Keith Russell: ‘It is so disappointing to realise that the guys at the top are not good guys and do not represent the values and culture of rugby’

'To end up with one of our sons standing with the ball out in the middle of the pitch at Murrayfield is great for us … but now it is forever tainted'

Keith Russell
Keith Russell at training with the Stirling County U18's squad ***Image: © Craig Watson -

IT had not crossed Keith Russell’s mind that the meeting he had been called to at SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson’s office under the West Stand at Murrayfield on Friday 19th May of last year was going to result in him being told to pack up his personal effects and vacate the building within the next half hour.

He had been appointed Director of Domestic Rugby for the governing body just two and a half years earlier in November 2014. The fact that he is the father of one of Scotland’s most highly rated players perhaps raised a few eyebrows at the time, but a quick look at his CV supported Dodson’s own assertion that Russell was the outstanding candidate for the job.

He had 25 years of experience in sport and leisure management for local authorities in Inverness, Stirling and Glasgow, with a proven record of success in developing grassroots sport all the way through. As Head of Sport at Glasgow Life for just under ten years, he had been responsible for the operation of 30 Sport and Leisure venues (including five used during the 2014 Commonwealth Games), as well as overseeing the organisation’s Sport Development team and a number of major sporting events hosted in the city. He had led the development and implementation of the widely acclaimed Sport and Physical Activity Legacy Plan for the 2014 Commonwealth Games and played a pivotal role in facilitating Glasgow Warriors’ move to Scotstoun Stadium.

Also in the Keith Russell Affair:

Keith Russell wins unfair dismissal case against the Scottish Rugby Union

Keith Russell: ‘Main thing Mark Dodson talked about was keeping the Council quiet’

Keith Russell: ‘The clubs as key stakeholders in the sport  is a distraction they would prefer to avoid’

He had played youth badminton for Scotland, rugby at school and coached various grassroots sports – most notably badminton – since his teenage years.

He first got involved with the highly successful youth section at Stirling County when eldest son Harry picked up the oval ball almost 20 years ago. Younger siblings Finn and Archie were also coached by father as they moved through the ranks, and Keith was on the side-lines at BT Murrayfield as part of the coaching team when Stirling County’s Under-18 team defeated Ayr in the National Youth League Cup Final in March of this year.

Committed to the sport

It is safe to say that Russell is committed to rugby, but more fundamentally he is committed to the transformational possibilities of sport. That’s why he coaches in his spare time, and it is why it was an offer too good to refuse when he was approached by Dominic McKay, the SRU’s Chief Operating Officer, in the autumn of 2014 about the possibility of joining the payroll at Murrayfield.

But it was not a straight-forward decision. Russell was proud of what he had achieved with Glasgow Life and committed to supporting the role of local authorities as providers of sporting opportunities in order to improve people’s lives.

“Head of Sport at Glasgow is the pre-eminent local authority sports role in Scotland – and, at that time, probably in the UK, because even in London where they had been hosting the Olympics, it was quite fragmented. Glasgow was as good as it gets in local authority terms. Really challenging but really rewarding. So, moving to the SRU was a big call,” he reflects.

Stepping into the lion’s den

“Everyone I spoke to in different agencies told me it was a bit of a nightmare organisation. I was kind of aware of that. But I thought I’d changed dramatically what happens in Stirling [local authority], changed dramatically what happens in Glasgow, so here’s another 10 years to make a difference.

“As a sport, rugby has a positive future; and a real potential in Scotland to have a positive influence on the psyche of the whole nation, not least because football is losing its connection to the grassroots of the game.

“I saw this as an opportunity to make a difference in a sport I really believe in. The recruitment process and job spec didn’t give me any concerns. It was about inspiring people through sport and working in partnership to achieve this, and that’s what I’ve always done.”

Within 27 months, those high hopes had been obliterated. A steady erosion of respect and trust culminated in his abrupt sacking and an acrimonious legal wrangle which eventually came to a head last week when the judgement of an employment tribunal ruled that Russell’s dismissal was, indeed, ‘procedurally and substantively unfair’.

From early on, there was tension between Russell’s methodical and collaborative style of management and the more dictatorial approach of the Murrayfield top brass, but the first clear indication that Russell’s face didn’t fit was when he attended a meeting with SRU chief executive Mark Dodson and general counsel Robert Howat in January 2017, at which he was told he was not achieving his outcomes. Russell asked for a specific example of this, arguing that his department were “delivering on everything that we have in our strategic plan”. No specifics were given.

