The Kevin Russell interview.

Duck magazine caught up with 90’s cult hero and key figure in our brilliant 92/93 title winning team, and current U23 team coach Kevin ‘Rooster’ Russell.

You had 11 clubs – how hard was it not to be putting roots down in one place?

Not at all – it only looks that way on paper. Many moves were short term loan deals after injuries or me not being in favour at the time.

I always just wanted to play football – simple as that, so if I thought my chances were limited at my club, I’d jump at the chance to play in the first team, elsewhere. Not many of my moves felt like life-changing experiences. I just wanted to play at the end of a week’s hard training – I didn’t fancy not playing like some do. I just loved getting out there.

I could be my own worst enemy when coming back from a lay-off – I could be impatient and to desperate to get playing again. I always thought a football career was short, so it was a case of get playing as often as you could.

In the late 80’s, you had two great years at Wrexham in the lower leagues, and then Leicester City came calling …

Yeah, I was injury-ravaged for much of my time there under David Pleat, but I did well when I had the chance and that explains all of those loan deals - but towards the end it all came together.

Brian Little came in at Filbert Street and that’s when I initially joined Stoke on loan for a month or so. He just told me to go and get match-fit, which I did quickly - it helped that Stoke were doing well.  I was soon recalled and we reached the Play Off final to go up to the first season of the Premier League and I played my part, scoring some big goals.

My first game back at Leicester was against Port Vale away – I scored twice and took some real stick from their lot! We ended up losing to Blackburn in that Play Off final at Wembley. In the end, they did want to keep me but Little was away on holiday for a few weeks, with my contract undecided. That’s when Stoke came in for me, this time on a permanent deal.

Why was Stoke your next move?

Lou was in touch directly. He’d already sold the club to me first time around and I knew the club were going places. I knew many of the squad, which helped: Noel Blake, Micky Kennedy and Lee Sandford had come in from my old club Portsmouth under Alan Ball, just before Lou. I was good mates with Sandy – we were apprentices together at Fratton Park.

Lou was infectious. He demanded hard work, which suited me. Tactics-wise, he kept it simple – everyone knew their jobs and had clear expectations. His real gift was knowing the market so well. He had such a good eye for the right player – his recruitment was outstanding. He packed the team with leaders – a team full of proper men – look at that back four, for example. Overson, Cranson, Bulter, and Sandford – they must have been a nightmare to play against. With them behind us, we could often steamroll teams. Lou just got us all so fit, then let us go out and play.

Where did you live during your time at Stoke? We hear the social scene was pretty lively……..

Yeah, it could be! I lived in a house on Campbell Road with other players for a whole year. Mark Stein lived there for a bit, Tony Parks as well. Mike Macari was there for a while and sometimes, Lou or Ashley Grimes would stop over.

I got on well with Mike. The lads got in trouble with the gaffer at times – most of the squad did, and some of the lads must have been a real eye opener for someone as professional as Lou!

There are a million stories I could tell you about what we got up to, but I’d better keep quiet about most of them! He was staunchly against alcohol and in those days that was unusual. He knew we liked a beer but honestly, we never went too far, it was never at the wrong time - before matches and the like – and we were never in the papers for the wrong reasons

We were young men, on decent but not great money, living life to the full. We played hard, and worked bloody hard believe me. We were a brilliant bunch off the pitch and in the changing room – and that showed out on the pitch!

What do you remember of your five goals during the 92/93 Promotion season?

We had loads of big games that season, it was a tough league. It was especially good to score in the really big games.

And there were lots of big matches that season – Vale, West Brom, Bolton and even Stockport. One I really remember: I got two in that fantastic 4-3 win against the Baggies at the Vic. I’d felt really ill leading up to that match, but in those days, with small squads, you just got on with it. I brushed it off and played well, scoring twice in front of the Boothen End. I should have bagged a hat-trick, too that day! Not many Stoke players managed that around then – even Stein and Biggins didn’t often do it.

Blackpool away was good - I scored another brace and again missed the chance for a hat-trick – I was gutted. I’ve seen the video of that day – Steiny was class. His goals were ridiculous that season and I always felt we linked up well together. We always found each other and made the right run for the pass. It’s not until you look back that you realise the full contribution you made. I set up lots of goals that season – many of those assists were really important. I’m proud of my contribution.

Those five Potteries derbies – good memories?

Only when we won!

Every game was tight (apart from the 2-0 stroll to put us 10 points clear – editors) – and always a big crowd there. Vale had a really good team that year and the atmosphere would be electric. They were typical, fierce derby matches.

People who don’t know the area might be surprised at how much those games mattered to everyone. It felt at their place both times we played there that half the crowd were Stoke fans, which was bit surreal. Whereas, at other grounds, like at West Brom, there would 30,000 there. Although even then, the Stoke following on that huge terracing was something else.

I remember the Hawthorns was packed at 1.45pm as we went out to warm up – for a Third Division fixture – amazing. New stadiums can be good – and the bet365 can be rocking when Stoke are really at it – but the energy that came out of supporters that day can’t really happen now.

I was actually friendly with a few Vale fans out and about – they were just as passionate, but the city always felt 75% Stoke. Most Vale fans would respect us if they saw us up town – we were similar lads who loved the game and a night out.  

Training with Lou sounds like it was hard work?

Just a bit! Although, it could be funny in a way as well.  Chic Bates would take most sessions with Lou back in his office. Near the end, the gaffer would trot out, giggling because he knew what we had coming. He’d just send us out on extra laps when we thought we were done.

