Exclusive Intverview with Toni Martínez

PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR

Manuel Domínguez

July 14, 2021

Who is Toni Martínez?

Toni Martínez has quickly become one of the best strikers in Portugal after leaving West Ham in 2019. The 24-year-old scored four goals in their last five games of last season – averaging a goal every 86 minutes. The departure of Moussa Marega offered him the perfect opportunity to establish himself for FC Porto which was duly taken with both arms.

In May, Manuel Domínguez sat down with the Spanish striker to discuss his rise from Valencia’s academy FC Porto’s first team.

Toni Martinez at FC Porto

Toni Martínez, Valencia and the UEFA Youth League

The story of Toni Martínez begins in Valencia, at the academy of one of La Liga’s historic clubs: Valencia CF.

This exciting group of talent – including players such as Carlos Soler, Toni Lato, Rafa Mir and Gonzalo Villar – are remembered fondly at Mestalla, but Martínez did not stick around for long after an impressive UEFA Youth League campaign.

“Personally, the Youth League gave me everything. After my last match of that tournament in 2016, I had hardly even arrived in Valencia and I was already signed by West Ham,” he reveals.

The Hammers were clearly impressed by what they saw and had a €3 million bid accepted for someone who, at the time, had not even made his senior debut for Los Che.

“That they are willing to pay that amount for you, your playing career is instantly elevated. It’s a very good thing in my opinion. You feel loved but the reality is that of course there is pressure.

“In the end, you go from not being in the spotlight to being a young player for whom an English team has paid €3 million. Your name is quickly in everyone’s mouth. When that kind of fee is paid, you have to start performing and that’s when the real football starts.”

West Ham united and Premier League 2

Swapping Valencia for London was a big step for Martínez. An unforgivingly fast-paced city, another language to conquer and training with some of the best strikers in the world, such as Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández.

“You always learn something from your colleagues. It’s true that I was very young and outside of football they all have their own lives, but with Chicharito – perhaps because of the language – he was one of the people with whom I had the best relationship. I kept learning from him and he always told me in training: ‘In the area, one touch is better than two.’ I’m saying that because he is one of the best finishers in the world, not just because I shared a dressing room with him.”

Learning from a striker who played for clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid is never a bad thing, and the Murcia-born Martínez reveals he still takes on his advice to this day.

“He told me to always try and finish quickly, and that’s something that has stuck with me. It is something that I have really worked on and has helped me to improve a lot – it’s one of my greatest qualities now.”

The way in which young players compete in England is often criticised by foreign footballers or coaches who come to the UK. For Toni, under-23 football (known as Premier League 2) was a major brake on his development and with it came the first big ‘disappointment’ of his time in London.

“I have very negative memories of this competition it does not help young players at all. The first and biggest problem is the time between games. You cannot be competing once every two weeks. There are not many Under-23 teams and in the end there are leagues of 12 or 13 teams throughout the year, in which you end up playing every 10-12 days. That feels crazy in my opinion.

The other problem is that you are never competing against men and that is poor preparation for a senior career. You always play against squad playersmany of whom are very young as was my case – and you feel like you’re playing youth football until 22 or 23 years of age. In the end your numbers might be good, but you don’t notice any growth,” says Martínez who concluded his time at West Ham with spectacular productivity: scoring 25 goals in 29 games.

But despite impressing for the Hammers, it wasn’t enough to earn a first-team opportunity in the Premier League.

“Yes, of course it’s frustrating. You know that you are going to score goals, make good numbers, but the level of the competition means that the first team coach is never going to trust you. That’s why I asked to leave in the end.”

Rebounding with Famalicão

After several loan moves in England and Spain with little success, Martínez reached an agreement with West Ham to end his contract in 2019 – capping three years at the club. But this was not a sad moment, more an exciting one in the future of a 21-year-old forward who needed confidence, a place to settle and somewhere to demonstrate his talent.

Suddenly, his agent calls to tell him about an ambitious (but at the same time unknown) project in Portugal. A newly promoted team with the desire to fight with the best based on young talent: FC Famalicão.

