The Big Interview: Lee Russell

Lee Russell, left, played more than 100 games for Pompey
Lee Russell, left, played more than 100 games for Pompey
Brett Pitman in action against Oldham. Picture: Joe Pepler

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It was a fast-track footballing apprenticeship that educated, enthralled and established in equal measure.

And Lee Russell’s out-of-school introduction to life at Fratton Park is one he now looks back on with great pride and a sense of fortune.

As a 16-year-old, Russell was thrown straight into the Blues’ reserve-team set-up.

And while still in his teenage years, he played alongside team-mates he had watched grace English football’s top tier.

But it was a second-division debut against one of the nation’s most prolific strikeforces that whet the appetite for an eventful decade at PO4.

Russell said: ‘I was quite fortunate when I went to the club because a lot of other lads have to work their way up through the youth-team.

‘There wasn’t a left-back coming through the ranks when I left school at 16, though, so I was chucked straight into the reserves.

‘I was training and playing with people like Kevin Dillon and other experienced players that I admired, so I got brought up pretty quickly.

‘Peter Osgood was my youth-team manager and Alan Ball was the boss so I had big, strong characters around me all of the time.

‘Discipline was a big thing and if you didn’t do something in the right manner, you’d certainly know about it!’

For Russell, a tough-tackling, no-nonsense defender, playing against grown men, week-in, week-out gave him a good, physical grounding in the game.

But with the Blues in English football’s top division, thoughts of a first-team call-up appeared wide of the mark.

Immediate relegation and increasingly impressive performances from the teenager in the Blues’ second-string, though, alerted the attention of manager Ball at the start of the 1988-89 campaign.

Russell found himself training with the first-team squad and viewed as someone who could be called upon if and when needed.

For the teenager, it was the stuff of dreams, as players he had grown up idolising became team-mates.

And on September 24, 1988, just weeks after his 19th birthday, Russell came off the bench to make his Fratton Park bow against a prolific Crystal Palace side.

Mark Bright and Ian Wright combined to net more than 50 goals for the Eagles as they earned promotion but the duo were limited to a solitary Wright strike in a memorable draw.

‘By the time I was 18 I had played for nearly two years in the reserves and it was an amazing time to be at the club,’ remembered Russell.

‘I was a second-year apprentice when we got promoted to the top flight and seeing teams like Liverpool coming down to Fratton Park was just incredible.

‘And the following season, Alan Ball was giving me my debut at 19 against Crystal Palace!

‘I’ll never forget coming on for Paul Hardyman and lining up against Ian Wright and Mark Bright – some introduction that was.

‘We drew the game 1-1 and things just went on from there.’

Bitten by the Blues bug, Russell remained at Fratton Park until May 1999, playing under five different managers (Ball twice) and making more than 100 appearances.

But his time on the south coast was blighted by injury.

It seemed every time Russell got an extended run in the side, he picked up a war wound serious enough to put him out of action.

Misfortune played its part but Russell accepted the aggressive manner in which he played the game was also to blame.

He said: ‘All of the crowd knew that I loved a tackle and I wasn’t frightened to stick up for myself.

‘But then it seemed every time I got injured it was either a break or a major surgery.

‘I had two hernia operations, a dislocated shoulder, fractured knee, ruptured thigh, broken foot – the list goes on.

‘Most people in their career get the odd strain here or there but every time I got injured it was serious.

‘I’d get in the team then be out for a few months and then would have to try to get back in again,

‘It’s very hard to force your way back into a side because at Pompey there was always a good group of players and good young lads coming through as well.

‘When you did come out of the team it was very frustrating because you knew you may be out for a while.

‘And no matter how well you play in training, you don’t change a winning team – simple as that.’

Such was Russell’s injury frequency, it’s no great surprise that his finest memory in a Blues shirt comes complete with its own trip to the doctor’s room.

He said: ‘When I was 19, we went up to Old Trafford to play Man United in the league cup and played great in a 0-0 draw.

‘That was the best moment in my career but then it was also the night that Brian McClair busted my eye.

‘I had to go off to have stitches in the doctor’s room.

‘All the United lads walked in after the game and Alex Ferguson was stood there talking to the doctor and I just remember thinking: “Wow”.’

Another memory, though, this one painful but not bloody, is the Gazza-inspired 1991 FA Cup fifth-round 2-1 loss to Spurs.

‘England’s Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker played for Spurs and there were more than 26,000 at Fratton Park that day,’ said Russell.

‘The noise the crowd made was just frightening.’

Noise created by the Fratton faithful may have intimidated many a player but for Russell it was sweet music to his ears throughout his long stay.

And off the pitch, the Blues battler became a firm fans’ favourite, not least for his tendency to mingle with them.

Friendship, however, did not mean he was immune to criticism.

Russell reflected: ‘With me, I never used to have family or anything go to away games, so I’d give all of my comps (complimentary tickets) to fans when I stepped off the team bus.

‘I always did that – if there were people that I knew I would always chuck them my tickets.

‘After the games, the players all used to go to the bar and the fans would be in there with us as well.

‘They would tell us a few home truths – if you were good or bad they’d let you know, end of!

‘You’d just take it on the chin and if you got no stick at the bar you knew you’d done alright!’

While Russell played his part in many good times on the pitch, he was absent for the Blues’ most famous episode in his time at Fratton Park.

Unsurprisingly, for a man who had a seemingly endless injury list, Russell was ruled out of the Blues’ epic 1992 FA Cup run.

He said: ‘I was frustrated but I had a hernia injury that went wrong and then ruptured my thigh muscle trying to get back into action too early.

‘All I wanted was for the team to do well.

‘It was an amazing run that they went on and you just wanted to be part of it.

‘I know I couldn’t do it playing-wise but I was there to offer my support.

‘It was just saddening that we came up short in the semis.’

Russell, now 44, called time on an eventful Blues stay – spent entirely in the second division – at the end of the financially-stricken club’s centenary 1998-99 season.

He said: ‘The administrators were in and everyone who was in and out of the team was told to go and find somewhere else.

‘I went on loan to Torquay and said to them: “If you offer me a three-year deal I’ll come down”.

‘My daughter was just about to start school and they came up with a good package so I went down – and I still live there now.’