If there’s one thing that Sunderland fans love more than a class footballer, it’s a class local footballer, and despite being gone from Sunderland for over a year, Craig Russell remains one of the most popular players on Wearside. Since joining Manchester City, however, many of us have been walking in a Russell wonderland, wondering what on earth has happened to him. We decided to get in touch with footballs finest Fulwell ender and catch up on what’s happened since Nicky Summerbee and he swapped lives.
How did you feel about leaving Sunderland?
It was one of those things really, a crossroads in my career where I knew I wasn’t going to get a game every week for Sunderland. The opportunity came along and it just had to be taken really. I’ve got bills to pay like everybody else and that’s what it’s all about. I was fortunate enough to play for my club and I can’t ask for more than that. Saying that, I looked at all the goals being scored last year and thought, ‘I wish I could play in that team.’ As I say, I got the chance to play for Sunderland, but to play in front of 40,000, that, I would have killed for. It’s hard not to look back and wish you played at this time or that time, but I was part of one Sunderland team and we won the Championship. I’ll always have a Championship medal and I’ll go down in the history books as having played for Sunderland. Nobody can take that away from me.
How have you been doing since you joined Man City?
It hasn’t exactly worked out the way I imagined it would do, with one thing and another, a new manager coming in and all that. But I’ve got on with it, managed to get back into the side and scored a few goals. It’s a lot different to when you play for your hometown team. At Sunderland, a lot of you is still standing on the terraces, shouting at yourself for the mistakes you make. But it’s a job, you’ve got to be professional, that’s why you get paid, so you can get on with it and do as good a job as you can.
How do you like the North West?
I haven’t really had a chance to settle in Manchester. My missus moved up for a couple of months, but then I got put on the list and it looked like I was going to move. She’s expecting another baby, so she went back home when she found that out and I’m just renting a place here until I know what’s going on. It’s just one of those things at the end of the day. Like I say, it’s a job. I don’t think the lads at Sunderland who are playing for their hometown team know how lucky they are to still be at home, to still have all your family and friends around you… I think I took it a little bit for granted. But you get into a sort of comfort zone and maybe sometimes you need something to mess you up a bit, make you grow up or whatever.
Do you blame Peter Reid for forcing you out?
There was a lot made about Reidy and myself apparently not getting on, but I’m sure if you asked Peter about me he’ll tell you that I’m a great lad or what have you. It was just one of those things. I played virtually a full season when we won the Championship, Peter Reid was manager then and he picked me the majority of the time. I never had a crossword with him and I don’t really know what all the fuss is about.
Do you come back to the North East much?
Since my missus has moved back to Sunderland, I’m home as regularly as possible. Once they open this new A1/M1 link road it’ll be a lot easier. Every time I drive past I think ‘I wish they’d get a shift on.’ It’ll save me about twenty minutes, which is quite a bit off the journey. Aye, I get back as much as I can and I still keep in touch with Mickey Gray and Smithy and that. But I haven’t been to a single match this year because I’ve been playing or what have you – I’ve never had the opportunity. The only game I went to was when I was on loan at Tranmere and we got hammered 5-0, but that’s the only time I’ve been back to the Stadium of Light.
What was the crack with the loan spell at Tranmere?
City are trying to get rid of me now. I went to Tranmere on loan earlier this season. I only went to get a few games, there was never anything going to come from it and if I’m honest, I only really went 'cos I saw they were playing Sunderland. I had to get back and play up there somehow; you know what I mean? The day itself was really good, the reception I got and that. But it was disappointing to get beat 5-0 and I would have liked Tranmere to have done better. Still, it’s three points for Sunderland so I suppose it isn’t that bad.
Do you get sick of people making a fuss of you?
When I go home, people still come up to me in the street and talk to me, which is fantastic. Man City played Wimbledon in the third round of the cup and I came back on the train. A few of the lads who had been to see the Lincoln match got on and were straight over. I was with Jamie Pollock and we went and sat with them, it was fantastic. It’s always a good crack. It’s nice when you go to a Sunderland game and people make a fuss of you, you’d be mad not to enjoy that. But at the end of the day, I’m just one of the lads and I think people respect that about me. That’s half of the thing, I’m a Sunderland supporter. If I wasn’t playing I’d be standing on the terraces with everyone else, so I don’t mind all the stuff that goes along with it. It’s funny, I can walk around Manchester all day and nobody’ll bat an eyelid, but at home I can’t nip out for a pint of milk without getting recognised. It’s really nice to be remembered.
Will Martin Smith make it in a red and white shirt?
Speaking to Smithy, he’s obviously desperate to play every week, you know. I believe he’s out of contract this year, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there. Nobody could ever question his ability; it’s just his confidence. He needs to get back into the side and stay in. There used to be questions about his weight and all that, but if you look at him now, he’s dead lean. From what I’ve heard he’s been doing really well in the reserves. So it looks like he’s working hard and if he doesn’t get the rewards from the work, if he doesn’t get into the side, then he might have to leave.
What are your over-riding Sunderland memories… as a player?
My worst day at Sunderland was getting relegated at Wimbledon. It was terrible and that’s all I can really say about it. My best day was when we got the Championship trophy presented to us at Roker Park. I’ll remember that forever and it’ll never be done again since they knocked the ground down. Actually, I went back to the site of Roker Park a few weeks ago. It was weird. There used to be forty, fifty thousand there and you wonder how everyone fitted into that tiny space. It just doesn’t look like you can fit a football ground in there. It was weird. I said to my missus, “Come on, let’s go down.” She was driving and she just couldn’t grasp it. I was saying, “I chipped the keeper from here. I used to stand there,” and she was looking at me as if to say “You’re stupid, you.” The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. It was just me and my missus walking around and people must have been looking out their windows, saying, “Who are these weirdoes here?” Because I’m pointing to things that used to be there and that… so it was all a bit strange.
… and as a fan?
The best game I ever saw as a fan was the Newcastle away game in the play-offs. You can’t top that, standing in the Leazes end when Marco scores. If Newcastle manage to avoid relegation this season, I reckon that’s an easy six points for Sunderland next year. I think I might have a hamstring injury that day like, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’ll be interesting to see the two games against Leicester. It’ll be a good benchmark for the Lads. Leicester have earned some respect now and with players like big Heskey, it's going to be a good game. Actually, I’d better get on the phone to the Lads early doors and pester them for some Wembley tickets.
Give us some gossip on the Lads.
I can’t let any secrets out man, what happens if I bump into one of them in Asda or something? I’d love to tell you some of the things that went on, but it might get me into trouble in ten years time when I come back to manage Sunderland with Mickey and Smithy.
Is that going to happen then?
Aye, definitely, but the board will probably be a bit annoyed because we’d have to have our offices in Annabel’s.
Have you heard the latest tall story about Mickey Gray going to a cricket match last summer wearing a sarong?
Nah. Mickey would do a lot of stupid things, but I can’t see him putting a dress on. Mind, he’s got the figure of a lass, but I can’t see it myself.