In a parallel universe, under a different coach, Russell Milton might have played for Arsenal. He might have won titles and FA Cups. He might have knocked around with Dennis Bergkamp.
But then he would never have teamed up with Socrates, played in Hong Kong or tried his hand at broadcasting and teaching. He may have missed out on fame and fortune, but Milton’s is a life richly lived.
“I’ve lived in seven or eight countries,” said Milton, now in caretaker charge at Cheltenham. “I’ve seen different cultures, the way they play football and do business. I’ve got friends all over the world. I’ve had a fantastic time and if I could go back now I wouldn’t change it. Not a thing.”
For a while, though, the young Milton had good reason to believe he was destined for domestic greatness.
A talented sportsman (he played cricket with Mark Ealham in his youth and rejected an offer from Kent) Milton was one of just two Arsenal youngsters to be handed a pro contract from a shortlist of 30 apprentices. The other was Paul Merson.
Then, in December 1989, came what appeared to be his big break. “We played a training game of first team against reserves,” recalled Milton, then 21. “Paul Davis got injured, so George Graham put me in the first team. I played really well.
“They were playing Man United at home on the Sunday on TV so I went off thinking ‘I’ve got a chance here’. I even remember Tony Adams saying ‘What a game to make your debut’. I rang my mum, my mates. I told everyone. The next day, George called me into his office and said I was being released.”
It was then that Arsenal winger Brian Marwood, recognising that Milton’s technical approach was ill-suited to the blood and thunder of English football, urged him to chance his arm abroad.
So he rejected Bury and Stoke, first joining Japanese outfit Hitachi Kashiwa Reysol (who would later sign Brazilian legend Careca and be managed by Steve Perryman) before spending three seasons with Double Flower FC in Hong Kong’s top flight.
There, he played with Socrates and Serginho, took on the AC Milan of Van Basten and Gullit and ate – amongst other things – rat, snake and dog.
Milton ranks playing with Socrates was the highlight of his career and it was the prompting of the Brazilian – who put off turning pro until he was 25 in order to graduate in medicine – that encouraged him to return to England to take a degree in Sports Science and become a PE teacher.
He did too, all whilst playing part-time for Dover in a fondly-remembered spell that yielded 21 goals in 165 games. It is, however, Cheltenham and the all-conquering side of Steve Cotterill that brought the best out in Milton.
When Milton arrived in 1997, the Robins had just won promotion from the Southern Prem. When he left in 2003, they had won an FA Trophy and played in League One.
“Russ was a really nice lad and a really good team player,” says Cotterill, now in charge at Bristol City. “He had fantastic technique but he could compete too – he was a tough boy who loved a tackle and was very good in the air for his size.
“We more or less played a lop-sided 4-4-2 which became 4-3-3 and Russ was really the man who made it all work.
“My main memory of him is that absolute wand of a left foot. His set-pieces used to get us so many goals. I think the best compliment I can give him is that our football was never as good when he wasn’t in the team.”
Though he would spend a final season at Bath, Milton never cut his ties to Cheltenham, lecturing, commentating on their matches for BBC radio before becoming heading up the academy at Whaddon Road under former team-mate Mark Yates.
And when Yates five-year reign came to an end in November, Milton and coach Steve Elliott were given a chance to stake their claim.
“I could always see him being a coach,” says Cotterill. “I’m not sure about a manager but that means nothing – everyone changes with time and maturity.
“He’s got a great opportunity there, just like Mark before him and I think it’ll be very difficult for them not to give him the job if he keeps them up. Hopefully they’ll get the required results and it would be fitting if Russ got them because he was a big part of the team that got there.”
by Chris Dunlavy