Russell Osman

Former Player Remembers: Russell Osman (Part One)

Earlier this month, former England international centre-back Russell Osman spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football.
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A key member of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town side which was one of the best teams in England, winning the UEFA Cup in 1981, Russell signed for Leicester City for a fee of £240,000 in 1985. Playing under Gordon Milne, followed by Bryan Hamilton and then David Pleat, Russell spent three seasons at Filbert Street, making 120 appearances for the Foxes, captaining the side in 1987/88.

Russell, who was born in Repton in Derbyshire and whose father Rex played for Derby County in the early 1950s, began by explaining how he became involved in football.

“I went to a grammar school where we played rugby, but Repton Casuals Football Club ran teams all the way from under-9s to under-16s,” he began. “When I was about 14 or 15, I played for the senior team in the Derby & District Cup final which was quite daunting at the time. There was a local fella who knew the brother of Bobby Robson, who was manager of Ipswich at the time. Word got back and I got invited to Ipswich for trials. 

“Ipswich didn’t have a lot of money to spend on players. Robson had a good scouting network, particularly up north and the club used to bring loads of kids down for a week in the school holidays for trial matches. I did quite well and got invited to play for the youth team and we had some good runs in the Youth Cup. I was still at school and if my dad couldn’t take me to Ipswich for the weekend, the youth coach, Charlie Woods, who was Bobby Robson’s right hand man, used to drive from Ipswich to Repton on the Friday afternoon, pick me up after school and drive me back to Ipswich. Then we’d play on Saturday morning. Sometimes Terry Butcher from Lowestoft (Russell’s future Ipswich and England team-mate) would be there and then he’d drive me back home.”

Russell signed professional forms at Ipswich Town in March 1976 and made his top-flight debut in 1977. For the next eight seasons, partnering Butcher at the heart of the Ipswich and sometimes the England defence, he missed only a handful of games playing in an Tractor Boys side which finished as runners-up in the old First Division in successive seasons (1980/81 and 1981/82), as well as lifting the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1981. He also won 11 full England caps while at Portman Road.  

“Bobby Robson was fantastic,” Russell continued. “He realised he needed to bring in young players like myself, George Burley, Johnny Wark, Eric Gates, Alan Brazil, Terry Butcher and Steve McCall and develop them. Loads of us came through the youth team, so when we got into the first team, we’d already had three or four years playing together. 

“This was the nucleus of the side which beat AZ Alkmaar in the final of the UEFA Cup in 1981. That year we also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and finished runners up to Aston Villa in the league. We played 66 games that year and I played every minute of every game. We played about 20 more games than Villa that season and we’d beaten them three times, twice in the league and once in the cup. They just pipped us for the title.

At the end of the following season in July 1982, Bobby [Robson] left [Ipswich] for the England job. After that we weren’t great.

Russell Osman

“That season, I also got my first England cap in the centenary international game out in Australia. We just played the one game and then flew back. 

“At the end of the following season in July 1982, Bobby left for the England job. After that we weren’t great. We’d spent extra money on a new stand and suddenly the club was strapped for cash and hit by the European ban after the Heysel Stadium disaster. This meant that the team, which really should have stayed together for a couple of years longer, started to get sold off pretty quickly, just to balance the books.”

In July 1985, Milne’s Leicester City, who had just sold Gary Lineker to Everton, signed Russell.

“I had just completed 10 years at Ipswich,” Russell remembered. “The manager Bobby Ferguson called me in one day to talk about my contract. He told me that they’d got no money, that I wasn’t going to get a testimonial and that I could find myself a new club.”

City, who were about to start their third season back in the old First Division, paid £240,000 for Russell, which was only £10,000 short of their record fee at the time for a new player. 

Russell’s Leicester debut was at Filbert Street on the opening day of the 1985/86 season against league champions Everton, with the recently departed Lineker making his debut for his new side against his former team-mates. 

“We won 3-1” Russell recalled. “Mark Bright scored a couple that day, didn’t he? It was a big fixture for us at the start of the season. 

