Ask Aaron Martin about the work he does in the community around Coventry and you would think he is nothing special. Ask anyone else and you realise immediately that the opposite is true.It is why the 26-year-old central defender has been named the Sky Bet Football League Unsung Hero of the Month for January.
“Aaron is just a dream. Whatever we ask him, he’ll do,” says David Busst, former Coventry City player and now the club’s Community Director.
“He is a leading example to the younger players. He genuinely wants to help. And he doesn’t just turn up to an event. Before we get there, he wants to know what it’s about, why we are there, what are the circumstances of the young people or the group we’re visiting. And when we get there, he’s very open to doing anything we want him to do.
“At the Junior Sky Blues Christmas party this year, he was signing autograph after autograph for three-and-a-half hours. The players were supposed to be there for no more than two hours but people and their kids were still queueing. Aaron was the first one to say: ‘No, we’ll go when all of the kids have got their autographs.’
“Another time, for one of our inclusion projects we went out to an estate in Rugby for a session with underprivileged kids from single parent families. Aaron came along with another lad, who was on loan with us, and he joined in the sessions, playing football when he really shouldn’t have had any physical involvement because he had a game on the Saturday. The feedback we got was brilliant.
“He’s always coming up to me to say: ‘I did an appearance a few weeks ago. When’s the next one?’ I’ve been doing this job for the club for coming up to 20 years now, and every now and again you fall upon a gem like Aaron.”
Martin doesn’t see it that way, although he does admit that recent events and personal circumstances have increased his desire to do more than others.
This season alone, he has made seven community visits on behalf of the club, giving 24 hours of his time in addition to attending countless club events.
He has also visited a number of schools, helping children from disadvantaged communities to read, eat healthily and become active, especially in the Bell Green and Wood End area of Coventry, which has just been named the most deprived area of the country.
Martin said: “A lot has happened over the last year or two with close friends and family. A few of my friends have lost people very close to them. I just feel that I am in a privileged position to do more, so I’m going to do more from now on.
“We go into the schools and have a chat with some of the kids, sign some stuff and take photos with them.
“It’s very important to eat properly. You see so much in the news about kids being overweight. It’s really important that they learn how to eat properly, just for them to have a better life. If we can help to teach them at an early age that maybe they are eating the wrong sorts of food or that they need to eat smaller portions than what they do, it will lead to them being a lot healthier.
“And it will help to bring the statistics down like Jamie Oliver does with his work in getting healthy eating into schools, which I think is brilliant.
“I know that it’s expensive to eat really healthily and you can understand with parents who don’t have a lot of money that food does take a step back in terms of eating the right things, because the foods that aren’t as good for you aren’t as expensive. It is hard but if they know what to eat, maybe they will change it a little bit.”
Martin admits that he has also been inspired by the arrival of England international Joe Cole at Coventry this season.
He added: “Joe is brilliant. I did a school visit with him and some of his answers to the kids’ questions were brilliant. He’s a prime example of how you should be. You can tell how grown up he is. He has come in to the club and just gets on with everybody so well.
“For what he’s achieved and what he’s done in the game, he could easily come in and waltz around, but he doesn’t. He is top, top class. He shows the way to be.”
Martin’s most striking act on behalf of others this season was a £1,000 donation he made to the local University Hospital in Coventry. He originally offered to donate £1,000 worth of toys to the children’s unit but, after consulting with the University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire (UHCW) Charity, agreed to contribute towards the creation of a beach scene at the entrance to the Children’s Emergency Department.
“The UHCW is trying to make hospital a less frightening experience for children,” said Adela Appleby, head of UHCW. “The Children’s Emergency Department has been transformed into a bespoke under-sea scene and the virtual beach is the final stage.
“Coventry City are great supporters of the project. The players spend time with the children around Christmas and together the players and staff buy a gift for us for the children’s unit. This year they bought us a big plasma screen TV and a DVD recorder for the teenagers’ chill-out room.
“Aaron wanted to do more. He asked personally what he could do to help us. He really got what a difference the environment can make to children coming into hospital. And the children, their families and the staff are thrilled to have his support. It’s a real boost for everybody and his donation has also helped us to create awareness for the appeal.
“It’s fantastic that he is getting the Unsung Hero award. It’s really important for people to know that footballers are committed to the community.”
Martin, who hails from the Isle of Wight, understands his status as a hero for the children he visits. He still remembers the thrill of not only meeting his boyhood hero, Southampton defender Rahdi Jaidi, but then training and playing alongside the Tunisia international when he joined the club as a trainee.
“I used to watch Rahdi as a kid and thought: ‘Oh, wow, I want to be like him. So to actually meet him and play with him was a great feeling. And he’s a friend now.’
“I understand that for the kids we meet to listen to people who are doing what they probably want to do is a big thing for them.
“From a very early age I believed that you are privileged as a footballer. Being able to do what we do day in day out and being healthy the majority of the time. But then just being able to walk down the street is a privilege in itself and being able to go to the shop whenever you want.
“Every time we go to the hospital to visit the kids, I just think about if that was my kids or that was me in the situation of having to spend that much time in hospital at such a young age. When you’re a kid, you just want to be out playing all the time.
“We try and teach kids and give them a bit of hope, especially with the hospital visits. Even if the children are asleep or they can’t interact, you can see that it still gives their parents a lift when you go in there. When you have the lowest of lows, it can make a massive difference for people like us to come in and wish them all the best. It gives them a boost.
“And when you get a bit older, you start to realise it’s the little things that count. The things that have happened over the last few years have really made me grow up and given me a perspective on life.
“A couple of my very good friends, their parents have suffered with cancer and died, so I want to do more on that side for Cancer Research, Macmillan and organisations like that in the future. I think that anything you can do, you should do. If I can do more, then I will.
“It’s a little bit embarrassing to get an award because that’s not what you do it for. You do it to try and make a difference. It is great that it is recognised, but it’s more important that people who can, should help out a bit more. I’ll try and do as much as I can when I can and hopefully it makes that tiny bit of difference.”