Kevin Russell

Former Player Remembers: Kevin Russell

Earlier this season, Club Historian John Hutchinson drove across to Stoke City’s training ground to talk to Kevin ‘Rooster’ Russell.
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Rooster played for both Leicester City and Stoke City, where he is now coaching. His goals both in Leicester City’s escape from relegation in 1991 and in their run up to the 1992 Play-Off Final against Blackburn Rovers made him into a Filbert Street cult hero.

Throughout his career Kevin, as a player and as a coach, has been involved in a total of eight Play-off finals and promotions.

Portsmouth-born Kevin began his career as an apprentice at Brighton and Hove Albion: "At Brighton I was on the bench a couple of times as a 16 year-old and I got my first England Under-18 caps there. However, I only did one year there as an apprentice. I left (in 1984) because I fell out with the manager Chris Cattlin. I went back to Portsmouth where I grew up. The World Cup winner Alan Ball was the youth team manager there. I had three years there under him which was fantastic. He was brilliant as a coach and it was very educational. I got the rest of my (Under-18) caps at Portsmouth.

My first season at Leicester started quite well. However, when I’d been at Leicester for about a month I found out that I had a hernia problem, which hadn’t been picked up at Wrexham. I was out for about eight weeks which was disappointing.

Kevin Russell

“Alan Ball treated us well. Then he became the manager which was even better for me as I’d been under his wing. I was playing men’s football at 18. I spent three years at Portsmouth until I turned 19. I played a few games in the first team and we managed to get promoted into what is now the Premier League.

“At the end of the season (1987), Alan told me that I needed to move on in order to get some games. I was a bit disappointed about that but I had a family and a baby and I needed to support them.

“I went to Wrexham who were in the Fourth Division. It was a gamble worth taking because it meant first team football. Dixie McNeill was the manager. He used to be a famous striker for them. He was fantastic for me and was an old school kind of manager; a proper man’s manager. It was a good time. I had two great years (1987-89) there and scored many goals (47 in 102 League and Cup games) playing as centre-forward. Wrexham was the only club where I played centre-forward. We got to the 1989 Play-Off Final. It was a good club with a brilliant fan base. Wrexham was a good stepping stone."

Kevin’s exploits at Wrexham prompted David Pleat’s Leicester City, playing in the ‘old’ Second Division, to pay a fee of £175,000 to bring him to Filbert Street.

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Kevin Russell
Kevin Russell

'Rooster' in action for the Foxes at Wembley Stadium in 1992.

He explained: “Everton and Leicester were interested in me. When I was a kid David (Pleat), had been interested in me when he was manager at Luton. When I met him at Leicester I was impressed with him and with the set up. Also Micky Kennedy, who I knew well because we had been at Portsmouth together, was at Filbert Street. It was a big move for me and a very exciting time.

 “My first season at Leicester started quite well. However, when I’d been at Leicester for about a month I found out that I had a hernia problem, which hadn’t been picked up at Wrexham. I was out for about eight weeks which was disappointing. After I recovered David sent me out on loan to Peterborough (in September 1990) where I broke my leg. This was a killer. I went on loan to Cardiff (in January 1991) to get match fit. Then David got the sack and Gordon Lee took over. As soon as I got fit he put me straight into the team and then it all kicked off after that."

Now fully fit, Kevin played in the last thirteen games on that 1990/91 season, and began to establish his reputation as a cult figure. The team was in danger of being relegated to the third tier for the first time in the Club’s history. Kevin’s vital goals in wins against Notts County, Brighton and Hove Albion and Portsmouth kept Leicester City’s hopes alive. Survival depended on the results of the last game against Oxford United. Tony James’s vital goal secured a 1-0 win. Even this would not have been enough had West Bromwich Albion won at Bristol Rovers. The Baggies only drew and were relegated instead of Leicester City.

Thinking back to this escape, Kevin recalled: “I scored some important goals. Me and Tommy (Wright) who had done well that season, had a bit of a run. We were best buddies. We lived together for a time, and we joined (and left) the club at the same time. I played on the right, and he played on the left. I liked playing wide rather than being centre-forward and I had a knack for scoring goals. They were great times really. We had some good players, like Gary McAllister Ali Mauchlen, Steve Walsh and Gary Mills. I certainly remember the Oxford game.  Filbert Street was packed to the rafters. There was a great atmosphere. When we won that game it felt like we had been promoted. It ended the season really well for me and I felt as if I had found my feet. I got some game time and I had a fantastic rapport with the punters."

It was the first time Leicester had been at Wembley since the 1960s and after that they had a run of Wembley appearances in the 1990s, starting with this one. The town went absolutely mental.

Kevin Russell

During the close season, Brian Little replaced Gordon Lee as manager at Filbert Street.

“It was different really when Gordon left,” Kevin said. “He had shown a lot of faith in me and I had got on really well with him. When Brian came in I didn’t really figure to start with. I was not really in his plans. I just wanted to play first team football. I’m not one for hanging around. Some players go to clubs just to pick up their wages but for me it was all about playing. I loved training and just love playing football. So I went out on loan to Hereford (in November 1991) and to Stoke (in January 1992). I had a good period at Stoke. Then Brian (Little) called me back to Leicester. That’s when I became a fixture in the first team in the run to the Play-Off final at Wembley."