With two powerful names in the football world behind them – Idan Ofer, director of the Quantum Pacific Group who own 32% of the shares at Atlético Madrid, and super-agent Jorge Mendes – Famalicão returned to the top flight of Portuguese football in June 2018 with one clear goal: to settle there 24 years after their last relegation.

Their idea was based around signing the most promising players in Portuguese football (plus some international signings) such as Álex Centelles, Nehuén Pérez and Nicolás Schiappacasse, in addition to Pedro Gonçalves, who ended last season with 23 goals in 32 games for Primeira Liga champions Sporting CP.

“I’m going to be honest with you. The first time my agent told me about Famalicão, my answer was no. They insisted. The coach, João Pedro Sousa, had been Marco Silva’s assistant for many years and knew me from English football. But he explained the project to me. An ambitious idea, to fight for trophies and I decided to inform myself.

“We were already at the end of the transfer market and I had other options on the table, but you see players like Nehuén Perez, Diogo Quierós and Pedro Gonçalves already there. If all these players are accepting the same project as me, it is because that project is real, something serious and with aspirations. I think that seeing them and taking the risk was exactly what I needed for my career.”

Famalicão ended up surprising everybody that season after finishing sixth, but they even spent one month at the top of the table during the early stages. Martínez believes their collective desire to succeed was central to that accomplishment.

“I think it helped a lot that all the players had a very similar way of seeing it. We were all very young people and took our experience there as our bullet, our year, and I think that was key because we played every game as if they were the last. Leaving good memories with the fans is the best thing I kept from my time there. Everyone spoke about the Famalicão side of 2019.”

There were many talented players in that squad but the 23-year-old has singled out two for special praise.

“To be honest, Pedro Gonçalves has improved a lot in the last two years. He came to Famaliçao as a child, with the same doubts that we all had, but always willing to take the opportunity. And now look: he was the top scorer in the Primeira Liga last season and called up with the national team for the European Championship. He is a clear example of evolution and work.”

The other: Nehuén Pérez. The Argentine defender from Atlético Madrid who, Toni believes, will be one of the best centre-backs in the world.

“I think this year he was not as lucky as he should have been to have started at Granada but hey, he is 20 years old so imagine. We are talking about a centre-back who with the ball is good, but without the ball is even better. I think he is going to be one of the best centre-backs in the world.”

The call from FC Porto

Martínez finished the season at Famalicão with 14 goals and six assists, including scoring three goals in a week against Benfica before his Man of the Match performance against Porto. That game would later prove decisive in his future, with Porto signing him the following summer for €4 million.

“Obviously the big games are the ones that everyone watches and it certainly helped. If I had to choose one, I would say that it was the game against Porto, as soon as I returned from the COVID-enforced break. I knew that I had to prepare well during those weeks at home.

We had ten finals left and the first was against them. I prepared very well and in that game I had a great match. Curiously, just after that match Porto contacted me for the first time, I think it was key”.

But the Spaniard was quickly brought down to earth after his career-defining move. The deal itself was not completed until late on in the window, forcing Martínez into another acclimatisation period, getting to know his new teammates, manager and playing style. He made just three appearances in six months, before springing into life towards the end of the season.

“Last year I always played, almost always scored and was happy, with energy. Goals give you that touch of confidence to keep working. When you get to a team like Porto and feel like you can’t get into the team, you have two options: either you settle for what you have, or stop taking it for granted that you’re going to play every week and work even harder. 

“It was not easy, I spent many games without playing but the message from the club, my team-mates and the coach was always to keep working – that my moment would come. Thankfully, I had it at the end of the season and things have turned out well. I think it could prove to be a turning point for myself and I’m hoping to make a real impact for Porto next season.”

With Os Dragões qualifying for the Champions League, coupled with the energy that comes from knowing you could be the first-choice striker, Martínez faces the challenge of leading the line for Porto after years of building himself to this moment. But there will be no resting on his laurels – only an ambition and confidence to prove himself at the highest level.