John Russell - I've been looking to get into coaching and management and the opportunity to go in at Westport for the season is a really good one

Sun, Mar 25 2018

Russell is tackled by David Cawley during his time at Sligo. Credit: Tom Beary

After 15 years playing in the League of Ireland, conspicuous by his absence for the 2018 season is John Russell.

The 32 year old left Sligo Rovers at the end of last season after spells with both The Bit O’Red and St Patrick’s Athletic saw him win the Premier Division as well as lifting the FAI Cup twice along with the EA Sports Cup and Setanta Cup.

The midfielder’s career began all the way back in 2003 when he signed for Tony Mannion at his hometown club Galway United at the age of 17— making his debut away to Kildare County that season.

He was a young player in a dressing room with a lot of experience which featured a bit of a who’s who of highly regarded Galway United players from that period.

“It was totally new experience for me coming from underage football to playing with men. It would have been an older squad back then: Mark Herrick, Colin Fortune, Fran Carter, Billy Cleary, Mike Quirke and Alan Gough. A lot of senior lads were in the dressing room,” he said, speaking to extratime.ie.

“I was only 17 coming in so it was an eye opener but in fairness, looking back, the lads were very good to me because I wasn’t surrounded by other younger players, I was probably the youngest at the time.

“They were great with me and it was good competitive football and I enjoyed it and got to play a lot of games, especially in my second season when I established myself a bit more in the midfield.”

Russell was a Tribesman from 2003 until the end of the 2009 season. Lengthy injury periods hampered his career at Galway and he looks back at his time with the club with a certain amount of frustration.

“I would have had a bad injury when I just turned 19 and it put me out for nearly the full year and it was around that time I was called into the Ireland U-21 squad and had to withdraw,” he explains.

“I was just hampered by injuries. The medical set up across the whole of the League of Ireland back then, when you compare it to what it is now, wasn’t there in terms of the support structures for players and what rehabilitation there was.

“I would have had an operation but being young and naïve I probably thought ‘yeah I’ve had the operation I’m fixed now’ but you have to do rehab. The game has moved on.

“That definitely affected me coming back and I kept breaking down. I ended up having two operations on my ankle during my time at Galway and playing through injuries when I probably shouldn’t have been.

“I kind of felt when I left Galway and went to Sligo I was a bit more mature and I understood my body and what it needed.”

Before being called into the Republic of Ireland U-21 squad, Russell had been capped at U-19 level.

“I played for the U-19s against Norway, two games against them, it was just after that I played for a home-based League of Ireland squad and we were away at a four nations tournament in Scotland. It was from that I got pulled into Don Givens’ U-21 squad when I got shin splints, compartment syndrome. I was out then for pretty much a year.

The Moycullen native signed for Sligo Rovers in 2010 as he embarked on what was to be the most successful period of his career. Current Wigan Athletic manager Paul Cook was in charge of Rovers at the time, the move was something that he initially had reservations about however.

“Paul Cook would have been trying to sign me for the previous year and a half when I was at Galway,” he said.

“Being a Galway lad, I wasn’t keen on going to Sligo because they were our rivals and it didn’t really appeal to me. I also had interest from Bohemians at the time and they were the top club in the country.

“Paul was very keen, and he is very persuasive. I went up and signed for them and it ended up being a very good move, it was full time football and the team he was assembling an the style of play was really attractive for me I ended up having two good years up there and won three trophies in my first stint.”

In 2010 Sligo Rovers won the EA Sports Cup and the FAI Cup before lifting the FAI Cup again in 2011. The 2010 final was the first to be held at the newly built Aviva stadium and over 36,000 people were in attendance as The Bit O’Red defeated Shamrock Rovers.

“It was brilliant occasion. That’s what you want as a player, everyone aspires to play in England and try and get a move to a big club but anyone playing in Ireland, playing in Europe or cup finals is when you really get to showcase your talent in front of big crowds.

“That was a massive game for us and to go on and win it then was really good, before that we actually won the league cup I think that was the one that gave us the belief that we could go on and achieve more success. I think that was the catalyst for us that time.”

After a hugely successful stint with Sligo, Russell moved to Inchicore to play for St Patrick’s Athletic under Liam Buckley. That 2012 season saw Russell’s former club go on to claim the Premier Division title which was tough to take at the time, not least because they claimed the title against the Saints. He was vindicated the following year at least when he reached the mountain top and claimed a Premier Division winners medal of his own with St Patrick’s Athletic.

“It was tough to take, and it was actually against us. We were going for the title with them but we were probably four points behind them with two games to go and we ended up conceding late on to lose the game 3-2.

“I’ll never forget it, I was coming off the pitch and the fans were jumping all over the Sligo lads and one or two were jumping on me and saying I should have stayed.

“I suppose it was a tough moment for me, but I was also delighted for my very good friends that were there at the time like Alan Keane and Iarfhlaith Davoren. I was obviously happy for the lads to go on and win it and it made me more determined the following season with Pats to have a right go and thankfully we went on and won it.

“It was a great feeling. The cup finals are brilliant occasion but any player will tell you, in any league, winning the title over the course of the year that’s where the hard work is done. It’s funny how it ended up too, we beat Sligo in Richmond Park to win it, it was a total reverse from the previous year and it was a nice moment for me to win it that day.”

In 2014 Russell moved back west to Sligo to take up a role as FAI Development Officer in the area. He re-signed with Rovers for the 2014 season. He remained with the club until the end of the 2017 season after a tough year battling against relegation. Russell developed an interest in coaching in recent years and completed the UEFA A Licence in 2014 as well as recently completing the UEFA Elite Youth Licence and he has ambitions to complete the Pro Licence also. Last week he took his first steps into management when Westport United unveiled him as their new manager but he hasn’t officially hung up his boots just yet.

“I haven’t officially retired or anything like that. I suppose I’ve been looking to get into coaching and management and the opportunity to go in at Westport for the season is a really good one so I decided I’d go for it but I’m not going to play with them I’m just going to focus on management and coaching.

“I’m only 32 and my body feels good so you never know what can happen in a year or two years’ time. I’m kind of going to go with the flow and see what happens."