Kevin’s first game back in the first team was against Portsmouth. He scored in a 2-2 draw. Kevin also scored the crucial winning goals against Tranmere Rovers at Filbert Street and at Blackburn Rovers on Easter Saturday.

“I scored some late goals at that time in the last five minutes of games when we needed to win,” Kevin remembered. “It was an exciting time with packed houses at Filbert Street."

Leicester City’s fourth place earned them a Play-Off Semi-Final tie against Cambridge United whose team had risen from the Fourth Division to the edge of the Premier League in three seasons. They had beaten Leicester City 5-1 earlier in the season at the Abbey Ground.

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Kevin Russell
Kevin Russell

Kevin made the move to Stoke City ahead of the 1992/93 campaign.

Kevin scored in both semi-final legs; the 1-1 draw at Cambridge and the 5-0 victory at Filbert Street.

“I remember the away end at Cambridge,” said Kevin. “It was a sea of blue and bright yellow. It was a very tight ground. There were so many fans from Leicester that it was like a home game. The Leicester supporters are fantastic. Like the Stoke supporters, they are very passionate about their club. Lee Philpott, Dion Dublin and Steve Claridge played in those semi-finals for Cambridge. I grew up with Steve and we played against each other as kids."

The Play-Off final at Wembley for a place in the newly established Premier League was against Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers.

Kevin remembers it well: “It was the first time Leicester had been at Wembley since the 1960s and after that they had a run of Wembley appearances in the 1990s, starting with this one. The town went absolutely mental. I think three-quarters of Wembley was taken over by Leicester fans! The atmosphere was absolutely unbelievable. It was disappointing to lose to a dodgy penalty scored by (the ex-Leicester City player) Mike Newell after David Speedie went to ground. It was a very scrappy game. Both teams were under a lot of pressure and never really got into their rhythm. We had worked so hard that season to get to where we did get to. The result was a big disappointment but it was an occasion that I’ll never forget."

Kevin’s game at Wembley was his last game for Leicester City. That summer he transferred to Stoke City, who were playing in the third tier.

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Kevin Russell
Kevin Russell

Kevin Russell worked with Darren Ferguson at Peterborough United.

Kevin explained why he made the move to the Potteries: "At the time I had no intention of leaving the Club but I had just moved house and I was homeless at the time. I spoke to the manager about a new contract. He told me he would sort it out when he came back from his holidays three weeks later. This didn’t sit very well with me. I had a young family and I didn’t know where I was going to live. Stoke wanted me and I felt that Brian (Little) didn’t really make me feel wanted (at Leicester) which was really disappointing. That’s why I left."

The fans were very sorry to see ‘Rooster’ go as Kevin himself acknowledged.

He said: “I was popular because of the way I played. I gave 100 per cent. The punters respect it if you run around and give it all. That’s the way I played. I loved football. There was nothing better than scoring goals."

One indicator of a player’s popularity is when fans devise a song for that player. This was certainly the case with ‘Rooster’ who went on to explain: “‘Rooster’ was my nickname since I was seven years of age. It stuck at Leicester because (Leicester City player) Micky Kennedy was at Portsmouth when everyone called me ‘Rooster’.  When I came to Stoke, Micky was there as well."

“I had a great season at Stoke,” Kevin continued. “It is a fantastic football club and very similar to Leicester. We ended up getting promoted at the end of my season there. My times at Leicester and Stoke were probably the most enjoyable of my career. They were both very good teams and it was good fun."

Between June 1993 and February 1995, Kevin had spells at Burnley ( a promotion season to the second tier) and Bournemouth before moving to Notts County for half a season where he played alongside his ex-Leicester City team mates Gary Mills and Phil Turner. He returned to Wrexham in July 1995.   

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Kevin Russell
Kevin Russell

Kevin is now part of the first team coaching staff at Stoke City.

“Towards the end of my career I went back to Wrexham. We had some good FA Cup runs. In 1997, I scored a last minute winning goal at West Ham in the FA Cup. We got to the quarter- finals that year. I started on my coaching career at Wrexham. Denis Smith (who had made over 400 appearances for Stoke City between 1968 and 1982) came in as manager in 2001 and I ended up as his assistant manager. We got promoted and won the LDV (English Football League) trophy.

“I left Wrexham when Denis got the sack in January 2007. I went to Peterborough with Darren Ferguson (who had been captain at Wrexham and who went to Peterborough United as player-manager in January 2007). We had an unbelievable time at Peterborough. We took them from the bottom league to the Championship in successive seasons in 2008 and 2009 when we came second to Leicester City. I enjoyed that rivalry with Leicester. I lived in Stamford and half of Stamford are Leicester fans so the banter was good."

In 2010, Kevin went to Preston North End with Darren Ferguson, where he coached future Leicester City players Ritchie De Laet and Matty James, who were on loan from Manchester United.

He added: “Preston didn’t work out for us so I went back to Peterborough with Daz (Darren Ferguson) and we managed to get back into the Championship again. When I finished at Peterborough again, I came to help one of the coaches at Stoke City and ended up staying. I’ve been coaching the Under-18s for three years. We got them to the FA Youth Semi-Finals which was good and a few of them like Tom Edwards, Julien Ngoy and Thibald Verlinden have been around the first team. Now I’m working with the first team which has been good."

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