Johnny Russell careering inside from the right flank before pummelling the ball with his left foot is one of the most familiar yet unstoppable routes to goal for Sporting Kansas City.
The winger caught up with theScore before traveling to Houston for Saturday’s 1-1 draw against the Dynamo. He discussed being humbled by his former Dundee United boss, the managerial merry-go-round at Derby County, his disappointment with how his team is faring this season in MLS, and Scotland’s recent struggles.
What was it like coming through at Dundee United under Craig Levein?
Johnny Russell: For me, it was brilliant. I came in young and he took quite a lot of interest in me. He gave me my debut and took me on my first Scotland trip (after Levein moved into the national role in 2012) so I owe him a lot.
He was a bit hard on me at times but, looking back, I think it’s because he liked me. I benefited from it as well.
Did your loan moves to Scotland’s lower leagues make you appreciate Dundee United a little more?
JR: Of course. It was tough at Dundee United, but nowhere near as tough as how those guys had it. Sometimes they were working from 6, 7 in the morning and then trained and played games at night. Just talking to some of those guys and what they had to do to try and provide for their families made me really appreciate the position I was in.
After establishing yourself as an important member of the Dundee United XI, when did you become aware of interest from other clubs?
JR: It took a while. It was really the year I scored, like, 20 goals (the 2012-13 season) that I started to hear there were a few clubs from England, there were links with Celtic, and there were links to go overseas as well. There was interest from Catania in Italy, and they made a few bids that I was really interested in but they never got accepted.
Then, obviously, the Derby offer came in and it was accepted. After I spoke to Nigel Clough it was a pretty easy decision for me to go there.
So it must have been disappointing to see him sacked about a month-and-a-half into your first season with Derby.
JR: 10 games in. I felt at the time it was a bit harsh, but the club wanted to make a change and I think it worked out with Steve McClaren coming in. That was the year we got to the playoff final and really should’ve went up but it wasn’t to be. We played some amazing football.
But yeah, I was sad to see Clough go because obviously, he was the guy that brought me in. I spent a lot of time talking to him about the move and once I was there he really looked after me. I was sad to see him go.
McClaren had two separate stints at Derby during your time there. What qualities does McClaren have that set him apart from other managers?
JR: I think the way he had us playing and the belief he gave you to play his style of football. He built a team to play that way.
He would never criticize you for making a mistake, but he’d be pretty annoyed if you shied away from the ball. He wanted everyone to be an option.
Some of the football we played in those spells is some of the best I’ve played in my career.
Do you think his time in charge of England and whole “Wally with a Brolly” taunts distract people from the fact that McClaren is actually quite a good manager?
JR: I think it does. People, for whatever reason, hold onto certain things and I thought criticism he received was a bit over the top. Whenever someone asks me I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.
I think, as coach and with his knowledge of the game, he’s probably up there with the best I’ve worked with.
Derby owner Mel Morris is a big fan of the club. Did you see a lot of him around the training ground and stadium?
JR: Yeah, he was always about. He’s another guy I had a great relationship with at Derby and he wanted me to stay at the club. I just felt it was time for something new.
A big criticism Morris gets is that he’s trigger-happy with managers. Was there a firing he made where you thought, “What is he playing at?”
JR: Not really. Most of all in England, everyone knows how quickly managers can go. It’s a shame, it shouldn’t really be like that, but I think it’s just the pressure and demands of the leagues and what’s at stake.
What about when Paul Clement got the boot while Derby were five points adrift of the automatic promotion places? The Rams would eventually finish 11 points short that season.
JR: To be honest, that one was pretty unexpected. We were in a pretty good position at that time. I think we went to Fulham and drew 1-1, and it came after that. So that was a bit of a surprise.
Mel put a lot of his own money into the club. He’s just a fan who wants the club to be back where it should be. It’s his club, at the end of the day.
When you left for MLS, you were an important member of a Derby squad that was in the automatic promotion places. Was it hard to leave and why did you go?
JR: It was hard to leave. I’d been there for close to five years. I loved playing and working with my teammates. I had a lot of friends behind the scenes as well.
But I had a few problems that season. I didn’t play for over a month or so and I just felt it was maybe time for a change. I always wanted to try something different; to go overseas and play.
Then the opportunity came to play in MLS. People’s perception of the league is that it’s a retirement league, but I’ve watched it long enough to know that’s not the case. I felt if I didn’t take the opportunity when I was still relatively young, then I wouldn’t get it again. It’s a decision I felt I had to make, and I’m glad I made it.
Any culture shocks when you arrived in the United States?
JR: The heat. The heat in Kansas is pretty insane in the summer. But I’m someone who likes to try new things and adapt and get settled into the country, and I think it was easy. The lads really looked after me.
What do you make of the standard of MLS?
JR: It’s better than I expected. I watched it a lot, but you can never quite tell until you go and sample it for yourself – it was the same when I went from Scotland to the Championship.
How do you think Sporting KC have dealt with being MLS Cup favorites this season?
JR: I dunno. You just need to look at our form and where we are in the table to know that we haven’t performed anywhere near as good as we should and we expect.
It’s been a pretty tough time for us. We’ve had a lot of injuries and dropped a lot of points from silly mistakes that we don’t usually make.
The good thing with this league is that it’s competitive. Anyone can beat anyone. If we get ourselves together we can go on an unbeaten run – we showed that last year.
Do you think you’re gaining a reputation as one of the most dangerous players in the league?
JR: I wouldn’t say so. It’s nice to be talked about like that but there’s a lot of players who I’d place above me in those sorts of standings. It’s never really something that crosses my mind.
You’ve deservedly kept your place in the Scotland squad. There are some great Scottish players around at the moment – like Andy Robertson, Ryan Fraser, John McGinn, and many others – so has the national team underachieved?
JR: That’s been the question for so long with Scotland. We always seem to have great players and great teams, but we make it really difficult for ourselves.
We’ve got quality players so it’s up to us as a unit. It’s difficult when you don’t get to spend a lot of time together but we’re good enough players. We should be able to cope better with that.
You get the same time to prepare as most of the other countries, so what’s the problem? Is it a managerial or an attitude issue?
JR: I definitely wouldn’t say it’s a managerial thing. At the end of the day, it’s down to us as players to go into games prepared and knowing what our jobs are. For whatever reason, we just haven’t been doing that.
Since being called into the Scotland squad on this occasion, what conversations have you had with the new manager, Steve Clarke?
JR: I haven’t actually spoken to him yet. He’s obviously got a lot of guys to speak to. I’ve been in contact with a few of the staff so I look forward to getting there, meeting up, and seeing the new manager on Monday morning.
I suppose you watched him clinch European football for Kilmarnock recently?
JR: Yeah, of course. I still keep an eye on Scottish football. You just need to look at what Clarke’s done for Kilmarnock to know how good of a manager he is. I’m excited to get working with him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.