In England there are plenty of Belgians turning out in the Premier League. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne to name a few, but when the shoes on the other foot, only 2 Englishman come to mind and I caught up with one of them on Tuesday.
I travelled thirty minutes south-west from Antwerp to Lokeren and through a fantastic host of a press officer, we were taken to the Daknamstadion to meet Gary Martin. An interview-come-chat took place and…Well…This is what we said in what sounded like his North West England/Scandinavian accent.
So Gary, hows life so far in Belgium?
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 coming over in 2 weeks.
So you’ve found it easier to settle compared to everywhere else?
Definitely easier. When I arrived in Iceland I didn’t have a driving license. A lot more people speak English here and I’m more grown up. Iceland was tougher too due to 24hrs of darkness in the winter and 24hrs of light in the summer.
Has the gaffer made you learn any languages so far?
No, but I’m going to do it. I’m waiting for my girlfriend to come over so that we can learn together. Can be a difficult language but I’ll definitely try.
Does that mean you’re here for the long run?
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 3 teams in the Europa League, what do you think of the standard?
People don’t realise how good this league is. Look at the national team, I’ve come here in my best years at my peak.
I think I counted 15 nationalities in the changing room. Is it easy to communicate?
We all speak English. Perfect for me. They all have their own ways of living. For example, the goalkeeper told the defender in French to leave the ball and I didn’t know and the coach said that’s why you need to learn the language and that plays a big part.
Would you prefer more playing time and do you think the language problem has hindered your starts?
I’ve worked with the coach before so I trust him. I’m working more towards next season. For now, it’s about coming, learning and adjusting. Look, I haven’t had a pre season as the Icelandic league ended in November so I’m just adapting and looking towards next season.
Are you relishing the competition?
Yes. None of the striker’s are like me. I prefer to run in behind. Personally, I’d rather play as a 2 but I’d never tell the coach what to do. He just received a new deal and has said his looking towards next season.
How is your relationship with Rùnar Kristinsson?
Very good. In Iceland his 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%.
You’ve basically played abroad your entire career. Would you hope to play back in England one day?
It depends. Personally, I like it here, but if the opportunity ever came up and was right for everyone (me and the club), I’d love to play in Holland 1 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.
So in your opinion, why do the top English players stay in England?
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.
What if there was to be a North Atlantic league?
If Anderlecht left it would make the league weaker, but I’d be happy to see the back of them (as he jokingly laughs) all you do is run against them teams. The thing I like is that Belgian clubs know their place. When you see Charleroi, Mechelen and Oostende above Gent and Genk who are performing in the Europa League, it’s no joke.
He then spoke briefly about the changing room saying he missed the banter in England. Iceland and Norway is better for that, but it will never compare to England.
Since you’ve arrived you have had some very tough fixtures.
You’re right. People who know their football know it’s tough in the Pro League, especially away. In Iceland and Norway there was no difference between home and away.
You mean the crowd?
No, just in quality. But I think we’ve faired well against the top clubs and naive against the lesser sides. I think we believe we’ll overpower the teams below us but the gap isn’t really that big. We’re defensively solid against the top teams and we go away from that against the lower clubs.
So what’s Lokeren’s aim in the Playoffs?
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.
Who did you try and emulate as a child?
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.
You a United fan?
I was. I also liked Van Nistelrooy, Mark Viduka when I was at Middlesbrough, but as soon as I saw Fernando Torres, I had to try and play like him.
At the end, on behalf of @PlayingAFH, I asked one question about his coach from Ujpest.
How much influence did Willie McStay have on you in Hungary?
Yeah…Willie McStay and Joe McBride. 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.
After a handshake, Gary looked relieved to get back to training, stood up and left. A comfortable chat and was polite and open throughout. I wished him luck.
After a brief look around and a good football chat, I was driven back to the station by the press officer and I was on my way.
A humble and welcoming football club, I wish Lokeren the best for this season and beyond.