Date: 08-01-24 An appreciation of Russ Penns time as the Harriers manager By Harry Taylor

08-01-24 - Opinion - An appreciation of Russ Penns time as the Harriers manager. By Harry Taylor

“If you don’t get stability you won’t get that promotion that you want.”

It was February 2020. Kidderminster Harriers had just seen the departure of their eighth manager in six years, hours before a mid-week game against Farsley Celtic. It was a different time. The UK had just left the EU, Covid-19 was a minor story in the news and the newly-installed caretaker manager Russ Penn had put his finger on the main problem at the club.

Russ Penn

It was a time of turmoil.

Colin Gordon’s much-promised plans were failing fast as the Harriers had finished lower and lower every season for five years. They were a club threatening to stagnate in the Conference North, with a part-apathetic, part-acidic atmosphere on the terraces and little success on the pitch. The expectations were low and many fans just wanted someone to arrest that decline and try to restore the club’s sense of pride.

Nearly four years later the past is truly a foreign country. Luckily we don’t live there any more.

Harriers have stabilised and gone from strength-to-strength. Under Penn they were minutes from beating Premier League West Ham Utd in the FA Cup, reached the playoffs twice and returned to what is widely seen as their natural level of the Conference in a whirlwind playoff win. Yet the majority of fans will have breathed a sigh of relief when the news broke late on Sunday night that the Harriers legend was to leave his job as manager.

The euphoria of winning promotion at Brackley Town in May 2023 has quickly turned to despair at the side’s woes on the pitch. In the club’s twenty eight games since returning to the Conference, they have only scored twenty goals. Few sides avoid relegation when that’s the case – and the brief embers of a revival before Christmas have been extinguished.

In his post-match interview after beating Brackley in the playoffs Penn admitted that promotion was the aim for next season but he and Jimmy O’Connor had “microwaved” it to get up a season early. It meant, however, that the club’s recruitment was poor, unbalanced and led to a situation where the only convincing striker at the club was a valiantly battling 34-year-old, Amari Morgan-Smith.

Russ Penn

Kyle Morrison choosing to join future rivals Solihull Moors was a big blow in defence, and injuries to Joe Leesley and Shane Byrne hardly helped the cause. But it followed a history of underwhelming signings since Penn’s breakout season with the club in 2021-22.

The attacking prowess of Omari Sterling-James, Sam Austin and Ashley Hemmings was never replaced. Instead the attacking excitement that was once the earmark of Penn’s sides was superseded by a grittier style that may have ground out the odd point but meant more often than not they struggled to beat sides who were there for the taking.

His nine-game run of last season had obscured what was otherwise a poor season, by Penn’s own admission, as the club languished in mid-table. In response it seemed that he didn’t seem to know his best team, resorting to playing players out of position. Joe Leesley played at centre-back during a humbling home defeat to Chester FC on BT Sport, Ashley Hemmings was occasionally seen as a full back, and Tom Palmer was the first-choice goalkeeper for much of the season.

This term it’s still unclear what he thinks his best side is, or best system to use them in.

Meanwhile conceding soft goals has become a hallmark of the side, always a harbinger of relegation blues and Penn, himself, may feel he’s one of the unluckiest managers in English football. His side has walked away with nothing from games this season where they deserved a point. Or likewise drawn when a win was within their grasp. However when luck goes against you for nearly thirty games there has to be a consideration of whether he could have done more on or off the pitch.

Russ Penn

Nobody will have taken any joy in the statement released last night by the club confirming his departure. He not only stabilised the club but gave the Harriers fans some of their best memories in the last decade and a half.

In a brief chat, outside the Harriers Arms after the Brackley win, I thanked him for giving me confidence that Harriers weren’t a club who were specialists in failure – because the evidence otherwise was stacking up. His interviews oozed that he desperately wanted to do well, and the fans wanted him to do well just as much. Yet it proved beyond him.

Richard Lane and Dean Holdsworth now face a difficult choice on who tries to fill Russ’ large boots. It will be the most important decision Lane has taken since he took on the club. Fans will want to see the club have a good go at staying in the division and if we do go down then we’d be well placed to mount a title challenge next season.

Harriers are one of the biggest non-league sides in the country and the vacancy should command a lot of interest – so taking time for the right appointment rather than resorting to a boy’s club is imperative.

When Penn returned as a player in November 2018 he talked about the relationship he had with the Harriers.

“I’ve always had a love for the club. I only live down the road, so I’ll be coming back home.”

He was never a mercenary who you doubted cared about the club. He was our Russ, our ex-captain, our manager who remembered putting us into the FA Trophy final against Northwich Victoria. However like many relationships its existence isn’t a reason for why it shouldn’t be broken. Like many tough break-ups it can be done with tear-filled eyes, a warm final embrace but a recognition that separation is for the best for both sides.

He will always be welcomed back to the club, and will continue to be loved by any Harriers fans. You have to hope he stays in football, improves and goes on to achieve his potential. Knowing football, you’d not bet against us seeing the last of him.

Photo © KHFC