A horror show.
Those were the only words to describe Sol Campbell's performance when West Ham travelled to Highbury on the evening of February 1st, 2006. At fault for both of the visitors' first half goals, the defender marched down the tunnel at the break inconsolable, before locking himself away in the treatment room.
“I can’t go back out there," he said to the bemused Arsenal physio Gary Lewin, who had come in to check on him. Lewin, confused and thinking Campbell might be injured, saw instead a man who had been broken. A man who, after years of abuse and maltreatment, had finally given way.
Substituted for Sebastian Larsson, Campbell would leave the stadium still dressed in his kit, given special leave away from the spotlight. Robert Pires spoke of “big worries” in his private life that were affecting his concentration. The fans, however, were more concerned about his professional collapse. Campbell was a yard slower and a second more uncertain than the year previously, he looked past it.
It all stood in stark contrast to a career in which Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell had made a claim to be the greatest defender of his generation. The numbers speak for themselves; 73 caps and six consecutive international competitions for England, three of which were rewarded with a place in the 'Team of the Tournament'. Quite simply, he was a phenomenon, a gargantuan talent hewn from a life of adversity and hardship.
Campbell was born into a council estate in Plaistow, east London on September 18th 1973 as the ninth son of Jamaican immigrants, Sewell and Wilhelmina. Being the youngest of the brood, he was a natural target in a home where discipline and order were paramount.
“You're always last on the list being the youngest. If there's any bullying or whatever it seems to go to you. You haven't got a voice," he admitted in an interview with Total Politics in 2014.
Soon his talent with a football began speaking for him, as he was drafted into the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall as a teenager. Freed from the oppressive atmosphere at home and spurred on by encouraging teachers, Campbell's performances in Shropshire began raising the eyebrows of the country’s bigger clubs. He eventually signed schoolboy papers with Tottenham after a brief dalliance with West Ham was cut short after he was on the receiving end of a racist remark.
Campbell made his Spurs debut as a bustling midfielder in 1992, before his strength and athleticism saw him drafted into defence. He would stay there for nine years, assuming the captaincy on the way to becoming the first black captain to lift a trophy at Wembley when Spurs won the League Cup in 1999.
By then, Campbell had already asserted himself as his country’s most suffocating defender, a man whose sheer physicality was as potent in the opposing box as his own. He had grown increasingly tired, however, with his club's apparent lack of sporting ambition. Campbell, stranded at a club constantly buffeted by uncertainty and mismanagement, grew restless. Despite his reservations, though, he admitted on several occasions that his desire was to stay at White Hart Lane.
“For me to do well at Spurs would mean everything,” he admitted to the media ahead of an England game in March 2001. “They just have to convince me that they’re as ambitious as I am.”
It was just the latest in a long line of pronouncements from the England defender, who seemed auspiciously keen to commit to the club. It was the strength of these denials that, in hindsight, may have fuelled the hatred with which Spurs fans would ultimately come to regard him.
As the media was spun and the fans assuaged, a silent network of suitors began sniffing around the wantaway centre-back. Inter Milan, Barcelona and Bayern Munich all made their interest known, but it was one club in particular that sent Tottenham blood cold.
"Being a Spurs fan as a boy and a player for so many years, I don't think the fans here would ever forgive me," Campbell swatted when asked if Highbury was a possible destination. In private, however, things were less transparent.
Before he left in acrimonious circumstances in 2007, David Dein had been the charismatic king-maker in the red half of North London. His natural charisma and affinity for networking had greased the wheels in most of Arsenal’s transfers, but even he would have to be on top of his game to convince the captain of their biggest and most vociferous rivals into signing for them.
Campbell had long admired the professionalism and winning mentality synonymous with the club just up the road in N5. After a stunning double in his first full season, Arsene Wenger looked ready to usurp the Manchester hegemony, backed by a squad of talented professionals and, crucially, a stable and committed boardroom.
Intrigued by Arsenal's interest, Campbell would make numerous secretive calls to Dein’s house, tentative steps fleshed out into a full-blown offer after countless late-night deliberations. Both parties knew the risks, and were wary of the fall-out. Both were prepared to swallow them.
“I have a lot of respect for Sol because it was not an easy move. In fact it was tremendously difficult," the Arsenal executive would later recall in Amy Lawrence’s book ‘Invincible’. Even now, the words seem unable to describe the violence of the reaction.
'Judas’ was perhaps the most kindly term in a slurry of epithets directed at the former Spurs captain as news broke of the transfer in July 2001. Things bubbled to a violent head as his new employers visited White Hart Lane in November that year.
