Forest Green Rovers keeper Sam Russell speaks to us exclusively about:
- The difference in quality between the Football League and non-league
- His sweeper keeper philosophy and the importance of staying fit
- Facing a challenge from a highly rated young loanee from Chelsea
- The next chapter in the Forest Green Rovers fairy tale
Forest Green Rovers are playing in the Football League for the first time in their 128 year history – and few understand the challenge they face better than their own goalkeeper.
Sam Russell has played almost his entire 17 year career in either the National League, from which Rovers were promoted in May after a Wembley play-off, or the club’s promised land of League Two.
‘The Little Club on the Hill’, representing a village of fewer than 6000 people, is now competing with the likes of former Premier League sides Coventry City and Swindon Town.
Between the Sticks spoke to Russell about the difference in quality between the two divisions – and he’s expecting a busy season.
“Having had experience in this league before, I know the standard is slightly better,” he said.
“The quality improves all over the pitch, so you’ve got to be ready for that as a goalkeeper.
“You have to expect people to hit the target from areas or angles that they might not in non-league.
“The higher you go the better technique people have got and the higher the standard of shooting will be, so you’ve got to be prepared for people to pull the trigger from 30-40 yards.”
The 34 year old has been working “really hard” to prepare himself for that alongside goalkeeping coach Steve Hale by trying to recreate match situations by doing plenty of “realistic shooting drills” in pre-season training.
As well as raising technical standards, Forest Green Rovers put their squad’s fitness to the test with a training camp under sweltering conditions in the Algarve.
The Middlesbrough native described training in temperatures that rarely trouble Teeside as “very, very difficult.”
But he’s far from the vision of the non-league goalkeeper presented to the public by pie-munching Wayne Shaw during Sutton United’s FA Cup run last season.
Russell models his game on sweeper keepers like Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris and Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer.
“I like keepers who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, can act as an another outfield player and are sharp and agile in and outside the box,” he explains.
“I believe goalkeepers should be fit – the days are gone when you have a big keeper who’s slightly overweight.
“The trimmer goalkeepers are far better around the box.”
‘Gigi’ Buffon, who remains captain of Juventus and Italy at the age of 39, is another inspiration.
“Buffon’s longevity is something I admire and I would love to go on for as long as him,” he added.
“I’m nearly 35 now and I try to keep myself in as best condition as I can, so I will do extra things like a lot of physical work in the training ground.”
It was a rest day for the Rovers squad when we spoke to Russell, but he’d still been to the gym.
Despite keeping himself in good physical condition, he must be counted as a club veteran.
Russell has made close to 500 professional appearances for seven clubs – 193 of them for Rovers – since his professional debut in 2002 at Gateshead.
He began preparing for the move into goalkeeper coaching by working with Middlesbrough’s youth team during a second spell at Gateshead in the 2015/16 season.
But while he admits to having “one eye” on his future coaching career, he insists: “I’m not ready for it yet. I want to go on playing for as long as I can.”
Russell, who is beginning his sixth season with Rovers, added: “I’ve settled at the football club and I’m still as hungry as ever.
“I just want to keep on going as long as I can, I feel really good and I want to play as many games as I can this season and really help the team.”
Russell played all 54 of the club’s league and cup matches last season, but has, at least for now, lost his position as the club’s number one.
He played in the 1-0 League Cup loss to MK Dons, but watched the club’s first Football League fixtures from the bench.
He has been replaced by Bradley Collins, who is on loan from Chelsea, where he has won two FA Youth Cup’s and the UEFA Youth League. He also played alongside John Terry last season as part of the club’s reserve side.
Manager Mark Cooper hinted at his willingness to start the 20 year old when the signing was announced, saying: “Bradley joining Forest Green Rovers shows just how far we’ve come…We’re all looking forward to seeing Bradley compete for games and play.”
The decision is a set back for Russell, who worked hard over eight years to earn a return to League Football – his last appearance coming for Rochdale in 2009.
“I’m looking forward to being back in the league,” he told Between the Sticks. “I think, with my career, I deserve to be there.”
But he also spoke about how he relished the challenge brought by Collins and 19 year old former Port Vale keeper Harry Pickering, who was also signed this summer.
The club’s number two last season, former Bordeaux youngster Simon Lefebvre, left the club by mutual consent after failing to play a competitive fixture since signing in July 2016.
Russell, who has just signed a new glove sponsorship deal with Uhlsport, admits: “Last year I didn’t have a great deal of competition. I played every single game.
“There’s obviously a lot more pressure on this year. Both the goalkeepers we’ve brought in this year, I think they’re of a really, really good standard. The goalkeeping standard has picked up, it’s on another level.
“Bradley’s got a hell of a lot of potential. He’s ready to play games.”
Crucially, he adds: “I’m not ready not to play games yet.”
It’s clear though that the former England youth international sees the competition as healthy and treats it in the spirit of the goalkeepers’ union.
“Hopefully we’ll put pressure on each other, but as a goalkeeper you’ll always have a good union and get on together,” he concluded.
“We’ll push each other and help each other through training.
“Being the older one with the experience, hopefully I’ll help them as much as I can and they’ll learn from me.”
Despite finding himself on the sidelines, Russell’s hopes of playing at League One level for the first time in his career still lie with Rovers.
The club’s environmentalist chairman Dale Vince has spoken of his belief that winning promotion from League Two will be easier than their two decade battle to get into the division.
Russell remains grounded but wisely won’t write anything off for a football club that has already surpassed all expectations.
“Who knows how far this football club can go,” he said. “It’s in a really good place and it’s a test for everyone.
“I wouldn’t like to say what we’re going to do and what the ambitions are. I know we’ve got an ambitious chairman and he’d like to go through the leagues.
“But we’ve just got to take it each game as it comes because it’s unknown territory for the football club.”
Note: Between the Sticks would like to thank Forest Green Rovers press officer Max Boon for his assistance with this interview and providing photos.