In Johnny Russell’s footballing home of Sporting Kansas City that has acquired the sobriquet Soccer Capital of America, the 28-year-old Scotland striker hasn’t only made star-spangled banner headlines. He’s made headlines for a banner.
The passions of fans Stateside may now appear to have been ramped up to match the razzmatazz they apply to the games. Tifos, though, aren’t yet a common feature. It said everything then about the impact that Russell has made since he crossed the pond from Derby County in January, that one was created in his honour for the recent match against Real Salt Lake. “We don’t usually have stuff like that and though I knew they were going to do something, I had no idea it would be like that. It was the full bottom half of the stand,” he said of the “Russellmania” caricature that depicted him as a WWE wrestler. “That was mental and something I’ve never known.”
The forward’s use of the vernacular that very much reminds that he is a Coatbridge product is evidence his Scottishness has not been diluted by his five years living outside of his home country subsequent to leaving Dundee United for Derby. He may still get tattie scones brought over from home, but the “mental” moments he has experienced in Kansas tell of how he has been embraced in his new adventure… and how he has embraced it.
He joined up with Scotland in the immediate aftermath of netting a brilliant late solo strike against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s LA Galaxy to earn a 1-1 draw that guarantees his club’s participation in the season play-offs. The commentary that accompanied the goal offered up the shrieking assessment that “Russell isn’t just taking on the whole world, he’s taking on the whole Galaxy”. The player has also had the capacity to reduce fans to tears – as he did in handing his shirt to a Kansas supporter that held up a placard with a personal message telling him it was her ninth birthday following a game in August. Another moment of viral Russellmania ensued.
“That went mental as well,” he said. “I’d seen her before the game and just shook her hand and said happy birthday and didn’t think anything else of it. And then I saw her again after the game and someone pointed out she had a sign. So obviously I thought I’d go over and give her my top. Plenty people do it so I just thought I’d give her it as a wee birthday present. And then it just went mental from there. It was nice to get that sort of reaction and nice it meant so much to her. It was nice for me too that I could do that… it’s not as if I’m Messi or anything.
“I’ve always been someone who’s tried to connect with fans wherever I’ve been. You try to give back as much as you can. It’s nice to have those moments with fans because you don’t really get to spend too much time with them.”
Russell is now connecting with Scotland in a fashion that proved beyond him prior to crossing the Atlantic. By starting in Thursday’s miserable 2-1 defeat in Israel after doing so for the first Nations League encounter that brought a home win over Albania last month, the attacker finally has competitive appearances among his eight caps.
Playing in Kansas has given him not only a new life then, but professionally a new lease of life. “Derby was great and I enjoyed it, but I felt my game was suffering towards the end,” he said of his five years in the Midlands. “I did hit form in the last part but the year before was my worst year in football. I felt that I needed something different to get my spark back and push me again. I’d been watching the MLS for a while. I took more of an interest when Beckham went over and I’d watched the MLS games on Sky. I was asked the year before I came and it planted a seed. I got asked again and I said, ‘You know what, I’ll try it’. I feel as if I have made the right decision. And though you never know what happens in football I could see myself being there for a while.”
His presence in the starting line-up for a Scotland team who will go into tonight’s friendly at Hampden against European champions Portugal full of trepidation might depend on how the situation with Leigh Griffiths plays out. The Celtic striker’s decision to step away from the squad last week to concentrate on his fitness followed his omission from the team that beat Albania 2-0.
Russell has had to regularly dust himself down from being overlooked for such games, so wouldn’t be expected to offer much sympathy for the position Griffiths found himself in. But he would rather have the competition offered by the Celtic man being in the Scotland set-up than not.
“I feel I’ve bided my time,” said Russell, who maintained that despite the arduous long-haul travel involved he would “never pick” his games, and would “play for Scotland any chance” he got.
“I’ve worked hard and there have been plenty of times I’ve been disappointed not to have played or been selected. It happens. You’re not guaranteed anything. Then obviously missing out for so long and getting myself back in I know first hand you can’t take anything for granted and I wouldn’t.
“We’d like to have him [Griffiths] here, everyone knows what he brings. He’s got goals in him and you need goals. I wouldn’t say it’s brought any awkwardness. There’s games you play, games you don’t play.
“We’d like to have him here but if he feels that’s the best thing for him and he’s being honest about it, if he doesn’t feel he can do himself or us justice, the way he’s feeling at the minute. If that’s what he needs, if he needs time, I think he’s made the right decision.”