"You see women, children, almost frothing at the mouth," Campbell recollected in John Cross' book ‘Arsene Wenger’. Effigies and placards were erected outside the ground, bricks and bottles thrown at the Arsenal bus on the way to and from the stadium. The atmosphere on the pitch was even more febrile, his every touch of the ball greeted with thunderous angst. And that was before the songs started. An opera of invective sung throatily by frothing pockets of lillywhite that speculated around the player’s sexual preferences, and more crudely, about his sexual health.
The defender had long faced whispers concerning his private life, but had done his best to concentrate on more pressing matters on the pitch. People always fear what they don’t know, and Campbell was unknowable. Naturally insular but ferocious on the field, he was an oxymoron, and a traitorous one in the eyes of Spurs fans.
"Some of the fans have moved on but they've not totally forgotten. People have a mental block. The anger never goes away," he admitted in an interview with the Daily Mail in 2015, a full fifteen years after his original betrayal.
Because it was a betrayal, irrespective of Campbell’s own justification for the move. He was hoisted by his own professions of loyalty, only to be made foolish by his own declarations of fidelity. Spurs fans were so incensed, not only because he was their captain, but also their best player. His leaving was an unequivocal statement that they were the second biggest club in North London, and they hated him for it.
Enough has been said about the sporting achievements Campbell would harvest in the other half of North London, as he became an integral part of one of the greatest sides the Premier League has ever seen. Alongside Kolo Touré, Campbell became the coccyx in the Gunners’ titanium spine, directing traffic through fellow monoliths Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. For a player motivated by the desire to win things, it felt like vindication.
By the time he scored against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final, however, his situation at Highbury was unclear. After the debacle at West Ham, the 21-year-old Philippe Senderos had come into the team, lodging a number of impressive performances which kept Campbell sulking on the sidelines. Aged 33, he faced an uncertain future.
Enter Harry Redknapp, who had inspired a team of geriatric go-getters to help Portsmouth into the Premier League. He signed Campbell on a free transfer and was rewarded tenfold, with the veteran approaching something close to his best form on England's sunny South coast.
But after a stunning FA Cup victory in 2008, Campbell would make a series of eyebrow-raising moves, first to Notts County for a solitary game in the third tier, before an emergency return to a depleted Arsenal side in 2010.
Ending his career after an uneventful spell with Newcastle, Campbell found himself at a loose end. At first he considered acting, but a cringeworthy cameo on drama Footballer's Wives remains the only notable entry on his IMDB page, alongside a turn as a bouncer in Snatch.
From there he would dabble in his partner’s interior design business, before settling on a career in politics, positioning himself as a possible Tory candidate in the London mayoral race in 2015. One disastrous LBC interview later, his ambitions were shelved.
Finally, he decided on a career in coaching, admitting in an interview with the Daily Mail; "I want to become one of the greatest managers this country has ever produced.”
If the FA noticed it, they pretended not to. Perhaps it was retribution for the claims made in Campbell's autobiography, where he had labelled the organisation “institutionally racist.” The comments drew opprobrium from all quarters, including from Kick it Out Chairman Lord Ouseley, who called the timing of his pronouncements (which coincided with the release of his memoir) “cynical”.
It wasn’t the only accusation made by the erstwhile defender, who suggested that his race had prevented him from becoming England's long-term captain. Again the suggestion was ridiculed; pundits pointed to the presence of equally-qualified candidates who had also been overlooked. Others referenced the shoulder injury that had left him out of the squad before David Beckham was named as the eventual wearer of the armband.
Was there, however, a kernel of truth to his claims? It seems bizarre that a player of his calibre would captain his country on just three occasions, fierce competition for the honour notwithstanding.
Campbell had been one of the most vociferous protestors when, in 2013, Greg Dyke launched a commission led by an all-white panel to delve into the state of the English game. This followed on from the comments of an unidentified former English coach in 2004, who suggested to The Guardian that he had been pressured to 'limit’ the number of black players selected for the national squad.
Equally so, many pointed to the personality of a player whom one ex-girlfriend had called a “tortured soul”. Throughout his career, Campbell had always been an outlier, an introvert in a gauntlet of swinging dicks and laddish bravura. Despite his aggressive performances for Arsenal and England, he was a monk in a team of garish alpha males, a dispassionate observer there to do a job and do a job only.
Which is why the image of Sol Campbell the man sits so askew with Sol Campbell the celebrity. Incidents such as the one in 2014, where he name-shamed a barista for poor customer service before facing a public onslaught, have done little to dispel the image that this is a man with a searing sense of entitlement. His standing hasn't been helped by an apparent taste for the finer things in life, his open-necked shirts and conservative views sitting at odds with a sport reluctant to part itself from its working-class roots.
One thing that can't be disputed, however, is Sol Campbell the footballer. He was a titan of defence, a crucial cog in a history-making machine. He may not have got the credit he deserved, but Arsenal fans don't care. They know who he is, and they know what he means to them.