Now a player-coach at Colchester United, Rene spoke to Watford Legends before co-commentating on Tottenham v Watford at Wembley in 2018.
Hi Rene, thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You originally joined Watford from Walsall in 2010. How did the move come about?
Watford scouted me towards the end of that season. I’d done quite well at Walsall and broken into the first team. My contract was up at the time and Watford came in for me.
Walsall had offered me an extension and it wasn’t where I valued myself at that point. I’d been there for five years, made the transition into first team goalkeeper. The contract they offered didn’t really justify where I’d got myself to.
When a club like Watford come in and your agent tells you Watford are interested, you’re obviously going to listen. It was a great opportunity as an aspiring goalkeeper to step up to the next level.
Having been first choice at Walsall, was it hard to then be on the bench as back-up to Scott Loach when you joined?
It was, yeah.
If you remember at that time, Scott Loach had a great season the previous year and there was a lot of speculation about him going to Tottenham, and they’d put a bid in which was turned down. I was brought in as back up but with the likelihood of Scott Loach going to Tottenham, and that didn’t transpire which obviously was a shame for me and the minutes I was hoping to get.
My position turned into being a back-up goalkeeper. At that time, I’d have loved to play more games, but I still wanted to be a part of the squad. Malky always appreciated my character and positivity in the dressing room. A lot of goalkeepers when they’re not playing might sulk and spit their dummy out but I had a job to do and I wanted to take Scott Loach’s shirt which I did do in the end.
You’d generally been a cup goalkeeper but then Sean Dyche gave you your league debut in 2011. Was that a surprise?
No, not a surprise at all.
I was working so hard to get ahead of Scott Loach. He wasn’t having the best of times if I’m honest. I was putting the pressure on, and before the Millwall game on the training ground, Dychey said I’m putting you in tonight. I was buzzing because I was working that hard to get an opportunity.
We beat Millwall 2-1 at home and then the next game was Southampton away which I played in as well and I felt I did quite well. Rickie Lambert scored two penalties and we lost the game but my performance if I’m being honest, I thought I did ok. Then Dychey decided to change it. I think we played Crystal Palace at home next game, we’re in the dressing room and Dychey went back to Scott Loach.
That was difficult to take to be honest. When you’re a goalkeeper in the team after working so hard to get in, you don’t expect, but after the performances I had I thought I warranted a longer run in the team, and that didn’t happen. I had to go back and try and support the team in that fixture but it was a disappointment.
Is that why you took the opportunity to go out on loan?
Yeah, me and Sean had a chat and looking at where I was at. It was pretty much the writing on the wall when he put me in for two games and then took me out. He said that he liked me but I needed games and I said I know that, I want to play games.
Yeovil came in pretty sharpish after that and the opportunity was there to go out on loan. I enjoyed it under Terry Skiverton. Gary Johnson came in and obviously changed a few things and I was one of them!
I had a short spell at Crawley covering for Scott Shearer’s injury, so I got a few games in before the end of the season, and then it was at the end of that season that we parted company.
And then you spent a year at Plymouth. How was that?
It was good. Carl Fletcher gave me a call and Paul Wootton who was at Yeovil with me, when I did well, put in a good word.
Again, it was one of them where I’d earned the right to be number one, got in the team, and then Carl Fletcher was sacked just after the New Year I think and John Sheridan came in. I got an injury very early in John Sheridan’s tenure, and when I got back there was only a couple of weeks left at the end of the season. I had a chat with him and asked him his plans, and he had plans for a goalkeeper, and Luke McCormick came in.
So I was clear, there’s nothing for me at Plymouth because there’s nothing else down there. It’s a great place to live, me and my now wife moved down there, it was lovely, but if you’re not playing for Plymouth there’s not much of an opportunity elsewhere so that was that.
You then had a year back in Ireland. I assume you were only playing part-time over there? What else did you do?
You don’t move back to Ireland to fully focus on football. Football over there doesn’t really offer a very progressive career.
I went back there with a mind to start a business tackling obesity in schools and bringing in a sports programme. That was actually inspired by my work in the community at Watford. Rob Smith and Rob Clarke were fantastic with me, I enjoyed my time working in the community. Some of the ideas and initiatives they had in the schools were unbelievable, so I always took notes on things that they were doing and I thought if ever I was back in Dublin, a multi-sports education programme, to kind of roll that out in schools in Ireland would be fantastic, bringing sports and education together.
That was the plan really, to play football on the side and have a business that’s growing. My wife was delighted, she’s Irish and was happy to move back. I was playing for St Pats, and the opportunity to come back to Watford came up.
So how did that come about?
I was in Ireland and to be honest a bit disillusioned with football, not wishing to be too harsh on it but the set-up of it really. I was probably focused on the business and not focused on football. I was in that transition from a full-time league goalkeeper to a part-time League of Ireland player. Also moving back to Ireland after being away for about ten years, that was difficult as well.