“I got on well with Gordon and moved to Leicestershire. My oldest lad was born in Leicester. I remember Ali Mauchlen and Gary McAllister coming to Leicester from Motherwell just after me. At that time, Gary was a tall skinny kid. I think he was more the makeweight in the deal. Ali Mauchlen was a great player. I love him to death. He was a bit of a scrapper. What a lad to have in your side! 

“Then suddenly, we started to see McAllister come through as a player. He filled out a little bit, got a bit stronger and got used to the pace of the game. We all thought: ‘Wow! That lad’s got some potential!’ I still keep in touch with him now. He’s a family friend, a great lad, an absolutely brilliant fella. Tony Sealy, from Fulham, also arrived at Leicester soon after me. He was only about 5ft 4in tall but like Ali he was as hard as nails.  

“In my first two seasons I played alongside John O’Neill. What a nice lad! Then Steve Walsh arrived, brought to Leicester by Bryan Hamilton from Wigan. He was very, very raw. But what a lad to play alongside! He would go through a brick wall for you. It was just amazing to see how his career just get bigger and bigger as the Club got better and better. I saw him in the summer at a golf day. We sat down and had a couple of drinks. He’s a great lad.” 

[Steve Walsh] was very, very raw. But what a lad to play alongside! He would go through a brick wall for you.

Russell Osman

Russell spent three years at Leicester, playing under three managers – Milne, Hamilton and Pleat. As had been the case at Ipswich, he missed very few matches.

“I was very fortunate throughout my career with injuries,” he explained. “At Ipswich, I played just under three seasons without missing a game and when I went to Leicester there was no problem, so I just loved it there. As a team, we probably weren’t as ambitious as we should have been. When I first got there, I was thinking that there were great lads at the Club, but that they really needed to get back into the habit of winning games.”

City finished 19th in the top flight at the end of Russell’s first season at Filbert Street. Milne became general manager at the end of the season, with Hamilton being promoted to first team manager in time for the 1986/87 season. Unfortunately, the team was relegated at the end of that season.

Back in the Second Division for the 1987/88 campaign, the Club was one of the favourites for promotion. Russell was made captain but, by December 1987, results were disappointing. However, Pleat replaced Hamilton as manager in December and results improved dramatically.  

“It’s a shame it didn’t work out for Bryan Hamilton, who I knew vaguely from his association with Ipswich,” Russell continued. “David Pleat had a way of managing things. He came in and straightaway made an impression. He wanted to know what motivated everybody as an individual and he asked everybody that. I remember one of the lads saying he wasn’t sure what motivated him and the next thing we knew he was on the transfer list and gone. Pleat’s view was that if the player didn’t know what motivated him, how on earth was he supposed to motivate him?

“Pleaty was very open to suggestions from players about how they wanted to play the game. I remember having discussions with managers about how you should be playing when things changed in a game, talking about whether you needed to drop back or hold a higher line… stuff like that. Pleaty was very open. He’d say: ‘Listen, if you're more comfortable dropping back a bit and having the play in front of you and not allowing the space in behind, then do that. If that's what the opposition are trying to do all the time, then let's make them play in front of us and then squeeze up from there’. A lot of managers are very reluctant to allow the players that option of playing it how they see it. They want the game played how they themselves see it but when you're on the pitch, it’s not quite as black and white as they think it is. However, Pleaty said: ‘Well, if you do decide to drop off or squeeze up or whatever, you just control it’.”

In June 1988, at the end of his third season at Filbert Street, Russell decided to leave Leicester City and move to Southampton. 

“I had a brilliant time at Leicester,” he said. “It was nice to be back in the Midlands. Travelling to away games wasn’t half the issue it had been when I was at Ipswich. To be honest, I would have stayed longer but my contract was up. On the Chairman’s instructions, Pleaty came up with a disappointing offer to extend my contract. I said that I’d consider an improved offer but he said that was the offer and that he wasn’t going to go to the Chairman and ask for more. I still thought that I was up to a couple of seasons in the First Division, so when I heard that Southampton were interested, I decided to go there.”

In part two of this interview, Russell talks about his experiences working with the likes of, among others Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Siddow, Pelé, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles, when he appeared in the film Escape to Victory. He also talks about his career as a player and a manager after he left Leicester City and about his lengthy career in the media for Eurosport, Sky, the BBC and in India both before and during the India Super League era.   

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