Sobriety, Soul-Searching & Second Chances: Matty Russell’s Super League Lifeline

Russell earned a surprise return to Warrington Wolves after impressing during an otherwise desperate 2022 season at Toulouse
11:00, 31 Jan 2023

Scotland international Matty Russell has made a promise to ditch alcohol and prove Warrington right for throwing him a Super League lifeline.

The powerful winger earned a surprise return to Warrington Wolves after impressing during an otherwise desperate 2022 season, as Toulouse suffered relegation back into the Betfred Championship. But the personal story runs far deeper.

That relegation was a third in a row for Russell, having gone down with both Leigh and Toronto in previous seasons. And personally he was rebuilding, after confronting demons that he says made him “sell himself short” in a previous four-year stint at Warrington that ended in 2018.


There was a big drinking culture back then, and Russell was always in the thick of it. It is that image, those memories, that he has had to address and commit to history, in order to earn this shock return to the Wolves.

“A lot of people have had to be convinced,” Russell tells The Sportsman. 

“A lot of people don’t know you. Those who do know you, they have faith in you to deliver. The rest though you have to convince and that’s tough. But those who have given me this chance I wouldn’t want to let down, so it’s something I’m totally committed to. That is on me.”

I first sat down with Russell last September when he chose to lay bare his private battle during a podcast recording after Toulouse’s relegation had been confirmed, and the 29-year old was looking for a new club. 

Staying in Super League was the dream, but he acknowledged that the perception, prejudice - call it what you want - that has accompanied his off-field image, has led to some sizable employment barriers.

“When I spoke to you in September that was a key thing,” he admits.

“It allowed me to then talk to other clubs. My agent would come back to me and say ‘this team, this team, they would all take you now for whatever money you want but your off-field stuff is hindering everything and they are all asking questions. These people don’t know you so it always gets in the way’.


Russell describes those drinking days as “stupid errors” made by a young player unaccustomed to the local limelight and who would then struggle in a spell sidelined by serious injury. It created an image that has “come back to bite me on the arse a few times”.

“My problems were just being on nights out, being a bit drunk, causing a bit of bother. I didn’t realise at the time what a key figure I was in Warrington in the public eye,” he recalled on that Love Rugby League podcast episode.

“It was the party scene in Warrington in the nightclubs and it didn’t seem a problem. Sometimes I would come in training a bit dusty.

“I wasn’t doing my extras at training, I was living off takeaways, I was drinking, but I still couldn’t see how bad it had got.

“I didn’t realise what a state I had got myself in. A big thing with rugby league now is fitness. The best players are all the fittest ones in the team like James Roby, so there is no chance I could get away with that now in a top team.”

Amazingly Russell’s stats were still good in that first stint, scoring 31 tries in 94 games including one in a Challenge Cup Final. And even during that interview last autumn he made the prediction that “if I was back in that Warrington team in the shape I’m in now I think I’d carve it up.”

Fast forward to 2023 after a couple of soul-searching years in relative isolation at both Toronto and Toulouse, and Russell certainly looks unrecognisable as he heads back home, having turned his addictive personality to fitness instead. 

Quitting alcohol though is tough when it is a relationship that has become unhealthy. 

It is as much about rewiring the brain as it is about altering a lifestyle. This writer himself is now three years sober and it is an enlightening journey, but a very personal, and very difficult one. You are basically divorcing your best mates. Being left alone with difficult thoughts that you have always used alcohol to block out, means it is more of a mental journey than a physical one.

And it is that which Russell believes convinced Warrington that he was a chance worth taking. 

“I was able to meet (CEO) Karl Fitzpatrick and (coach) Daryl Powell for a good few hours. They committed to me and I committed to the club. And I know one thousand per cent that I am going to deliver off the field. It is just about getting the chance on the field too.

“My first target was to make a good impression on the team and the environment and I think I have done that now and I feel welcome, with a good bond with the coaching staff whose trust I have gained. I target week by week to work hard and be a good person.”

Being teetotal in a macho sport like rugby league feels especially tough. Russell has strength in numbers though with fellow new signing Gil Dudson, a giant Wales international prop, also a proud non-drinker.

This feels both a big year for Russell and for the club, with Warrington themselves having flirted with relegation during a desperate first year under Powell. 

“It almost feels like a fresh start with different players and a very different culture,” Russell adds.

“Only Stef (Ratchford), Ben Currie and Daryl Clarke were there before. It’s a full new squad. It doesn’t feel like I’m in the same Warrington squad. It’s good to be back.

Warrington Wolves are 8/1 to win the 2023 Grand Final with Betfred*

“I knew I was good enough to be in a good full-time set up at a top club. I was told that by my peers throughout rugby league too. It was just about the opportunity and whether I was going to get it again. I have an opening here as a squad player and then see what happens with first-team games going forward.

“It was only through changing how I was off the field that was going to get me that lifeline. That is something I have done and have had to commit to with the club. I knew once I got that right I could get another top club.”

In terms of targets for 2023, Russell wants to keep it low key to keep moving in the right direction.

“To perform on the field when I get a chance, and to be a role model off the field. This is a lifeline, but one I am taking with both hands.”

*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change

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