In more than five decades of watching live football, there have been many players I have admired, and some who I have greatly respected. I have been privileged to watch players such as Pele, Garrincha, Eusebio, Cruyff, Charlton, Best, and Dalgleish and, understandably, I have marvelled at their skills and abilities.
However, there are only a handful for whom I have developed an outright affection, call it “a one sided sporting bromance”, if you like, and one of those was Alex Russell, of Southport FC, who has died aged 78.
A lot of it is to do with timing, of course. Alex played his first game for Southport about two weeks before I first started watching them in November 1963. The heroes you adopt when you are eleven year old tend to stay with you, and, for me, watching Southport and Alex Russell in the 1960s were synonymous.
I heard of his death during a tour of the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – an ironic coincidence, as, when he arrived at Haig Avenue he was quickly nicknamed “Ringo” Russell. At the height of the Beatles’ surge, comparisons were everywhere, and a prominent nose and a Beatle fringe was enough to lead to the inevitable conclusion, though it didn’t really stick.
Everyone realised when he arrived that he was a cut above most of our players at the time, and it was our pleasure and privilege that, apart from spells at Blackburn, Tranmere and Los Angeles Aztecs, he spent the bulk of his career with the Sandgrounders, amassing nearly 400 appearances, over 75 goals and God knows how many assists. He played in the team that reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup in 1966, the promotion winning team the following year, and scored the 93rd minute free kick against Hartlepool to give Southport the Fourth Division title in 1973. In the Port’s greatest moments, he was there.
I always wondered if his allegiance to Southport commenced when his signing for the Port gave him the opportunity to complete his printers apprenticeship while playing first team football – an opportunity perhaps not so available in the Everton set up which he left to join up at Haig Avenue.
But why “affection”, as well as admiration for this talented player? Along with team mates Redrobe, Spence, Peat and Alty, he generated something extra in our reactions. You felt he cared as much as the support, and his demeanour was everything you would want in a hero.
He never needed to show off – his talent such was that he could dominate the opposition, make our own side tick, control the play, and score goals of all types without needing to grandstand. He ran the midfield against Cardiff City in the famous fourth round cup victory, he showed steel and determination as we headed towards the fourth division title, he linked the resolution of our defence to the flair of our attackers. The evidence of his talent was in its effect, and when Russell played on top of his form, the team inevitably got a result. When the Scarisbrick End sang his name, there would be a brief acknowledgement, but he never felt the need to milk it. It was not in his character on or off the field.
If he was all that an eleven year old could want in a modest hero, that feeling never diminished over time.
He was regularly to be seen at Haig Avenue in recent years, just a face in the crowd to some, a legend to others. I was delighted to meet him when I went to watch the team on the fiftieth anniversary of my first game at the ground. True to form, he looked a little overwhelmed to be the object of such affection from a retired gentleman referring to playing exploits of fifty years before, but predictably he took my gratitude and admiration in good part as we reminisced. It was wonderful to be able to thank him, to reasssure him that his legend certainly lived on in my heart and in our house, and particularly good to be able to introduce my son. In such moments immortality beckons!
Thoughts and thanks go to his family and former team mates for sharing this great man with the Southport football supporting public. If we will miss him, how much bigger must be your loss. I have never forgotten him and never will. He gave us so much joy and success.
Now I am involved in football and attend matches every week I still appreciate smooth and visionary midfield play. And, whenever I watch a cute reverse pass, a ball winning tackle, or a defence splitting ball to the wing, no matter who the player might be, a part of my heart is singing the old chant from the Scarisbrick End.
“Alex Russell. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”