Russell Martin: People, purpose (and possession) at MK Dons
Written by Simon Austin — July 22, 2021
IN just 20 months, Russell Martin has marked himself out as one of the most interesting and original English managers in the game.
There's the style of play, with MK Dons team ranking third in Europe (behind only Barcelona and Manchester City) for average possession last season, as well as setting a new record for the number of consecutive passes leading to a goal (56 against Gillingham at Priestfield in March).
But there's more to the 35-year-old's leadership approach than that. Martin was our guest on #28 of the TGG Podcast and during the course of 45 minutes the conversation covered Buddhism, politics, playing without fear, work-life balance and the importance of sticking to Plan A.
Youngest manager in the Football League
(In November 2019, Martin was appointed as the new manager of MK Dons. At the age of 31, he was the youngest boss in the Football League).
Russell Martin: I think the opportunity was given to me because they felt I was prepared. I’m really fortunate to be doing it at such a young age but the chairman knew I was on the journey in terms of the coaching badges and when the job became available it was the staff and players who gave the endorsement for me to get it.
During my playing career I'd set myself a target of finishing all my badges by the time I was 35, which thankfully I did. I'd written down stuff throughout my career - I took notes of sessions, how the manager spoke and was really interested in leadership in general.
We went into the job in a relegation zone and I'd been part of the playing squad as well. I’d been in the dressing room with the guys as a player and really loved the group we had.
I’m really consistent with my emotion, but we lost the first four games. That was tough, but you have to try and keep everyone believing in the process, while at the same time trying to find ways to win.
You just try and be yourself. I’ve got a real strong belief in how I want the game to be played, how I see it, what I enjoy.
Seeing the bigger picture during lockdown
(On March 13th 2020 the season was suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Eventually it was curtailed, with the league decided on a points-per-game basis).
What I was really fortunate with was the first lockdown. The season stopped - which no-one wanted - but it gave me a lot of time to reflect early on in my career. That was time to reflect on what worked really well, what was challenging, what we needed to get better at and it really helped.
We asked some difficult questions. We’re working hard, but are we working smart enough? Have we given the players too much information at times? How are we going to condition them mentally and physically for the way we want to play?
The biggest reflection of all was am I leading how I said I would? Am I enjoying it enough? How can I enjoy it more and be more me? How can I make it all the things I said I would when I was writing notes about other managers as a player?
For me, it’s all about purpose and people. I’m not there just because I want to stay in football, I’m there because I want to really try and create something I and everyone involved loves being a part of and will look back at the end of their career and go, ‘that was brilliant.’
Football has an incredible way of bringing people together and sharing huge emotions. I don’t know of many other businesses where you can have such highs and lows within a week. If you achieve something, you remember that forever.
The day we part ways I hope everyone says, 'That was brilliant. We enjoyed ourselves and we stood for something.' That's important.
So we analyse, learn, practice and perform and then repeat. In football games come quickly and it's tough and intense, but let’s not lose track of the big picture. If you don’t enjoy it, then why are we doing it?
Having difficult conversations
Every player will tell you at the end of their career that they got frustrated with managers telling them one thing and doing something else. Some of the conversations I had with players early on as a manager genuinely made me feel sick.
But as uncomfortable as it is at times, in the long run its better to be really honest with players and staff. One of the biggest reflections during lockdown was about the conversations with players. Actually, that pain from some of the conversations is worth it.
You need to be honest and direct, but in a way that shows empathy and compassion and try to explain it as much as possible.
Sticking to Plan A
(In a pre-match press conference on March 8th this year, Martin was asked whether his side needed to adopt a Plan B instead of relying on their possession-based game. In response, the manager launched a passionate defence of his side’s approach).
I felt the point they (the journalists) were getting at was to stop passing. 'Get a big striker on, get it in the box.' I kept getting asked about it, which is why I went really strong.
It was about making sure the players knew that I really believed in them doing it this way and that the people outside the group - the fans, the board - knew this is how we’re doing it.
There isn't one way of playing, that wasn’t the point I was getting to. We have a Plan A because we really believe in it. There’s going to be pain, because it’s a big change and a lot of the players haven’t played this way before, but if we really believe in it and enjoy the process, let’s stick with it.
I said that if I get sacked at least I will do it doing it my way and I’ll be comfortable with that. Plan B suggests doing it completely differently. If you watch our team, we tweak it all the time - we change the formation, we change the way we do things in certain games depending on the opposition - but we are passing the ball a lot, we are trying to dominate possession.
We had the most touches in the opposition box in the league last season, but we didn’t always turn that into good chances and conceded too many early goals, so we worked on that and it stopped happening towards the end of the season.
It’s a process, but at no point did we say, 'Lads, we’re not good enough to do this.’ Because where do you go from there?
We have a real identity and I’m really proud of it. We’ll improve next season again and we’ll do that with Plan A, tweaking it and adapting it and trying to do it really well.
What we have now is a group of players who fully understand the why, who really buy into how we do it and what it’s going to take to get them there.
Towards the second half of the season I think we had the third best form in the league. It was reaffirming my trust in the process. Ignore the noise, trust the process and enjoy the journey.
The players are all in, I’m all in, we’ll make it work.
Playing without fear
For me, it’s about making sure everyone’s enjoying it. We’re all in it because, fundamentally, we loved playing football as kids.
Over a period of years you get a bit of fear coached into you. You’re getting criticised, you have to develop a thick skin and you switch off a bit emotionally. After all that you can lose your way a bit and it’s really important that doesn’t happen here.
Fear gets drilled into people - the fear of making a mistake, of not getting a new contract, of getting taken out of the team, the fear of injury - and there’s just too much.