“All I got back was that they had heard that when I was having team meetings everyone was having opinions and there were conflicting views in my team. I said that is absolutely right because that is what I am trying to encourage. I made the point that I had fortnightly one-to-one meetings, monthly team meetings, quarterly extended senior team meetings and six-monthly whole team meetings, and I wanted everyone to be engaged and contributing to generate debate and discussion on the way forward. That’s how I got feedback from the whole of my Domestic Rugby team to then decide the best way forward”

This was clearly anathema to how Dodson thought things should operate.

“I had not one meeting with Mark Dodson in my time there to actually go through what we were trying to achieve and how we were trying to do that,” recalls Russell. “What is called the ‘Operations Board’ – consisting of the four executive directors, director of performance and director of domestic rugby – met occasionally. It would be in the diary and then quite often cancelled. From June 2016 [in may 2017] until my departure, there were no Operations Board meetings.

“After the Board and Council meeting in March 2016, when there was a presentation on KPI’s [Key Performance Indicators] for Scottish Rugby, I spoke to Mark about including the Domestic Rugby KPIs that we were working to, but he said that he only wanted to be judged on what was presented. The KPIs which were included in the 2015-16 Annual Report were never discussed with myself, don’t make sense and I was never asked to report on them subsequently.

“In hindsight, I should have thought: What the hell is going here? I was sending the Board reports on Domestic Rugby and never got any feedback. So, I just focussed on getting on with my job.”

Out of the blue

Despite concerns about the lack of engagement at executive level in what he and his department were trying to do, Russell was slightly stunned by that meeting in January 2017 when it was first put to him by Dodson and Howat that they were not happy with his performance.

“I asked how can I not be meeting your outcomes when: (a) you have no outcomes and in the domestic rugby department we have a clear plan with KPI’s that we are making progress on, and: (b) I’ve put in reports to the board and never had any feedback. Robert Howat said: ‘Well you shouldn’t really expect anyone to have read that because it’s just a standard report’.

“We [the domestic rugby department] had created a document titled Creating Vibrant Rugby Communities and worked up our own KPIs for domestic rugby. But we ended up with two or three KPIs that we’d made no contribution to – they’d been created by the executive and didn’t actually make sense. Meaningless terms like ‘sustainability’ or ‘club diagnostic tool’ or ‘youth and school structure’ that reference important issues but don’t really mean anything.”

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“I understand that local authorities overdo reporting on performance indicators and so on, but when I went to rugby there was nothing at all to measure what we were doing and the progress that was being made. The lack of a performance culture in the organisation was very surprising. Nobody ever asked me how it was going.”

“Then, three or four months later, I got another phone call from Mark’s PA on the Wednesday [17th May] to say I had a meeting with Mark on the Friday.

“There was no purpose for the meeting provided. I then missed a follow-up call on the Friday morning from Rosanne [Ros] Holburn in HR to say there had been a time change, so I got back in touch to ask what the meeting was about and to check that we were still okay for our own previously scheduled catch-up the following week. She came back with an email message saying: ‘My diary is really filling up, LOL. See you next Tuesday – promise not to cancel.’

“When I get to the meeting on the Friday, Ros was there and I asked if she knew what it was about. She said she didn’t. Then Mark and Robert came in and said: ‘It’s bad news Keith, we’re going to have to let you go’. I was stunned.

“By the end of the meeting, I was thinking about what I needed to do to wind up my time there, and I was effectively told: No, you’re out the door. Now collect your personal effects and go.

Same old story

“They said they’d come to a settlement and they’d be generous, so I was trying to work out what that meant. They said: Get a lawyer, they’ll say nine months, we’ll say three months, and we’ll settle somewhere in the middle. When we got a lawyer and I told him that’s what they’d said, his reply was: Well, they’ve done this before. Mark Dodson actually said in the tribunal that they’d done this before.”

After the lawyer was appointed a settlement deal was discussed – but nothing was agreed.

“There was a number we put in front of them, but looking back on it, if we had gone down that route we’d have been compromised,” reflects Russell. “What they offered wasn’t, for me, sufficient to waive my right to talk about how they treat people in the organisation and what is actually going on.

