RUSSELL MILTON was, arguably, the most influential member of Chris Kinnear's midfield engine room in the Dover Athletic side that climbed, painfully at first, out of the ashes of the defunct Dover FC to become the leading non-league side in Kent.
As Dover FC was going into terminal decline towards the end of the 1982/83 season, the future Whites star was signing schoolboy forms for Arsenal.
"It was an exciting time," Russell (pictured above at Crabble, far right, with Dover and England semi-pro team-mates David Leworthy, Jason Bartlett and Corey Browne) told me, "Paul Merson was in the year above me. They only took on 15 trainees per year."
And it soon became clear to this young footballer that his chances of progressing any further up the professional ladder were slight, to put it mildly, since, when it came to selecting the full-time trainees who would go on to benefit from intensive further coaching, only two of the 30 initial entrants would get the nod. Russell was one of them.
But the real testing ground of full-time professional football was beckoning with Arsenal managers of the calibre of Don Howe and George Graham overseeing the development of their future stars.
Regular appearances for the Arsenal youth team and the reserves followed with testimonial appearances for the first team from time to time.
We were beating everybody in sight. It seemed we just couldn't lose.
It was not long, though, before Russell was plying his trade abroad. He spent three years in Hong Kong with Double Flower FC, before returning to England, with offers from Stoke City and Bury Town in the pipeline.
But, wisely, Russell was thinking ahead; well ahead and, as committed to football as he was, there was, nevertheless, the nagging question lurking in the depths of his mind about what he was going to do when the football days were over.
"I was back from Hong Kong one summer, at home in Folkestone," he said, "When Dominic Castle (a reserve player at Crabble at the time) suggested that I look in at Dover." And Chris Kinnear was a very good judge of football talent.
There is no doubt that the offer of a place on a degree access course at Canterbury's Christ Church College, my own alma mater, was a factor in his signing for Dover Athletic in the summer of 1992. And he made his first appearance for Dover against Crystal Palace in the Lennie Lee Testimonial Match just before the start of the 1992/93 season, the year of Whites' successful second attempt to win promotion to the Conference.
"We were beating everybody in sight," said Russell. "It seemed that we just couldn't lose."
The first time I saw Russell in action was in the 5-0 Crabble demolition of Cambridge City that year. I'd gone to the ground earlier in the day thinking to myself that it was only a matter of time before this resurgent Dover side hammered someone. Little did I know that that was the day and that the Cambridge City side were the victims in waiting.
The first attempt at promotion for Kinnear's rejuvenated team had been at the end of the 1989/90 season when Dover had won the Beazer Homes Southern Premier League at a romp, with only four league defeats in the season, recording a record 102 points at the end of that campaign.
But, in a bizarre twist of fate, Bath City, recently relegated from the Conference and a club that would have an influence on Russell's future career, finishing second in the league, were promoted instead due to Crabble being deemed "inadequate" for Conference football.
We thought we could go straight into the Football League.
Whites appealed - on the grounds that Crabble was going to be up to the required standard that summer (which it was) - but, in a decision that is still controversial today, the Conference upheld their ruling and the west country club was re-instated into the top flight of non-league football.
Another 10 years were to pass before Russell found himself, ironically, in the position of assistant player manager at Bath.
This period of excitement and hope for Dover fans was to turn sour as the years went by.
But in that autumn of 1993, with newly promoted Dover Athletic riding high at the top of the Conference, Russell's words, "We thought we could do anything," seemed to have a prophetic ring.
The inevitable question resonated in all our minds: was Dover Athletic capable of going on through the Conference and into the Football League without stopping?
At that time, coming up to Christmas, 1993, it seemed possible. "We thought we could go straight into the Football League," said Russell.
But, after a difficult mid-season, the championship challenge faded and the team finished a creditable eighth in the Conference.
Dover were a club that others were standing up and taking notice of, too. So much so that Russell, along with team-mates David Leworthy, Jason Bartlett and Corey Browne, were called up into the England semi-professional team.
Russell, front row, third from right, lines up for Whites in 1994-95
Then, the wheels started to fall off. "There were several seasons in which Dover were perennial strugglers in the Conference, avoiding relegation one year, ironically, because another side could not go up. In fact, it was only because Boston United's secretary "forgot" to post his club's application for Conference membership before the set deadline that saved Whites from the drop.
In 1995, Russell captained the Great Britain Students team in the World Student Games in Japan.
The opening match was a joke," Russell said, with the hint of a philosophical chuckle in his voice. "We played Australia. We dominated the match. They had two chances on goal and scored twice. We finished up losing 2-1."
A subsequent 4-2 win against Brazil was not enough to save the team from having to play off for one of the minor places.
"We finished 11th out of 16," said Russell with a sigh.
And at about this time things at Dover started to go seriously off track.
"We all knew something was wrong in the club although we didn't find out about Chris Kinnear's personal problems until quite a bit later," said Russell. "But I've fond memories of my time at Dover and the decision to move on was not easy."
Bill Williams offered him a new contract in the summer of 1997 but with a Sports Science degree, a teaching qualification and a west country girlfriend to consider, the move to Cheltenham Town was, virtually, inevitable.
And there was a controversial FA Trophy game to come featuring these two teams in the semi-final of the 1998 competition.
Most of us who came away from their Whaddon Road ground after the first leg of that semi-final were stunned and angered by the bizarre antics of the man in charge that day. His was a performance that gave Cheltenham a 2-1 first-leg advantage forcing Dover to return to Crabble in arrears from a match that most observers thought they should have won.