The off season over there is October to December time so I said to Alec Chamberlain if I could come over and train and get myself going and ready and get my mind right for the next season. Alec is a good friend and he was like “yeah brilliant Reg, come over”.
So I went over and trained. It was mad how it happened. Zola was there, it was his last week with the club. It was myself training with Almunia, Jonathan Bond and Gary Woods. Zola left and Sannino came in with a new goalkeeper coach, speaking absolutely no English.
So it was him and Chambo taking the session, him just watching. Paolo De Toffol liked the look of me and was like “who’s he, he’s not on my list?” Chambo in his best Italian(!) tried to tell him no, he’s on trial, he’s a friend, he signed here before, and he was like “no he’s signed here now” and Chambo was like “no he’s not.”
So Luca Nani got hold of me and said is there a chance you’d come back here and I said yes there is. And that all transpired over the following months, I managed to get myself back to the club. That was fantastic, to be part of where the club grew to after that. It was absolutely superb to be part of that squad and part of the club.
Was your wife happy to come back?!
Yeah that was interesting!
She was like, “you’re going back to Watford aren’t you”. I was like, “yeah, how did you know that?”
I hadn’t mentioned a word of it, obviously me and Luca Nani were talking, but I didn’t want to worry her, we were getting married in the summer. It was like, this came up, they’re a Championship club and they’re right up the top of the league. I was going back there, no question. She was very supportive, she always has been, absolutely superb throughout my career. It was such a surprise for us, brilliant how it all happened.
When you came to Watford the first time you were number two when you arrived. When you came over this time you were number three as Gomes was there as well as Jonathan Bond. Was that daunting?
No. Job satisfaction is one of the biggest things for people. Just because you’re not playing on a Saturday doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your job.
I think I had an important role in that squad. When we got promoted to the Premier League they offered me a two-year contract. That was what they’d seen in me, galvanising the dressing room and being part of that. I understood my position.
Heurelho Gomes was absolutely superb at the club. You had another goalkeeper in Jonathan Bond. When we got to the Premier League you had Arlauskis and Pantilimon. You’re talking top international goalkeepers here. I understood my position, I worked hard as I always do.
I was on the bench at Everton, Arlauskis I think was suspended from the previous season. That was a huge moment even though I didn’t play, being part of a Premier League squad under Quique Sanchez Flores. People saw what I did and the value in me. The environment that I worked in was superb. I enjoyed my time there, I enjoyed working there.
I suppose I’ve always been quite tuned into football. It is a short term career, you do have to focus on what you’re going to do after. At that time I was quite keen on coaching, I’d done by B Licence when I was 20 at Walsall. I always wanted to get my A Licence going. The people at Watford were brilliant, allowing me to do coaching at the academy at a Premier League football club. The value of me doing that has shown early in my coaching career, obviously while still a player, as player/coach at Colchester.
One of the things you did while not playing was commentaries for Three Counties. How did that come about?
I think Blackpool away might have been the first one I did. They had Derek Payne to do the home games and then in the away games, if there was a travelling squad player who was able to do it.
I wasn’t the first player to do it, it was offered around to people and some would shy away from it, but I would give it a go. I worked with Jon Marks and he said I was a natural and my perception of the game was good and that people enjoyed listening. From then on, it just kind of grew, I did it whenever I was able to do it. If there was an injury I might have been on the bench, obviously for goalkeepers it’s rare but it does happen. It took off from there, I loved it. It was nice for the family back at home, they always tuned in and now I was doing the commentary, it was more of a reason for them to listen.
I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I had that injury where I dislocated my knee and it gave me the opportunity to do more media work which Jon Marks was fantastic with again. I also did a bit of TV. You know, I was the third choice goalkeeper, I never had a big profile, but I suppose my rapport with the fans was never questioned. I always enjoyed meeting them at the stadium and they got to know me a bit better through the radio.
I think the feedback from the fans was always positive. Going back to the playing side, tell us about the last game of last season where you and Costel Pantilimon were both named as substitutes. It seemed an odd decision!
Yeah, it was odd, because the need for two goalkeepers on the bench isn’t there.
I don’t know how to read into that one. Mazzarri did like me. He didn’t speak a lot of English but he could see my work ethic, what I offered the team and the squad. Was it one of them where he said I see what you do and I’ll chuck you on the bench because I’m leaving after this game?
It’s hard to think what his thinking was at that time. Obviously if Gomes goes down with a little bit of an injury and it does ask the question as to who’s going to go on. I was ready to play, no doubt about that. I was working hard throughout the whole season. If an opportunity came up due to injuries or something like that, I was ready, throughout my whole time at Watford, I kept myself sharp.
It was a bit of a strange one, but it was nice for me to be on the bench in the Premier League.
You then moved on to Colchester. Tell us a bit about what’s been happening there.
