Lee Martin sees his one Premier League appearance for Manchester United as a token gesture from Sir Alex Ferguson, but he knows he’s lucky to have it to his name.
Martin joined United as a 16-year-old after coming through at Wimbledon, and he would go on to spend more than five and a half years on the books at Old Trafford, during which time they won the Premier League three seasons in a row.
However, despite impressing for the youth and reserve teams at United, Martin made just three appearances for the first team before leaving to join Ipswich in 2009.
It is hardly what Martin would have had in mind when United fought off interest from other major clubs to sign him in a potential £1million deal to sign him in 2003.
Nor did it look likely early on in his United career when he was named on the bench for Champions League group games against Benfica and Lille in 2005, even though Martin himself never expected to come on.
“I think it was a reward for playing well in the reserves,” he says. “I don’t think there was any chance I was ever going to come on as we had such a strong squad at the time, it was more of an added bonus to say ‘well done’.”
Martin’s first appearance for United would soon come, however, as his impressive progress saw him handed a start in a League Cup tie against Barnet.
“We got some inkling we were going to be playing. I remember getting the heads up from Brian McClair on the Friday before the game on the Tuesday. It was surreal to go out there in front of 40,000 or so to make my debut at Old Trafford.”
Martin, one of three debutants on the night, impressed, with the Manchester Evening News saying he ‘revelled in the extra space he found on the right wing’ before going off injured – but he wouldn’t play for the club again for almost four years.
Rather than stay in the reserves as many of his contemporaries did, Martin opted to head out on loan. He went on to do so on six separate occasions, playing for the likes of Antwerp, Glasgow Rangers and Stoke City, and now believes being away from Old Trafford for such a long period may have harmed his chances of breaking into the first team.
“I wanted to go out and get games under my belt as at that stage, as good as reserve football was I was coming to the tail end of whether or not it was beneficial, and people were saying I needed to go out and get minutes to help me in the future.
“Maybe if I’d stuck at it at United things would have been different. Just look at Darron Gibson who stayed on and got minutes a couple of years later due to injuries. I think Tom Cleverley was the same, and their careers have turned out a bit different.
“Maybe going out on loan a bit too much. When you’re not their player you’re not looked after so much.
“You’re going from academy football where everything is nicey nice, everything is on the floor, passing and moving, so when you’re going into the real game, the ball’s going over your head, long balls, and it’s a man’s game, I found it difficult and needed a lot of time to adapt to that from a team where it was almost total football.”
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Martin’s first spell out on loan was actually a great success, however, when he headed to Belgium to join United’s feeder club Royal Antwerp alongside Tom Heaton and Danny Simpson.
“Antwerp was probably my most enjoyable loan as that was a similar style of football to what I was used to,” he says. “On the continent, even though the football wasn’t the highest standard, it was something me and the other boys who went over were used to.
“I blended in quite well as we wanted to pass and move as that’s what we were doing at United reserves. We benefitted from that rather than going straight into the typical British way of playing.
“It was also good as it made you grow up, having to go away from your family and experience something different, living in a hotel. Our only family was the four or five boys who were out there at the time so it made us grow up and really matured a lot of the boys early on.”
Nearly three and a half years after heading out on that first loan spell, Martin eventually made his United league debut against Hull City on the final day of the season in 2009.
He had been back impressing for the reserves for a few months, but by now he had given up hope of establishing himself for the Red Devils and, sure enough, was sold soon after.
“I was a little bit older, I’d been on loan to Nottingham Forest where I didn’t really do much, so my future wasn’t doomed but it was bleak going back (to United) in January,” he says.
“I had a lot of work and knuckling down to do. I had great coaches in Warren Joyce and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who worked with me.
“They told me to come back and they’d look after me as I felt a bit neglected from the loan. My headspace wasn’t right, I’d been kicked all over the gaff, so after the loan at Forest I came back to play a more central role in the reserves, got my head down – I impressed.
“Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed with me and brought me back into the first-team fold, I was training with the team, I was on the bench against Aston Villa. He held me in high regard, so I finally got the opportunity.
“The likes of [Kiko] Macheda and [Danny] Welbeck were just coming through at the time so it was a good chance for them, but for me it was my last chance and an added bonus for doing well after coming back. I was ultimately playing for a move.”
That summer, Martin was sold to Roy Keane’s Ipswich. Martin was no stranger to the Irishman, having trained alongside him at Carrington, but that certainly didn’t earn him any special treatment at Portman Road.
He would go on to make over a hundred appearances and become a key player for the Tractor Boys, but he suffered something of a stuttering start in East Anglia.
“Roy didn’t suffer fools,” Martin says. “After eight games I was dropped and the following season I was put on the transfer list, so at 22 my head was all over the place. I didn’t understand what was going on.
“I was sent on loan to Charlton in League One, so I had to build myself back up.
“I was finally given an opportunity under Paul Jewell in 2011-12, and that six months was when I really showed what I was capable of due to opportunity, showing the ability which got me the Premier League debut, playing more centrally in a role I felt I could showcase my ability.”
Martin left Ipswich for Millwall in 2013 and spent three years in London before joining Gillingham last summer.
He missed much of last season through injury, but now 30, he has used his experiences to his advantage and was chosen as the club’s new captain for this season
“I wasn’t expecting it, certainly, but I am very proud. I came back in pre-season, got given the armband a couple of times, but it was still a bit of a shock.
“I’ve led teams when I was younger in the reserves, playing more centrally and then all of a sudden I was a winger so couldn’t set the tone as much, but now being captain and being more central role means I am looking to really flourish.”
No one would turn down a token Manchester United appearance, and it is something Martin feels lucky to be able to say he achieved. But more importantly, that match helped give him a platform to build a successful career around, something Gillingham will get the benefit from now.
“Playing at the highest level, all be it the one time, but to go out there and play in the Premier League is something no one can take away from me. It might have been a bit of token one, but it’s still a fond memory for me.
“Spending the majority of my career in the Championship and now being the captain at Gillingham, those are the top three moments.”
By Will Unwin