How Rangers’ new signing Russell Martin turned his community dream into a reality, with a little help from his friends…
When you feel that football has given you everything in life, how do you give something back? For many players, setting up a foundation is a way to have an impact in society without veering too far from the game you love.
That’s certainly how Russell Martin felt two years ago. After meticulous planning, he established his own foundation. It was the realisation of a long-term dream to make a difference in his home town, Brighton.
“It’s something I’ve always thought about. I’ve always wanted to create opportunities for younger players and for people I really respect and who should be valued – the coaching staff I have running the academy,” he says.
What started with summer schools for very young players led to the establishment of a whole academy for youngsters aged 5-19.
The aim? To support the development of young people, regardless of their level of football experience, to help keep them active and grow their confidence. And that’s not even the whole story.
“Brighton is a one-club city and it has moved forward quickly – and what the club has achieved is amazing,” explains Russell. “But after that there isn’t much provision for players who are deemed
not good enough for Brighton. So that was one reason we set up the academy, to be inclusive and help players from a young age.”
In less than two years the Russell Martin Foundation has become financially self-sufficient, an achievement which exceeded the founder’s expectations.
“I spoke to my financial advisors and said ‘I want to do this, not as a profit making thing’,” says Russell. “But there isn’t an infinite amount of money, so the plan was always to make it self-sustainable. If we can keep going and be even more established in five years I’ll be extremely proud of that. I don’t see why we can’t be.”
In the beginning, Russell linked up with former playing pal Sergio Torres and took guidance from trusted advisers in the Norwich City Community Sports Foundation programme. He also spoke
to former school coaches who had influenced him. But the first big step was setting up a holiday summer school.
“It was difficult putting it all together, just the logistics of it,” Russell explains. “You worry whether any kids will turn up.” A modest but workable group of 15 did. And now an average of 80 children attend each session as Russell’s foundation reaches over 1,000 young players a week.
“It’s amazing how quickly it has grown,” says Russell. “The PFA were a massive help. I spoke to Dave Palmer in the Community department really early in the process and he gave us all the boxes to tick, all the steps to take.”
A happy by-product of the academy’s success is that it provides a way for Russell to stay involved in the game when he retires. He has ambitions to coach at the highest level and is about to embark on his UEFA Pro Licence. “The ideal scenario is that the foundation gives me something I can go back to where I can help out if I’m not in coaching or management. I have got a plan but with football it doesn’t always go to plan. The foundation will always be there.”
THE WOMEN’S GAME
For now the blueprint is to be as inclusive as possible – and from the word ‘go’ that has meant ensuring girls and women have opportunities at the foundation.
“It was a conscious decision to include girls,” says Russell. “The women’s game at the top level has grown and improved so much – we really wanted to push that. We have some really good female coaches and we have set up the first Brighton Schools girls representative side. That’s something we’re really proud of.”
Russell’s foundation is instrumental in trying to establish a girls’ league after slow but steady growth in interest in their provision for female players. “They love the game and need somewhere to come where they feel safe and comfortable and enjoy playing,” says Russell.
MANAGING FROM AFAR
One of the biggest challenges for Russell is managing his foundation from afar while he’s still playing the game. “I could have waited until I retired because it’s difficult not being there day to day. But the timing was just right. It’s harder to make an impact when you don’t have some kind of profile in the game.
“I have to put a lot of trust in my team and do things over the phone. That’s why I brought in Michael Ryan as CEO.”
Russell admits it hasn’t been easy. There are challenges managing expectations from youngsters and parents. But he believes this is all good preparation for a management career. “I’m really pleased we have done it, and really proud of it. Would I do it all again? Definitely.”