Everyone that makes it to a first-team environment and plays a certain number of games has learned to survive. But too many just survive and forget to actually enjoy themselves and show what they can really do. It’s the biggest frustration for me in football.
There are too many that get to the end of their careers and go, ‘I wish I’d played with a bit more freedom, I wish I’d enjoyed that a bit more, I wish I hadn’t taken that for granted.’
A really high percentage of players would say the same. So we’re constantly trying to remind our players, ‘Guys, you need to enjoy this; you’re all here because you love the game.’
I was too intense as a player, which was part of the reason why I got where I did. But it's also why, in my mid twenties, that I was like, ‘I’m not enjoying this anywhere near enough.’
When I learned to relax I played much better. Being able to zoom in and zoom out is important. When you’re here at the training ground, this is it, laser focus. When you’re at home, relax and zoom out.
That’s why I’m so excited for our group of young players. I really feel there are so many in there that have huge potential. It’s just about getting them to believe in themselves as much as we do and taking that fear away when they step over the white line.
When I was going through my coaching badges and talking to people I thought, 'It can’t be too hard to get a balance.’ But it is.
Being a manager is so full on, so intense. It’s not only the players, it’s everything around it - talking to the people above you on the board, the directors, the chairman, your staff, your colleagues.
There were times, especially really early on at MK Dons, when we were in such a tough position that you feel you have to give it everything. If you want to be successful it takes a lot of hard work, but I never want to be that guy who doesn’t have any balance or isn’t present with their kids.
It’s something I’ve worked really hard on over the last few months especially. Sunday is our one real full day off during the week, so I’ve started leaving my phone in a drawer when we’re going out to kids’ football or to the beach and dealing with it later on when the kids are in bed.
Before you know it they’re going to be grown up and I don’t want to look back on it with any regrets. I genuinely believe that when we get to the end the most important thing we’ll look back on are connections and relationships.
To sacrifice that would be pretty short term and sad. I’m all in with the football, but when it’s time to switch off it’s time to switch off.
My brother practiced Buddhism for a long time and he still does. When I say practice, I mean meditation, chanting daily.
I was quite fascinated by it too and it was something I did quite a lot throughout my career, in terms of visualisation, manifestation, goal setting.
It started by reading this book (The Buddha, Geoff and Me), which is about a guy who’s at a low point and meets Geoff. No-one would realise that Geoff practices Buddhism - he smokes, he drinks and is just a good guy. But then they start talking and realise how much value he’s got to add to other people.
It’s a brilliant book. I read a lot of it and thought, 'This makes a lot of sense.'
It’s not monks sitting there in silence, it’s Buddhism for the modern day world. Cause and effect, karmic retribution. You can read any self-development books and they'll say the same thing - what you put out is what you get back.
If you are giving positivity to people, if you have altruistic intentions and it’s not for your own ego, then eventually when you need it you’re going to get it back.
I try to teach that to my kids that now - about being kind, about having compassion for people, about respecting people, about trying not to be judgemental.
Everyone has been on a journey. The more hard times you’ve been through the more potential for beauty. When I relate it to football, some of these guys at MK Dons are from really tough backgrounds and it’s about trying to allow them to flourish and reach their potential.
It’s about maximising potential through being a good human being. You’re also allowed to have dreams and taking time to think about them and really visualise them.
It’s something I talk to our players about that a lot. Manifestation is huge. Jim Carrey wrote himself a cheque for $10m for acting services rendered and four or five years later he got a $10m cheque for The Mask. I really believe in that stuff.
Learning from adversity
As a player, during that period at the end of my career at Norwich, it was frustrating. But when you put your ego to one side you’re really grateful.
I respected Daniel Farke’s decision that he wanted to go with younger players and in a different direction because that’s football, that’s life. The way (Sporting Director) Stuart Webber dealt with it and how he handled me - because of what he felt I’d given the club over the years - was fantastic.
One of Stuart’s best traits is he’s a doer and gets things done. He’s brutally honest with people, but everyone knows where they stand from day one. I really enjoyed working with him and still speak to him now for advice. We have a good relationship and we’ve had a few players on loan here from Norwich.
That was the first time in my career that I’d not been playing, I wasn’t training with the first-team squad and spent the last six months training and trying to help Matt Gill as much as possible with the Under-23s.
I took a lot from it, in terms of dealing with disappointment, in terms of trying to add as much value as possible to the 23s and not being the old bitter pro I had come across a few times earlier on in my career.
We had guys in the U23s like Max Aarons, Todd Cantwell, Adam Idah, it was a brilliant group. By this point I was on my LMA Diploma, had finished my A Licence and knew that management was what I wanted to do.
I see that period of time as the most beneficial to me, in terms of leadership, the importance of strong culture and how I would do things when I became a manager.
Life outside football
I was a really strict vegan for five or six years and now I go in and out. I don’t eat meat, ever. I don’t eat cheese, I don’t drink milk. Sometimes if someone has a nice piece of fish on the barbecue I might have some of that and then for six weeks I’ll be, 'Oh no, what have I done?'
I dabble with some eggs every now and again.
I still get jokes about the Green Party thing but I just lost faith in the two big parties. If you look at the way the country’s been run for however long, I think it’s going to be quite a scary place.
We lack leaders with empathy and emotional intelligence. Caroline Lucas, the MP down here, has unbelievable values and morals. I’m not a warrior, I don’t go shouting about veganism and politics, but if the people and purpose is good, I try and support that.
We discuss it as a staff a lot. We watched a lot of the Trump stuff, instead of Sky Sports News, which seems to be on at whichever club you go to, including here. Why would we not be interested in the world and how people are going to be treated?
You see a lot of footballers now who are involved in other things. If it can make them better people, and make them a more rounded human being, I think that can only be a good thing.