VFTN’s Paul Gronow recently met with Russell, who is still based in the area and lives in Sully, to discuss his time in charge at Cardiff. Remarkably, this is the first time he has discussed his tenure since leaving. Part two follows tomorrow.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was dismissed by Cardiff, you were managing Leyton Orient. The club identified you as their number one target and were rebuffed a few times in their advances. Can you explain how you first heard about Cardiff’s interest and how those two weeks played out before you were appointed.
It became a difficult period at Orient due to their takeover. Before this my relationship with then-owner Barry Hearn was a strong one. At the end of the season, we went to Las Vegas and he let me know over a game of golf that a takeover was imminent.
The new Italian owners wanted me to give it a go, but I felt very early on that this was going to be a very difficult relationship and that proved to be the case. From pre-season onwards, things weren’t looking good.
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After eight games of the season, it became apparent that Cardiff City were interested and the opportunity to move up to the Championship with a big club was too hard to resist. I’d come close to promotion and lost on penalties, but Cardiff was very appealing.
We were very respectful of the on-going negotiations between Leyton Orient and Cardiff and therefore I was brought in originally, whilst they were being finalised, as a consultant. I had an opportunity to watch the team in the cup and have a look behind the scenes at the set-up of the club.
That was an invaluable time because I could have a wider look at the situation whilst not actually being involved in the day-to-day, making it more objective.
Having only previously managed briefly in the Championship, were you surprised by Cardiff’s interest?
Over the previous couple of seasons, there had been strong interest from other Championship clubs and having managed in the second tier before (with Notts County in 1994), I wasn’t completely surprised by the development.
People often forget that I was twice voted manager of the year in League One and had come very close to promotion on more than one occasion. It was always my ambition to manage in the Championship and this was a wonderful opportunity to do so.
How would you assess the differences between League One and the Championship?
The gaps are getting bigger year on year and they’re certainly larger than they used to be. There are clearly big clubs in League One and who’s to say that Sunderland, if they do go up this season, won’t go up again the year after?
I said recently on TalkSport that it’s now almost impossible to break into the top six of the Premier League. It’s a very difficult party to gate crash, but the top six clubs in the Championship are now not that far from the bottom eight in the Premier League.
The club had just been relegated from the Premier League and had spent a lot of money. How was the task presented to you and what were your goals?
The hierarchy was adamant that Cardiff City Football Club should be challenging at the very top of the Championship. It was not a case of looking over your shoulders at relegation. At no time during my tenure was relegation a fear for the club, our eyes were much fixed forward.
Vincent and Mehmet were determined that a recovery was possible and I was originally brought in to halt the decline and get the club back up the table where we all felt it belonged.
You appeared to be tasked with cutting both the squad and costs. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, absolutely. The remit was that we had to remain competitive and move out an abundance of players. People forget that the playing squad was getting towards 40 players!
The club was full of players who didn’t have the inclination to help Cardiff move up the table. There were some there who just didn’t want to be at Cardiff and didn’t have the right attitude to take the club forward. That had to be addressed.
Fortunately, there was a nucleus of good professionals and talented players at the club. That changing room needed to be as one.
What were your first impressions of the squad and club you had inherited?
When I came in, because of the position they were in and the way things were going off the pitch, that squad as it was when I arrived was never going to achieve what the owner wanted, which was promotion.
It was always going to be the second season that we were looking towards. Selling in the January made it more difficult. Not being able to get a striker in didn’t help, although Pilks’ conversion to a striker and Lex Immers helped us.
That being said, the Cardiff squad had some fantastically talented players and some consummate professionals who were determined to help me and the club move forward. Unfortunately, there was also a number of players there that just weren’t contributing. Other players would look at them and ask: “what are they doing to help?”
Rather than the players who were just turning up for training and going through the motions, we had to get the players on board who felt it really mattered. That’s when you get hold of your captain, senior pro’s and lieutenants who run the changing room for you. There’s a standard I wanted them to hit day in, day out and my trusted players helped me achieve that.
Every morning we all decide what attitude we adopt. All I asked was that they came to the training ground and tried to be the very best that they could be because that’s the minimum requirement. If they weren’t going to do that then I’m afraid, it was time to go.
How hard is it to move players on that you feel should leave?
Football is unusual. In the real world, if we aren’t doing our jobs and our attitude says we don’t want to be there then we’d be shown the door. Sometimes it’s very difficult to find a club for players who are on a three year contract earning significant amounts of money and that’s one of the things I felt we did very well.
We knew the ones that were not going to play a part, the ones who were a drain on the football club and had to go. You need energisers not energy sappers and we worked very hard to find these people different clubs.
In my time at the club we actually halved the budget whilst remaining competitive the whole time. That’s a fact. I must reiterate; the hierarchy and management all worked as one. It wasn’t solely down to me that we achieved that reduction, it was very much a team effort.
In terms of style of play and formation, did you base that on what you inherited or did you stick to tried and tested methods that had worked for you in the past?
I’m glad you’ve not said we just played a basic 4-4-2 formation because that’s not what it was!
When you have someone like Peter Whittingham in your side and as he began to get older, I then played Scott Malone who was extremely athletic (and didn’t get the plaudits he deserved) alongside him, to cover the areas he couldn’t. Whitts could slide into pockets of space and control the game, but if you’re going to play like that then you needed someone like Malone to move outside him.
On the opposite side you had someone like Craig Noone, who would get the fans off their seats, but you always need the model pro’s like Lee Peltier and Sean Morrison, who would provide the stability for those players to do that.
Were there players who disappointed you during your time at the club?
Yes, of course, but every single player in the squad was given the opportunity to show us what they had to offer. Even the players who were previously on the periphery of the squad were given a fresh slate to show the management what they were about.
You always need to ask yourself why someone wasn’t playing for the previous manager and also doesn’t make my squad. Clearly there’s something not right there for that particular player. All too often supporters looking from the outside can query why a particular squad member isn’t playing, but there’s so much more to it than meets the eye.
Sadly, there were a LOT of decision to be made, but put it this way; there aren’t too many players who we let go that have gone on and made a real success of it.
Were you told which players needed to leave in January or did you decide who should go?
Football is a game of opinions, as we all know, and whilst there may not be an agreement on every single player, I can say that the vast majority of players that we let go were part of a strategy that we all agreed on.
On occasion, a manager does want to keep a player, but for various reasons they have to leave. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for players and they’ve got to go. I didn’t feel at any stage that I was overruled, it was always a team decision.