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Cult Heroes: Craig Russell

Of course Monday's on Roker Report bring one thing - David Boyle's Cult Heroes, and in focus this week a local lad who lived the dream of many a fan...

On the morning of December 9th 1995 I was running out on a freezing Saturday morning to play for my school side, St. Michael's, at the tender age of ten years. During the warm up I was to stumble on the frozen surface, put the hand down to break the fall, and given the state of council pitches, put my hand on a cleverly disguised broken beer bottle. Needless to say the rest of my morning was spent in Sunderland General as shards of glass were removed from my palm and I was stitched back together.

You may be wondering what this cautionary tale regarding youth football has to do with cult heroes in the Sunderland colours? Well it was also the same day that my father finally gave in to my persistent begging to go to Roker Park and I was to attend my first Sunderland game, dragging my dad along in the process, as a bit of a "cheer the miserable kid up" exercise. It was also the day that I was to find my first footballing hero.

Top of the table Millwall were the opposition that day and I couldn't have asked for more of a perfect fixture to ignite my love for the club. Sunderland romped to victory with a comprehensive six goal thrashing of Mick McCarthy's side and there was one young lad who didn't just catch the headlines that day but caught the imagination of an impressionable ten year old in the Roker End that day - Craig Russell.

Russell signed schoolboy forms at Roker Park at the tender age of fourteen, despite interest from the big boys of Manchester United. Craig probably didn't have much of a choice to be fair as his parents were huge fans of Sunderland and he is adamant that he was conceived that fateful night in 1973 when Sunderland caused the biggest upset in FA Cup Final history.

Craig was a strong but pacey forward who loved to run with the ball and on his day was more than a handful for any centre half and progressed up the ladder to make his debut aged seventeen in the winter of 1991.

I will always have fond memories of Craig thanks to that fantastic afternoon in the freezing cold where the popular young forward hit the back of the net four times, it really should have been five as Russell missed the easiest of all his opportunities that day, but that would be nit-picking in the extreme! In many ways it was this victory which really kick started Sunderland's promotion push that season and their run continued all the way to the title. Sunderland were so good that day that my father was even converted to the sport and we were to attend every home game for the rest of the season and have had season tickets ever since.

However Sunderland's up turn in success was to be to the detriment of opportunities for the Jarrow Arrow. Sunderland's return to the top flight saw Peter Reid often opt for the lone striker role filled by the experienced, but crap, Paul Stewart - apologies to any Stewart fans out there...

Despite limited appearances Russell finished joint top goal scorer that season with, wait for it... four goals. One of many statistics which would back up why the lads made a swift return to the first division. Russell soon found himself well down Reid's pecking order with new signings messrs Quinn and Phillips impossible to remove from the first eleven. Craig was part of a prolonged transfer saga with Manchester City in the summer of 1997 and finally moved to Maine Road in a deal worth £1M with a winger by the name of Nicky Summerbee moving in the opposite direction.

It was all downhill from then on really for the popular striker, playing out of position for City in a left wing-back role and being moved out on loan after just seven months at the club.

Russell then made the transition from the pitch to the treatment room as he began a career as a masseur, a role that would see Craig working for our neighbours up the road before seeing the error of his ways and returning to his boyhood club where he still is to this day. Rumours that he is best mates with John Mensah are unfounded, but more than likely to be true.

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