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Road to Wembley '98 - Russ Milton

21 February 2018

This season we are celebrating 20 years since Cheltenham Town lifted the FA Trophy with a series of 'Road to Wembley' features with the players and staff from the Robins of 1997/98. Here midfielder Russ Milton looks back on a special first season...

A stylish and talented left-footed midfielder, Russell Milton was part of some of Cheltenham's greatest achievements on the pitch during six seasons as a player and a key performer during the 1997/98 campaign. 

Folkestone-born Milton's playing career had actually started at Arsenal before a successful spell in Hong Kong - where he played alongside Brazilian greats Socrates and Jairzinho.

He returned to English football with Dover Athletic, helping the Lilywhites win the Southern League title in 1992/93, when the Robins finished as runners-up.

Milton signed for Cheltenham in the summer of 1997, helping the club win the FA Trophy in 1998 and the Conference title in 1999 under Steve Cotterill's management.

But he admits his first ever game for the Robins that famous first season did anything but go to plan!

Milton said: “Our first game of that season was against my old club Dover and we got stuffed 3-0. I went back, got beat badly and thought 'what am I doing?'

"We then played Hayes and Woking, both quick turnarounds, and won both. Those results told us we were good enough for this level and after that went on the famous unbeaten run until New Year’s Day.”

Milton walked into a dressing room he already knew well at Cheltenham, having locked horns with many of his new team-mates in his years with Dover.

But he admits his new manager, Steve Cotterill, was a very new proposition.

“In my first training session with Cotts he told us it was only 12-minute’s work – what he didn’t tell us was it was straight up Agg’s Hill. Everyone was being sick! I think he thought if you could deal with that you could handle anything,” laughed Milton. 

"We had a good mixture of players and personalities that blended really well in the squad - and with Steve behind pushing you, you had no choice.

"I remember he used to get changed in the dressing room with us. He would have a peg in the corner so he was like one of the lads, but wasn't really.

"Cotts was only a couple of years older than quite a few of the boys and it was unique. He would have a laugh and joke with you, then the next minute he would be barking orders.

“But it worked, that was the main thing, he talked a lot of sense and you could see the respect the players had for him.”

Cheltenham’s famous FA Trophy run would ironically see Milton return to Dover one more time that season with more success.

“We were back at Dover for the semi-final and had two close games,” he admitted. “We were 4-1 up on aggregate in the second leg and absolutely cruising, then they got two goals and were hanging on at the end. That was a good day.  

"It was weird that at the start of the season I went back and we lost, then the end of the season we went back and it took us to Wembley. I had to show a bit of humility on the day and not get too carried away.”

Milton would play a key role in the big game at Wembley, coming off the bench to set up the winning goal for Jason Eaton with a free-kick as the Robins beat Southport 1-0 to lift the Trophy in front of 18,000 jubilant fans from Gloucestershire.

However, he admits his big day at the home of English football was nearly ruined by injury.

"I got a hamstring strain at Welling in April and feared I would miss it. It was touch and go and I had acupuncture and time in oxygen chambers,” revealed Milton.

"I had three weeks to make the final and normally a hamstring can be five or six. It came down to the night before when the manager asked me straight at the team hotel if I was ready.

"It was me or Jacko (Michael Jackson) and I felt sorry for him because he was a young lad coming up and a Cheltenham lad. We were good mates, but he understood why I got the call-up.

"I came on for the final 15 minutes with Jimmy (Smith). He got the free kick, I swung it in and Jason (Eaton) did the rest.

"It wasn't a great game. It was boiling hot and on the bench I was bored. It was terrible!

"I was in the ear of Cotts for a good half an hour, from the start of the second half, saying 'get us on, it's rubbish'. Eventually he did and we made an impression.

“That game is the reason I always tell the lads today that you can still change a game if you’re a substitute. Yes, be disappointed but you can still influence it when you come on.”

Milton left the club in 2003, going down as one of the most elegant and naturally gifted players ever to grace Whaddon Road, and joined Bath City briefly before hanging up his boots, running a soccer school in association with Arsenal, while covering Cheltenham matches as an expert analyst for BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

He returned to Cheltenham in 2010 and helped bring through several promising young players in the Academy before working his way up to his current role as No.2 to Gary Johnson.

"I’ve enjoyed some good times throughout my career,” he reflected. “I was lucky to be an Anfield when Arsenal won the league and played aboard with the likes of Socrates and Jairzinho. But Cheltenham and that first season was special.

"I didn't think I would get back in the league or play professionally again when I joined the Robins. But then it all kicked off. You just never thought it would happen so quick.

"The decision for me to go full-time wasn't a difficult one. I had a teaching degree behind me, and I was just supplying and coaching. I thought go on then, why not?

"I would never have thought 20 years ago I would be here now,” he added. “But I am enjoying it more than ever.

"I have seen a lot of people come and go and lots of changes. I have probably held the most positions in the club!

"My boy is now in the Under-nines so maybe it will all start again.

“It's a club I know well and have been a part of for a number of years. I’ve had some good times and now I'm very much looking forward to the next chapter.”

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