Stephen Curnow returns with his look back at the careers of some of City's forgotten stars. Next under the microscope is Darel Russell, a player who repeatedly jumped ship at just the wrong time...
Ordinarily, a player who amassed 271 appearances over nine seasons with the canaries would be afforded a relatively comfy seat in the hall of fame. So it is something of a peculiarity that Darel Russell’s career tows behind it a certain weight of disappointment and unfulfilled potential.
Three times during his career, Russell left a team who won promotion to the Premier League the very next season, giving the impression of a man who not so much backs the wrong horse, but manages to jump off Red Rum and straight onto Devon Loch.
Russell with his boyband looks and hurdler’s build veritably sprung through the youth team ranks at Norwich City, making his first team debut as a 17-year-old in the final match of the 1997-98 season, under the brief stewardship of John Faulkner.
His first goal came at Huddersfield Town the following March, albeit somewhat overshadowed by Daryl Sutch’s heroics between the sticks that evening. He scored four of the paltry 45 managed by Bryan Hamilton’s stodgy side in 1999/2000 and played more league games than anyone else in 2001-01.
His appearances under Nigel Worthington were somewhat more sporadic, being largely unseated by the combination of Phil Mulryne and Gary Holt, but he still played 24 times in his final season at Carrow Road, often diligently filling in either out wide or at right-back.
In the summer of 2003, Russell joined Tony Pulis’ embryonic revolution at Stoke City. His new side finished the season 11th, while his old side won the division at a canter. One of Russell’s four goals from right wing-back that season was in a 4-1 win against West Bromwich Albion in May, which confirmed Worthington’s men as Champions despite their own defeat at Sunderland that night.
It was to become typical of Russell’s career that the first time he had won something for Norwich, he was playing for someone else. His endeavours were rewarded not by a medal and Premier League football, but a handful of appreciative bellows from the hardy few at the Stadium of Light that night.
Russell was a virtual ever-present throughout his time at the Britannia, amassing 182 appearances over four years. Peter Grant then brought him back to Carrow Road on a free transfer prior to the 2007-08 season along with fellow nostalgic returnee Jamie Cureton.
Russell, by then shorn of dreadlocks, cut a new-found business-like figure in midfield. Norwich finished the season needing to beat QPR in their final home game to ensure safety, Pulis took Stoke to 2nd place and to the Premier League where they have remained ever since.
The shambles of Glenn Roeder’s administration of 2008-09 was perhaps typified by Russell being pressed into service as a striker, not that this was any slight on the player himself. Two fine goals within a few minutes of being introduced to his new position in a pre-season friendly at home to Colchester reminded us of his intrinsic ability, but this sort of nonsense was only going to end one way and the Canaries ended the season being deservedly castigated as the first Norwich team in half a century to sink to the third tier.
Russell started life in League One with a good old fashioned contract wrangle, not making a league start until mid-September when he belatedly knuckled down to business at the base of Paul Lambert’s diamond midfield.
The begloved Russell then strode imperiously through the rest of the season, mixing a willingness to scrap against the lower league henchmen, with a resplendent ability to prompt and probe from deep. He was finally actually being the player that we thought he might have been all along.
The spine of that team, Forster, Doherty, Russell, Hoolahan and Holt was vastly superior to anything else the division had to offer and Norwich finished the season nine points clear at the top. Typically, Russell missed the victory parade due to a pre-existing family commitment in America, so while he was taking on some apple pie with Uncle Sam, the likes of Matthew Gill and Owain Tudur-Jones were quaffing his share of the victory champers.
Sadly, Russell was never seen at Carrow Road again. On the back of his best season ever, he fancied his chances of bigger and better things still, and signed for Preston on the eve of the 2010-11 season.
Paul Lambert set about reconstructing a new, sparklier diamond. David Fox was arguably more polished, Andrew Crofts more dogged, Andrew Surman more handsome and Wes just more “Wes,” but Russell could still make a legitimate claim to be the most complete all-rounder of them all. He might have wanted to console himself with this thought when North End were defeated by Norwich in his fifth game for them courtesy of Grant Holt’s goal, as Norwich gathered the speed that eventually took them to Promotion. For the third time in his career Russell had got off the gravy train at precisely the wrong station, North End headed in the opposite direction back into League One.
Having turned 30, Russell headed off to Charlton on loan, followed by undistinguished spells at Portsmouth, and in Canada and the USA, before retiring in 2014.
Another era would have served Russell better perhaps. Many of the stalwarts of the 1980’s Norwich sides (Gunn, Culverhouse, Bowen etc) remained with us, not through any definitive loyalty, but because it was commonplace then to remain with one club unless you were poor enough to be discarded or good enough to be bought by someone better. The post-Bosman era was different though, fuelling a wanderlust which failed the likes of Russell at every turn.
Nevertheless, only one player has ever graduated from Norwich City’s youth ranks and gone on to make more first-team appearances than Darel, Francis Roy G. Russell, so perhaps we should celebrate that. The sad thing is though, you couldn’t guarantee him hanging around for the party.