Derek Russell profile: Working at Villa is like being in a movie
Derek Russell is a security guard. He's not a film star. But it doesn't stop him feeling like he's in the movies.
Derek, 49, has worked at Villa Park for seventeen years, ever since he answered an advertisement in the Birmingham Evening Mail.
Yes there are quiet times as he patrols the hallowed premises and ensures the status quo is kept smoothly in B6 during the week.
But on matchday, he feels like an extra in a Hollywood blockbuster.
It's when his job "comes alive".
Manning the entrance to our glorious ground as the claret and blue anticipation reaches fever pitch, he's granted access to the likes of David Beckham, Prince Charles, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kevin Costner.
It's a responsible role he takes very seriously but it doesn't stop him lifting his head and smelling the roses along the way.
"My job here is the stuff that dreams are made of. It's unbelievable. Every night before I come in to work, it's like Christmas Eve and every day when I arrive it's like Christmas Day.
"You see films where amazing things happen. That's how I feel. I feel like I'm in a film - the best film ever made!
"And I'm getting paid for it. I am so privileged. I couldn't consider working anywhere else.
"It's my dream job. I was brought up in the area, just across the road. As a young kid, I remember hearing the roars from the stadium and being transfixed by it all. Then I answered an ad in the paper and I've been here ever since.
"I absolutely love it. It's my life. I have met some great, great people - David Beckham, Kevin Costner, Ronaldo, Prince Charles, Sir Doug Ellis and Randy Lerner to name but a few.
"There are so many famous people I have seen here. I have soaked it all in. I have been like a sponge."
Whether you're a visitor checking out where a conference is being held or a player driving in before a big game, Derek is, more times than not, the first person you see at the entrance to our grand old ground.
And he appreciates this fact.
"Our seven-strong team of security guards are the face of the club when guests and visitors first arrive. We have to give off a good impression for this great football club.
"They call me 'Smiler.' I love to smile and grin. It creates a good environment. But also, it offers people trust in any conversation I have with them. It makes people feel better.
"They don't just see a security guard. They see a friendly person. That's the way I feel. It certainly helps."
Despite his welcoming personality, Derek - who works full-time in a team headed by Tom Fantini, John Handley, Paul Owens and Phil Masterson - is not afraid to quiz and question if it's needed - especially if you haven't got accreditation!
It's served him well most of the time - except two situations he remembers with a wry smile.
"When we hosted the Cup Winners Cup final in 1999, I was working in the changing room area. It was Lazio v Real Mallorca and the likes of Roberto Mancini, Christian Vieiri and Allesandro Nesta were all playing.
"Mallorca had a tradition where the Princess of Spain would come down and greet the players after the game.
"But she didn't have any accreditation and I didn't know who she was. I refused her entry. All the UEFA and FIFA delegates came storming up to me, screaming: "No. No. No." But it was my duty to stop her.
"On another occasion, John Gregory had secured the signing of Peter Schmeichel. No-one knew anything about it. It was kept all hush-hush.
"One afternoon, someone drove into Villa Park in a blacked-out Mini.
"He wound down the window and I said: "Can I help you please?"
"He said: "I'm Peter Schmeichel."
"I was gobsmacked. He was one of the greatest goalkeepers ever! I think I just blurted out: "Hey, what you doing here?" That was funny looking back."
Don't think for one minute, though, that his failure to acknowledge the superb stopper shows lack of knowledge about the claret and blue way.
Derek is a man well-versed in the history of the club - a huge fan - and in touch with former and current players, who greet him on the way into the stadium on matchday.
One man he sees less of nowadays is Stan Petrov and that's something that has affected him greatly.
"I have got to know loads of the lads because of my job. Andy Townsend is great. Paul McGrath is a fantastic guy. Dwight Yorke is lovely. I love Nigel Reo-Coker. He is a lovely person.
"But Stan Petrov - what a man. He is an amazing guy. I can't say enough about him. My heart goes out to him with his health struggles.
"He always has a smile. And he does so much for the fans. There have been loads of occasions where he's come in to Villa Park, driven past me after a quick chat, and a fan has screamed out for an autograph. Never a problem!
"He is a lovely person. You never feel like he's a superstar looking down his nose at you. He always treats you respectfully.
"He is ultra professional too - friendly but focused before the game on his way in. He would always smile but be tunnel-visioned about what was about to happen on the pitch.
"After the game, there'd been a handshake and a 'how's it going?' I miss him. It's like I have lost something."
Derek greets players before and after the game, of course, but during the match itself he's "on duty" and responsible for the safety and security outside the perimeter of the ground itself.
It doesn't mean he doesn't know what's happening on the glimmering grass, though!
"When the goals are going in, it's great. I can hear the roar! I love the whistle when we've won too, the smiles on the faces of the fans, the buzz among the players, it's terrific.
"It's the feel-good factor you feel all around you. Anyone who doesn't come to games and thinks they can get the same atmosphere watching on television is misguided. You have to come and watch. This is where it's at."
And Derek - nicknamed 50 Pence after US rapper 50 Cent - hopes it's where he's "at" for many years to come.
"I could never leave. I could walk around this place with my eyes closed and I'd know where I am. It's a family. You never leave your family behind. That's how I feel."
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