One of my favourite ever Torquay United players; Alex Russell started his footballing life as a youngster at the mighty Liverpool FC in the early nineties (alongside Redknapp, McManaman etc.), and after leaving Anfield played for the likes of Burscough, Rochdale, Glenavon and Cambridge, before signing for United (at the age of 28) in the summer of 2001.
He was brought to the club by Roy McFarland, who didn’t last long down here (only one season before falling out with Mike Bateson over staffing arrangements!), but did bring in quality like Russell, Jason Fowler and David Graham. For that alone we should be grateful!
The 2001-02 campaign saw United struggle again, and Alex must have wandered what he’d let himself in for! He did bag a hat-trick in February against Darlington, but the squad was unsettled and lacking direction. Thankfully that was all about to change.
Enter Leroy Rosenior in 2002. The rookie boss was given a chance by Bateson (who wasn’t afraid to make surprise decisions) to show what he could do at Plainmoor, and he was motivated to grasp it with both hands. United were going to play a more expansive passing game, and frequently it was knitted around the skills of Alex in central midfield.
Russell lacked the size and stature that is so often associated with the best midfielders (and he couldn’t run very fast!), but what he could do – he did expertly. The midfield maestro had what people now commonly refer to as a high footballing IQ! He was excellent at keeping things simple, keeping on the move and ultimately keeping the ball. Traits he had no doubt learnt at Liverpool FC, where ‘pass and move’ has always been top of the Anfield agenda.
“He was excellent at keeping things simple, keeping on the move and ultimately keeping the ball”
It’s silly what you remember really, but lodged in my memory is how he would often receive the ball from throw-ins, then perfectly control and pass it. Now that should be simple shouldn’t it? Well I have watched numerous players struggle to do it before and after Alex played for us. He was also a big help to defenders such as Woods and Taylor, who would look up to see Russell in a pocket of space and know they could trust him to manipulate the ball for the good of the team.
So back to 2002-03, and Russell was often paired with Jason Fowler (injury permitting). The combination of Alex’s composure on the ball and Jason’s willingness to work hard and run off it were powering United up the table. Russell had not only shown his ability in open play that season, but also welcome skill on set pieces. He had been successful on penalties (though in the end that changed!), free-kicks and corners. His skilful delivery of the ball would often find Hilly and Woods loitering with intent in the penalty area.
After a slow end to the season we missed out on the play-offs, but there was recognition for Russell as he deservedly made the PFA Team of the Year for his efforts – a feat he would achieve again in 2004. That summer Leroy signed Craig Taylor and Brian McGlinchey to stiffen up the defence, and the momentum was there for a promotion challenge.
Unfortunately Jason Fowler’s struggle with injury continued, but Matt Hockley slotted in and could do the dirty work whilst Alex took care of the rest. With Russell consistently excellent the team were beating teams with ease, and the midfielder would often find Davey Graham or Martin Gritton upfront with a pinpoint pass.
Now we all know how that season ended, a glorious finale at Southend – when the boys held out to win 2-1 and send us up to League One. Alex chipped in that day with a terrific corner for Steve Woods’s opener. It’s my happiest day supporting United, and I doubt Alex has had many better either! Images of him celebrating wildly with the rest of the team and Helen Chamberlain are etched in my memory forever. Going from interviews since then the team never really believed automatic promotion was happening until right at the very end, and I guess that made it all the more wonderful!
Onto 2004-05 in League One and with Graham sadly departing, it was down to some guy called Akinfenwa to lead the line! That season saw even more onus put on Russell by Leroy, as better teams pressed harder and made it difficult for United to keep the ball in check.
We may have been relegated in the end that season, but I can safely say it was not down to Alex. He gave all he could for the cause, taking on that extra responsibility and raising his game to new levels. Not only keeping the ball in midfield, but also joining up in attack and helping to create goals for the likes of Adebayo and Jo Kuffour. He also scored perhaps his best goal for us, a spectacular overhead kick against Tranmere (unfortunately we lost 2-1).
Although Akinfenwa was awarded with the Player of the Year award, it was harsh on the ever-present midfielder who was really United’s key-man that season. He was understandably gutted along with the rest of the boys at Colchester, and the memories of that defeat are still painful to this day.
That summer Alex decided to leave for pastures new. It was another cruel blow after relegation, but he earned the right to stay in League One and was snapped up by Bristol City – before playing for a number of other teams (including Exeter City, Yeovil and Cheltenham). He finished with 163 games for us and scored 20 in four years. Not a bad goal-scoring record, but his game was never about scoring goals – after all he dictated the tempo in one of our best ever teams.
Since then many playmakers have been brought in and tried to replicate what Alex did. It started with the injury prone Matt Hewlett, then the thread continued to players like Steve Adams and Nicky Wroe, through to our current skipper Courtney. None of them have really come close and have lacked the ability, belief and composure to take control in the engine room.
United fans love to hark back to former players, and Russell is often mentioned. Looking back to when he played for us, there was often criticism of him and calls for the lad to get stuck in more (not his game). As time has gone on most proper fans have realised what an asset we had in Alex (and asked if he was returning!). He wasn’t perfect of course and had off days, but I wish we had someone like him orchestrating the game in front of the back four now – ‘keeping it simple and making us tick’. Definitely a GULLACTICO!