“This is not how a national organisation that prides itself on the values of rugby, and trades on them, ought to behave. I believe that an awful lot of people in rugby absolutely demonstrate those values, but if you talk about people in organisations living the brand… well… with these guys it’s just not there.

“The SRU do not demonstrate their commitment to their own values at the very top of the organisation in the way they treat staff and in their engagement with the clubs, who are their ultimate stakeholders.

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The tip of the iceberg

“My own experience of the SRU management culture has been replicated by at least four or five other people who are not able to speak out as a result of non-disclosure agreements associated with their dismissals. I went to an employment tribunal to be able to publicly engage in the debate about what the SRU does and their management culture.

“In addition to dismissing me with no process they also did not pay my notice period which was in breach of my contract and unlawful. This appears to be consistent with how others have been treated. As was noted in court, this could clearly be considered as a tactic to force people to accept a settlement out of court. This conduct is unlawful and unethical and demeaning of a national organisation such as Scottish Rugby, who trade very prominently on their values. Mark Dodson stated at the tribunal that whilst he is aware of employment law he simply chose to ignore this when he dismissed me.

“The Scotland team, not to mention the ordinary players and coaches the length the breadth of the country, epitomise the values of Scottish Rugby: playing with pride, honouring the shirt, standing together, respecting their teammates – ‘#ASONE’! Sadly, the senior staff of the SRU do not work on the same principles.

“Decisions are made quickly and then changed without accurate analysis of the situation or clear strategy or tactics. It is the opposite of what a high-performance sports team should demonstrate. Results are not analysed and there is very little accountability. The open and transparent culture that coaches try to create in teams is not replicated at the top of the organisation. The SRU should have the ambition to be a modern, open-minded, partnership-working organisation that provides leadership in the sports sector in Scotland.”

A rugby family

Take out the rugby –  there is also a human element to all of this. Sally Russell has been a rock at her husband’s side throughout this ordeal.

“We’ve had to live like this for 13 months. It’s appalling,” she says.  “Keith’s whole working life has been about improving people’s lives through sport.  He has quietly gone about this work at the council and is highly respected and valued by his colleagues and the sporting community.  He has an exemplary record.  All of this has been cast aside without so much as a backward glance or a notion of the consequences.  I had to sit in the tribunal and listen to Mark Dodson and Robert Howat both claiming that their aim in Keith’s dismissal was to treat him with ‘dignity’ – this would amount to: no verbal or written document detailing what apparently he was not achieving, no offer of legal counsel to attend that meeting with him, no dismissal letter, cutting off his phone and email before he had driven home and thus not allowing him to contact colleagues to cancel meetings and handover work, not paying his notice period or his holiday pay, and threatening us that they would claim their legal expenses win or lose if we went to a tribunal.”

Then she talks about going to watch Finn playing for Scotland.

“We go in with our heads held high, as decent folk, but…” she trails off. “Harry started playing rugby when he was seven and Finn started the next day, so it has been our life for 20 years and it has been great – we wouldn’t swap it. To end up with one of our sons standing with the ball out in the middle of the pitch at Murrayfield… it is great for us, for Finn, for Archie, for Harry, for Jessie, for all of us. And when we used to go it was like a dream because he’s had a rocky road to get there … but now it is forever tainted.”

“The Warriors had a training session at Stirling last year so Finn brought about eight of the team for breakfast on their way to Bridgehaugh. When they left, I said to Keith: You’d struggle to find a more decent group of guys.  Our kitchen and our lives have been filled with great guys, from Stirling, Falkirk, Hillfoots, West of Scotland, Strathclyde University, district teams, regional teams, Scotland Under-18s, Under-20s, Ayr, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The boys, the friendships, the families, the clubs, the laughter – those are the reasons why rugby as a sport is so brilliant.  It is so disappointing to realise that the guys at the top are not good guys and do not represent the values and culture of rugby.”

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Also in the Keith Russell Affair:

Keith Russell wins unfair dismissal case against the Scottish Rugby Union

Keith Russell: ‘Main thing Mark Dodson talked about was keeping the Council quiet’

Keith Russell: ‘The clubs as key stakeholders in the sport  is a distraction they would prefer to avoid’

Scotland tour: Turner hat-trick the highlight of seven-try win

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 865 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

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