To the huge relief of the Crabble faithful a replacement referee, Paul Durkin, was brought in for the return game.
Russell said: "We ground out a 2-2 draw at Crabble but I got injured at Welling, in a league match, just before the final."
It was, in fact, a hamstring injury that would, normally, have kept him out of the Wembley encounter with Southport.
But Russell was determined to be in on the Wembley action and, somehow, managed to convince the Cheltenham physio that he was fit enough, at least, for the bench in what turned out to be a 1-0 triumph for the west country club.
"It was a good call," said Russell, "I came on towards the end (in fact, it was a 78th-minute substitution) and got the cross in that led to the winning goal. My assist."
Russ celebrates Robins' FA Cup win v Burnley with Julian Alsop in 2002
What happened to Cheltenham after that Russell describes as "unbelievable".
They were promoted to the Football League at the end of the 1998/99 season. They just missed a further promotion in 2000/01 before overcoming Rushden and Diamonds in the 2001/02 play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.
But the following year saw a reversal in fortunes and a relegation back to the lower division.
"I was at Cheltenham two years before scoring a goal," said Russell, "but then I ended up scoing a total of 16 goals during my time there; amazing."
The move to Cheltenham brought the opportunity to play as a full-time professional in the Football League.
And, if there was any doubt about the class of player that Dover had lost, Russell was awarded the triple Player of the Year accolade, being nominated as the player of the season in 2001 by the Cheltenham supporters, the players and their sponsors.
However, relegation back to the old Third Division (League Two) and the arrival of a new manager led to changes in the Cheltenham playing staff.
"It wasn't really necessary as far as I could see," said Russell. "The new manager seemed to want to off-load anybody with experience who was, of course, a high earner."
Denying that the Cheltenham club was experiencing financial problems at the time, Russell felt that the loss of experienced players was likely to create difficulties for the new manager.
But, as things turned out, it was not to be Russell's problem as a transfer to Bath in 2003 removed him, once again, from any internal squabbles that the Cheltenham club might have been experiencing.
Playing at Bath who, by 2003, had fallen out of the Conference, must have carried echoes of his time at Crabble.
"It was a similar atmosphere," said Russell. "The fans still thought of the club as a Conference outfit. They were getting gates of anything between 800 and 1500."
Russell's semi-professional role at Bath as assistant player-manager might have inspired a subsequent move, made by some of his former Dover team-mates, into full-time club management.
It was not to be. The Sports Science degree and his contacts with professional clubs were to lead him into founding his own coaching business: Premier Sports Coaching.
I have thought about playing again at Mangotsfield but I've got my doubts about the knees
The staff at Arsenal were keen to have such an organisation in the west country because "they said they had nobody down there." And the coaching programme is starting to produce results in 11-year-old Liam Sheppard and 13-year-old Jordan Warren, who have both been approached by Cheltenham as
prospective stars of the future.
Russell told me that a young girl trainee, whose name at the moment had to remain confidential, was "in with a chance" of training at Arsenal.
Russell teaches on the first year of the University of Gloucester's Sports Science degree programme and is undertaking research at the university into the training of sports officials.
"We run a referee's scholarship," he said. "At the moment, training is established in football and rugby union. We want to extend the scheme to other sports including tennis and rugby League."
The scholarship admits just one student per year who is, also, a Sports Science undergraduate of the University of Gloucester. One of the current success stories is Matt Carley, from Dover, who is studying rugby union officiating on the scholarship programme.
"He's doing really well," said Russell. "He's helping out with officiating at Gloucester RFC as part of the course. They're very impressed with him."
On BBC Radio Gloucestershire
And, as if all this was not enough, Russell is, also, working with the media, as a match analyst for BBC Radio Gloucestershire covering Cheltenham Town's home games.
Which brings me, personally, full circle because the first time I met Russell was when I was commentating on Dover for the Gateway Hospital Radio Service.
We were away at Yeovil Town. I was faced with trying to commentate alone on the match when Russell, injured at the time, volunteered to help out.
Needless to say, the studio producer in Dover was thrilled that we had persuaded a Whites player to help out with the broadcast and it was obvious at the time that if, in the future, Russell ever developed media ambitions, he would be as expert in that profession and make as important a contribution to it as he has done and is still doing in football.
Russ is an Arsenal coach in Cheltenham
Many ex-professional sportspeople are involved with the training and encouragement of aspiring young athletes. Russell is not unique in that. But there can be no question about his commitment to bringing on the next generation of footballers. This is obvious in the quality of his coaching organisation's website and in the expertise of those who are staffing it.
It's certain that there are many people in Dover who would be happy to welcome Russell back to Crabble as a player. But there will be no poetic ending for this prodigal son.
"I have thought about playing again at Mangotsfield," he told me, "but I've got my doubts about the knees," he added with a laugh.
His future is, without doubt, in coaching, lecturing and media. I, for one, feel privileged to have seen him play at Dover and, however fleetingly, to have worked with him in a media broadcast.
Based in the west country and with a focus on local talent, his coaching organisation can be found at www.premiersportscoaching.com
Russell is currently, living in Cheltenham with his wife, Julia, and five-year-old daughter Abbie. He sends his best wishes to all who knew him or watched him play at Dover including the apparently inimitable Peter "Nobby" Bland, the oldest ballboy in town, whose impression Russell had, uniquely, perfected and honed into Centre Spot folklore.
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