Ollie Russell: No regrets despite Hibs release after final
It was a bittersweet moment as Ollie Russell held the SFA Youth Cup aloft, completing a memorable league and cup double for the Easter Road outfit's under-20 side nine years ago.
Amid the celebrations which followed Kurtis Byrne’s last-gasp winner against Rangers in the final at Hampden – the striker having claimed an equally last goal to clinch the league title only a few days earlier – Russell hid is own personal anguish, knowing that would be his final match in a green-and-white shirt.
It was, he admits, a devastating blow as it would be for any youngster who has his dream so cruelly shattered but today, now head coach of American club Davis Legacy Soccer’s development academy – working at a level equivalent to Scottish or English Premier League in terms of youth football – Russell can look back on that setback as the stepping stone to a new career within the game.
After leaving Hibs, the then 19-year-old drifted into junior football, twice reaching the Scottish Junior Cup final with Musselburgh Athletic while enrolling in a four-year university course which led to an honours degree in Sports Coaching Sport Science and travelling each summer to coach youngsters.
Now, as today’s generation of Hibs kids look to emulate the success of 2009 by adding the Youth Cup to the league title won last week when they face Aberdeen at Hampden tomorrow night, Russell urged any who find themselves in the same position as he was in to seriously consider crossing the Atlantic.
He said: “For any youngster being released who had a dream of becoming a first-team footballer, it is not the news you want. However, it’s an experience you’ve had and should put it to use. Just because your dream of becoming a professional footballer didn’t work out, don’t let that stop you from having other dreams,
“If you had told me at the age of 19 I’d have a full-time job coaching football in California, I’d have told you you were mad. However, through hard work and going back into education and coach education and attaining my Uefa B Licence from the SFA has made this dream become a reality.
“I look back very fondly on my time at Hibs and I appreciated it. I have no regrets, everything happens for a reason. If I’d stayed in football, who knows where I would be now? I don’t tend to dwell on the past, but I look back on it as a great achievement in my life. I am very fortunate now that I have a great job which involves the next best thing – coaching full-time.”
Russell also enjoys the best of facilities, his club, based in a college town around 20 minutes from Sacramento and San Francisco an hour away, boasting 16 grass pitches and a climate where working in a temperature of 30C in April is a touch more comfortable than the 40C of July and August.
And, he revealed, “soccer” is very much on the up in the States, saying: “It’s neck and neck with baseball as the third most watched sport in the country behind the NFL and basketball. Northern California has a population of more than 15 million people and with 300 teams in this area, there are only 12 who have established themselves to be part of this elite level. To put that into perspective, there are only 100 clubs in the whole of the US involved in this programme.
“Division One colleges in this country are run like English Premier League clubs. When I was released, I spoke to a few people regarding a scholarship over here. It wasn’t something which was of any interest to me, but having seen it first-hand I wish I had that opportunity again.
“I’d strongly encourage any youngster released at the age of 16 to 19 to explore America as an option. They can come here, get a first class education and continue to train and develop their game.”
Russell still keeps in touch with some of his former team-mates, most notably Sean Welsh, now with Falkirk, having been as his stag do in Las Vegas last May and returning home for his wedding the following month. He said: “We speak about football and how hot it is here compared to back home – I like to send him pictures of the sun and beaches I visit regularly.
“I also talk with Sean Lynch, Scott Taggart and Kenny Waugh from those days.”
Russell’s job saw him attend the United Soccer Convention in Philidelphia at the MLS draft where he came face-to-face with Arsenal and Barcelona legend Thierry Henry and a more familiar figure in former Hibs head youth coach John Park, who brought him to the club as a 12-year-old.
He said: “John’s now head of international recruitment for Vancouver Whitecaps. We looked back on the Hibs days with great memories and are thankful for the position we find ourselves in now.”