Despite enjoying a 10-year career in professional football so far, Russell Penn has never played above the fourth tier of English football, something the midfielder is determined to put an end to this season.
The York City captain has been denied promotion to League One on three separate occasions, twice with Cheltenham Town and once with the Minstermen during the 2013-14 campaign.
However; last season’s script didn’t go according to plan at Bootham Crescent as City finished 18th in the bottom tier last term, the club’s lowest positioning since regaining their Football League status over three years ago.
After unexpectedly staving off relegation last time out, skipper Penn is convinced the Yorkshire outfit can achieve a top-seven finish this year and reach the third-tier of English football for the first time in his career and the club’s first since 1999.
Having guided Scunthorpe United to automatic promotion from League Two last year, Penn’s former Iron boss Russ Wilcox will take charge of his first full season at York after arriving last October.
Ahead of York’s final season at Bootham Crescent before they move into their brand new £37m Huntington Community Stadium; Penn spoke EXCLUSIVELY to Shoot about his play-off pain, Yorkshire lifestyle, Wilcox’s ways and the Minstermen’s bright future.
After reaching the play-offs in 2014 the club finished 18th last, York’s lowest close to a campaign since returning to the Football League. How confident are you the club will improve on that this term?
“I’m confident, although I said that this time last season. I think it is vitally important in this league that you get off to the best start and hopefully the momentum will see you through.”
Do you set yourself any personal targets before the campaign or, as captain, are you just looking to do all you can to help the team?
“Yes as captain, you just want to help the team out and do everything you can for the club. Targets; I have always wanted to score more goals. My goalscoring record hasn’t been as good as I would like, so a minimum of five is what I try to get every season, but I haven’t yet reached that for the past couple of years.”
You kick-off the new League Two campaign away to last season’s beaten play-off finalists Wycombe Wanderers on August 8. What are you expecting from the opening game?
“Very tough game. They will be bitterly disappointed that they are not in League One, seconds away from being a League One team. But we will take faith from what they have done because the season before I think they missed out on relegation by goals, so why can’t that be us this time this year.”
You’ve brought in a host of players, including Vadaine Oliver, Scott Flinders and James Berrett this summer, how much of a boost are they to the squad?
“Big boost, good league players. Plenty of games under their belts and so far so good, looking really fresh and fit in pre-season.”
Russ Wilcox, who helped Scunthorpe gain automatic promotion from League Two last year, is now manager at Bootham Crescent. What have you made of his impact at the club since arriving last October?
“Very good. Very professional. He stamped his mark on the team straight away and obviously came in halfway through the season, so obviously this season is his season. He’s brought his own players in and his own staff, so we have improved this year and I have got a lot of respect for him. I worked with him about ten years ago at Scunthorpe [United], so I know him about as much as he knows me, so it is a good combination.”
York have an exciting project developing off the pitch, with the club’s new £37m Community Stadium set to be finished late next year. What will the new facility mean to everybody involved with the club?
“It would mean everything. Obviously it is sad to be leaving Bootham Crescent with its history, but it has come to that time where bits and bobs are falling off the stand so I think it is time to move on as football does.”
With the new stadium and the open nature of League Two, can York fans be optimistic about the future of the club?
“I think so, yeah. We need a good solid season again this year, hopefully pushing towards the top half. What everyone wants is to be pushing for the play-offs and that just takes the momentum into next season and the new stadium. The aim is, from the chairman, to be playing in higher league football, but we have got to take it step-by-step.”
We’ve said it’s an exciting time. How much are you enjoying your time at the club since moving from Cheltenham?
“Love it. That much so that I have moved the family up here. It is a fantastic city to play in, and football is football, you make friends straight away. But yeah, I am really enjoying my time at the club. It has had its ups and downs obviously, with the play-offs and then a little bit of a relegation battle last year, but that’s football for you.”
You’ve missed out on promotion via the play-offs with York and Cheltenham, on three occasions. How difficult were those to stomach?
“Very. I get a lot of stick of being the nearly man. But yeah it is tough. You work so hard all season to get so close to being a League One player, for it to be taken away from you after 90 minutes, it is tough to take. But I think it has hardened me as a player and hopefully one day I can get that promotion.”
Going further back, You began your career at various youth academies, including Birmingham City, Kidderminster Harriers and Scunthorpe United. Given the nature of how tough it is for young players to graduate and make it into professional football, how difficult did you find trying to earn your first professional contract during the early stages of your career.
“Very difficult. Got told “No” by a host of managers that I wasn’t good enough. Went on trials and was told, “No not this time”. So it can be very downbeat and depressing at times. But my advice is that you have just got to keep going. Because if you stop, you won’t be playing. It is as simple as that. I kept going and fortunately one manager liked me and the rest speaks for itself.”
What advice would you give to young players that are maybe feeling like their chance won’t come in the Football League?
“Don’t give up. Obviously trials are one man’s opinion, but that one man’s opinion might be the right one one day. So don’t give up and keep going.”