We had centre halves who could run for fun all day and that was unusual, believe me. If players nowadays were told to do so much, there would be uproar! It happened every day back then.

Lou would test you mentally – he was clever like that. He’d sometimes bring in a new lad on trial – often someone we’d never heard of.  In training, the lad wouldn’t be able to even pass the ball to a team mate, but then in the fitness stuff later on he’d be flying and knocking spots off us. Lou would then say – “look at him lads – that’s what you call fit. A proper attitude!” Then we’d never see him again!

On Monday mornings, he’d have us running for miles down by the canal through Stoke and even on a Friday – the day before a big game – he’d hammer us! And all the time, he’d record our times and judge you against your best. It all worked though!

Your rapport with Stokies was great…….

It was always brilliant – from the moment I came on loan to when I left, and still to this day.

Anytime, I visited Stoke playing for another team, the reception was great. If I walk around town now, supporters pop over for a chat and good memories are shared. On first-team matchdays, when I’m there, it’s the same again – warm people who love their footy. I’m no different to them, really. I was brought up to believe that every one is equal – from the man in street to a famous player – no one is better than you and no one is worse than you.

Have you seen Marvellous?

Of course – I bet everyone has now! It was emotional and really touching, actually. Many stories didn’t make the cut – they could have made three films! Nello –where do you start? He’s a legend – a national treasure, now! I have so many great memories of his antics.

Every day, Nello would do something different. Nowadays, stuff like that doesn’t happen as much, because life can get too serious at times. After the hard graft of training, Nello made it fun – another great signing by Lou!

Was it disappointing not to feature as much in the second half of the season?

Of course it was, but I understood the reasons.  Things went in a more solid, defensive direction at times – Dave Kevan or Warey could keep it tight, we were hard to beat.  

But then late in the season, I came off the bench many times and had a big impact – I still changed games and influenced important results. I was flair a player, always trying to make things happen, but I was never lazy or a luxury - I put in proper shift. At the time you have a little sulk when you are benched, but you learn to cope with it as you get older.

Why did you to Burnley after such a great season?

I didn’t want to go. I was 100% for staying at a club where I felt happy.

Soon after promotion was secured, I was told I wouldn’t be regular starter and should feel free to look for another club. I’m not fully sure why that happened. I have no regrets as I was always very professional. I’d be the last off the training pitch, working my nuts off.  But that’s the game. It felt uncomfortable leaving that way but that’s life and football can be like that, so you accept it and move on.

But I wanted to play and sitting in the stands on a Saturday afternoon was not for me.

What were the strengths you had as a player?

It was my personality and character first and foremost. Ability without a good attitude got you nowhere back then. I came from the school of hard knocks – at Portsmouth with blokes like Noel Blake, Mickey Kennedy, Micky Quinn, Kevin Dillon, Billy Gilbert – tough characters as well as good players.

So you learn handle all of that and develop. I showed the desire to push myself and show a good work ethic – that’s what you had to do if you wanted a successful career.

You returned to Wrexham again and had long spell there – a good way to finish off your playing career?

I had a good affinity with Wrexham from the first time around and that grew when I returned.  I was the elder, experienced pro by this time, so I played in various positions. We had a famous FA Cup run in 1997 – we got to the quarter finals.

After my playing days came to an end, I took a coaching role there under the guidance of the gaffer, Stoke legend Denis Smith. That experience was invaluable to my development, and I also had a testimonial against Man United which was a great send-off. Wrexham is a much smaller but similar club to Stoke – working-class fanbase and people see right through you if you are not worthy of the shirt.

Then came Peterborough as a number two – what was that role like?

I’d done four years under Denis Smith before he left the Racecourse Ground. Darren Ferguson, a team mate from Wrexham, took over at Peterborough.  He was new to the management game so I was the one with more experience in the dugout. But my strengths are as a people person – the banter and laughs with the squad. As a manager, it’s much more serious and responsible, which didn’t suit me at the time. Maybe some time in the future, I don’t know.

But both me and Darren were young and ambitious and the partnership worked well for a while. I’m more mature now and I’ve had opportunities, but not the right one.

Wrexham would surely appeal?

One day, perhaps but not right now. In that job, you need to know the league well and the club needs restructuring. I popped down there last week to watch Ollie Shenton on loan against Boreham Wood – it’s great to go back and he played well.

These days, I enjoy working with the young lads at Stoke. Funnily enough, I’d always planned to work with underprivileged youngsters or those in need of a second chance. It’s not quite that here, but this job came out of the blue. I came into this the wrong way round really – starting with the professionals and ending up now coaching the young lads.

What is the philosophy at academy level at Stoke, the same mantra as for the first team?

100% yes. The philosophy is clear, from the manager, right down to the academy. That includes the periodisation of the fitness regime and tactics. We play through the thirds, but you also have to be honest and hardworking. People round here won’t tolerate it if not.

Mark Hughes and Mark Bowen know the game inside out and set the tone through the whole club. Players who join the club have to understand and respect that.

Modern youth football…the technology, wages and coloured boots – are they all mollycoddled or is that unfair?

Society has changed. Everything has changed, and those days are long gone. I Learn before you earn I always say, so we ensure our lads learn and have good values.

I’m more than happy in my job. I have a real spot for the football club. There’s no reason to jump ship – I’ve never ever moved on unless I was told I wasn’t wanted. If I’m wanted, I’ll stay.