at Wigan on the opening day, and the side settled into a position in mid-table. A poor run of two wins from twelve games towards the end of the season saw them eventually finish twelfth, still a good return for their first season back in the top flight. Manager Lambert resigned on 2 June to take over at Aston Villa, and was replaced by Chris Hughton. Norwich got off to a poor start in 2012-13, and were in the bottom two at the start of October before an excellent run of six wins and four draws took them into the top half. A low point came on 26 January 2013 when Martin was part of the Norwich side beaten 1-0 at home by Conference side Luton in the FA Cup fourth round, the first top-flight team to lose to a non-league side since 1989. League form also tailed away, and Norwich needed a 4-0 win over West Brom in their penultimate game to secure safety.
On 14 August 2013 Martin appeared in Scotland’s exciting 3-2 defeat to England, his first appearance at Wembley, and watched by the highest crowd of his career at 80,485. Of interest to Lincoln fans is the presence of former goalkeeper Matt Gilks on the Scotland bench that day. On his return to Carrow Road from international duty, he was appointed captain for the season. Norwich got off to a poor start in 2013-14, and a 7-0 defeat to Manchester City left them in the bottom three at the start of November. Form was inconsistent, but survival seemed likely after a 2-0 win over Sunderland at the end of March lifted them to thirteenth. Two defeats led to the sacking of Hughton on 6 April, but Norwich were still five points clear with five to play. Three more defeats under new manager Neil Adams and an unexpected revival by Sunderland left Norwich needing a miracle, and they were relegated following a 2-0 home defeat by Arsenal on the final day. It was the first relegation of Martin’s career. It was also in 2014 that Martin became a vegan after suffering from persistent ulcerative colitis. It was a change that would have a wider effect on his life, as we shall see later.
Norwich started the 2014-15 season as favourites for promotion back to the Premier League, and six wins and two draws from their first nine games took them to the top of the Championship table. One win in ten games then saw them slip back to eleventh, and Adams was replaced by Hamilton manager Alex Neil at the start of January. Norwich won seventeen of their remaining twenty-five games to finish third, and a 4-2 aggregate win over Ipswich in the play-off semi-final took them to Wembley to face Middlesbrough. Early goals from Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond took Norwich back to the Premier League at the first attempt, and Martin had the fourth promotion of his career. He was also named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year for 2014-15.
The side struggled in the early stages of 2015-16, hovering just above the relegation zone for the majority of the season. On 31 October Martin received the first and only red card of his career when he was sent off for handball in the 88th-minute of the match at Manchester City; Yaya Touré converted the penalty to win the game 2-1. One point from nine games throughout January and February put them in the bottom three, and despite a couple of wins at the end of March, they were relegated with a game remaining.
Martin began to take his coaching badges around this time, and was working towards his UEFA A Licence when he decided to set up his own football academy near his home in Brighton. Opening in June 2016 in Southwick, the academy was originally for children between the ages of 5 and 16. Since then it has expanded into the Russell Martin Foundation, a registered charity with the wider aim of using football and education to change lives. Former Lincoln midfielder Sergio Torres was appointed head coach, and remains there to this day.
An immediate return to the Premier League was the sole aim in 2016-17, and Norwich made a good start. A 3-1 win over Rotherham took them to the top in mid-October, but an inexplicable run of eight defeats from ten games dropped them to twelfth. Norwich never really recovered, and Alex Neil was sacked in March. Caretaker Alan Irvine oversaw an improvement including a 7-1 win over Reading, but Norwich still finished a disappointing eighth. Borussia Dortmund coach Daniel Farke was appointed manager at the end of May 2017, and Martin signed a new contract during the summer. However, Russell Martin’s days were to be numbered due to Farke’s alleged preference for players under the age of 30. He started the 2017-18 season in the side, but was substituted during a 4-0 defeat at Millwall at the end of August and never played for Norwich again. On 16 January 2018, he joined Glasgow Rangers on loan until the end of the season, but by Martin’s own admission it was not a good move. Rangers were undergoing yet another period of internal turmoil, and he returned to Norwich in May.
On 3 June 2018, he made his 29th and final appearance for Scotland in a 1-0 defeat to World Cup-bound Mexico in front of 70,993 at the Aztec Stadium. It was a far cry from the 6,036 who witnessed his first international cap against Wales in Dublin seven years earlier. Firmly out of Daniel Farke’s plans, Martin’s contract with Norwich was terminated by mutual consent on 31 August 2018 after a period playing with the U23 side. He became a free agent after making 309 appearances for Norwich, scoring 17 goals. After an unsuccessful trial with West Brom, he signed for League One Walsall on 19 October as player-coach until the end of the season. It was to prove a short stay, leaving by mutual consent on 12 January 2019 and citing too much time away from his family in Brighton as the reason. Three days later he signed for League Two side MK Dons until the end of the season, and helped them to win promotion with a 1-0 win over rivals Mansfield on the final day of the season. It was the fifth promotion of Martin’s career. A week later he was back at Carrow Road to captain a side in an exhibition match to celebrate his former club Norwich’s Championship title win. Proceeds from a crowd of almost 20,000 were donated to the Russell Martin Foundation and to charities chosen by his opposing captain Wes Hoolahan.
Martin continued as a player with MK Dons into the 2019-20 season and appeared regularly until 2 November 2019 when manager Paul Tisdale was sacked. Already working towards his UEFA Pro Licence, Martin was appointed manager the following day and immediately retired from playing. In total, he clocked up 572 appearances during his sixteen-year playing career, scoring 28 goals. MK Dons were fourth from the bottom of League One at the time, and the job was simply to keep the side up. Despite a tough season, they were five points clear of relegation when coronavirus brought everything to a premature end in March 2020.
And so Russell Martin is about to start his first full season as a manager after a distinguished career both on and off the field. No one knows at this point how he will fare, but he does hold the League Managers Association diploma in football management (2019) in addition to working towards the Pro Licence. And should he discover that football management is not for him in the longer term, he has a wealth of other interests with which to replace it. Further to his involvement with the Russell Martin Foundation, he also part-owns vegan restaurant Erpingham House, which has branches in Brighton and Norwich. His enforced veganism in 2014 has since branched into a wider interest in the concept, which has also led to him becoming a keen supporter of the Green Party.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and play-offs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure.
If you haven’t already had a go at our quizzes, this is a great way to learn some random information about the Football Club, as well as helping us generate much-needed page views: Quiz No.1, Quiz No.2, Quiz No.3, Quiz No.4, Quiz No.5, Quiz No.6, Quiz No.7, Quiz No.8, Quiz No.9, Quiz No.10, Quiz No.11, Quiz No.12, Quiz No.13, Quiz No.14, Quiz No.15, Quiz No.16, Quiz No.17, Quiz No.18, Quiz No.19, Quiz No.20, Quiz No.21, Quiz No.22, Quiz No.23, Quiz No.24, Quiz No.25, Quiz No.26, Quiz No.27, Quiz No.28, Quiz No.29 and Quiz No.30.
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