They recruited me, they were looking for a coach/goalkeeper. They had Sam Walker there and wanted another goalkeeper in. Obviously after doing my A Licence I was doing a lot of coaching anyway. I actually took a few sessions at Watford, Paolo De Toffol’s mum had an illness, she’s ok now, but he had to go back to Italy. There were certain times when I needed to take the sessions for the goalkeepers, that was fine, no problem to step up to do that.
The opportunity to step into coaching came up and it really intrigued and interested me. There were a few options to go up north, I didn’t really want to move, my wife was pregnant, I kind of wanted to stay where we were in Harpenden. I could still commute, just!
I suppose the interest of being part of a first team staff, transitioning into coaching while still being able to play and train, I thought that would be the ideal scenario for me, and that was my decision. There were people who raised their eyebrows, saying you’re 30 and do you not want to be playing, but it’s Rene Gilmartin’s career, it’s my career not anyone else’s. You have to look at it that way. The different things that have happened in my career have all been my decision making and this was one of them.
The opportunity to step in as a first-team coach at a club like Colchester where they promote from within, they want to get the academy players into the first team, great set-up down there. I went to visit the training ground and see the stadium and thought I want to be a part of something here. That was my decision.
What are the future plans? You’ve got the coaching role, are you still looking to play a bit as well?
This season, Sam Walker was my main goal. At the start of the season I wanted to see the lay of the land, see where the goalkeepers were and where the standard was at.
Sam Walker’s a top goalkeeper. You can’t do a job 50/50, you have to commit to one or the other. The goalkeepers want a coach. I could still play if I was needed, I was still doing a bit of training, but I was committed myself to coaching and improving Sam Walker’s game and improving him for the team.
Then you get opportunities to get a bit more input with the group, with set-pieces etc. The assistant manager Steve Ball, and manager John McGreal have been brilliant for me in that regard. I can suggest things and I’m part of decisions now and they understand they’ve got another staff member to take on some of the jobs, take the load of those two. That’s what’s great for me, the whole process of starting my coaching career and soaking it all up.
Obviously when I was third choice at Watford, you’re seeing top managers. Mazzarri, Quique Sanchez Flores, Jokanovic, you’re looking at how they’re working, what they’re doing. I’m always noting things down, seeing what works for them, what doesn’t work. You learn to become a coach. You can offer to implement different things that you’re seeing. I’m there as a goalkeeper coach, but I suppose it’s just coaching. You specialise in the goalkeeping but you’re a coach for the football club. If I’m needed to play then I can do that, no problem at all.
Do you fancy being a manager at all?
Yeah, I think in time. I’ve started the process, that journey now getting into it at a young age. If someone says to you, where do you want to get to, I suppose the pinnacle of a coaching career is management. I do want to reach the top and challenge myself to get there.
You have to understand to gain experiences, I’ve looked at it the exact way as when I look back at being an 18 year old goalkeeper at Walsall and how long it took me to break into the first team. It’s the exact same as a coach. People always think, oh I could do that, and this year has definitely been the eye opener about how difficult it really is as a manager in the football league and the stresses and pressure that’s on you. How to manage a group of players and have a strategy to beat the opposition. I love it, I love watching it and seeing how it works and being able to help, but you do also understand how hard it is. That’s what’s great for me to be able to get my learnings started at a practical level at a league club.
You worked what would be described as managers such as Malky and Sean Dyche, and then a different structure at Watford with effectively a Head Coach that could be changed at any time. Which would you see yourself as?
That’s not a decision for me. When you’re looking and applying for jobs, whatever a club is looking for, can you fit in to their philosophy, and what they’re looking for? When you’re starting off, you can’t say I want to manage and they say they want a head coach and you walk out of the room saying I’m not going to do that for you.
I have an idea of what I would like to have and the person I’d like to be. I think anyone that knows me in football knows the type of coach or manager I want to be. You have to understand, sometimes you go into a football club and there’s a philosophy already ingrained in that football club which you have to mould yourself to. Also the players at that football club, you have to then manage them and what’s best for those players. People always say they’d play this formation, but if it doesn’t suit the players you have, how do you adapt, can you adapt?
I’m big at watching and looking at tactics. Look at Malky. Man management, Malky’s superb and Sean Dyche is very similar, you know, managing a group of players. You look at the tactical side of it with Quique’s 4-2-3-1 and Mazzarri’s 3-5-2, Jokanovic’s 4-3-3 at times, 4-4-2 diamond. Different tactical ways of playing the game and implementing the players you have in your squad. We’ve always had a fantastic squad at Watford and it’s grown so much.
But to answer your question, it’s hard to decide and I think the best ones can do both to be honest, and if they can’t, they understand their weaknesses and get a coach in or an assistant manager that can manage a group of players.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|Adam Lallana (at Southampton, ran the game) or Theo Walcott (when he first joined Arsenal, never seen pace like it, unbelievable!)
|Best Ever Player|
|Team You Support|
|Chelsea (I don’t support them now)|
|VW Polo (with half a bumper - my fault!)|
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|Favourite TV Show|
|Hard Knocks (Sky Sports NFL programme)|
|Man on Fire|