Sol searching: Sol Campbell interview

Written by Sam Macrory and Daniel Bond on 29 May 2014 in Interview
Interview
Sol Campbell was never afraid to do things his way as a player, and in retirement he’s proving no different. But will the football world listen to what he has to say, and if not, where might he go next? Sam Macrory and Daniel Bond spoke to a footballer who never fails to surprise

White Hart Lane, Highbury, Wembley. Radio 4, Newsnight, Prospect magazine. It’s not your average footballing CV. But then Sol Campbell is not your average footballer.

He’s the player who controversially left Tottenham Hotspur, his boyhood club, for their arch-rivals Arsenal. Who endured years of vitriolic, homophobic abuse, before walking out of a stadium altogether mid-way through a Premiership game. Who signed for lowly Notts County for five years but quit after one match. And whose refusal to play the part of the stereotypical footballer marked him out as a difficult player, and man, to deal with.

Today, approaching 40, only the flecks of grey in his stubble and perhaps a pound or two extra on his muscular frame distinguish Campbell from his peak playing years. He still looks like he could pull on a shirt if he was called up, though he says that “if I wanted to play at a lower level I’d need a month or six weeks to get myself into shape… a testimonial, a couple of weeks and I’d be alright.”

A return to the pitch may be off the cards, but Campbell has nonetheless found himself back in the public eye after the release of his authorised biography this spring. The book, written by media adviser-turned-author Simon Astaire after hours of comprehensive interviews with the subject himself, makes for a compelling read, unravelling the curious story of one of Britain’s most enigmatic and mercurial sports stars.  

But one explosive claim in particular stole the headlines. "I believe if I was white, I would have been England captain for over 10 years. It's as simple as that," Campbell had told his biographer, going on to suggest that the FA "wished" he were white, but felt they couldn't have a black face representing the national side around the world. The claim was vehemently denied by former FA boss David Davies, and rejected by several former black England players.

Now, speaking in his favourite west London Italian restaurant, the scene of his lengthy interviews with Astaire, Campbell has time to reflect on the fallout from the book. Does he stand by the claim?

"People jumped on the 10 year thing; it might not have been 10 years, it might have been five years. But definitely I should have captained my country more than three times," he says. "My performances, and who I was as a player, deserved it. I captained most sides I played for, so I wasn't a fish out of water. I had all the attributes, I controlled games, and I held myself in a proper way. I shouldn't be a person who needs to shout from the rooftops and say 'why aren't I being made captain?'"

After the initial backlash, he seems less keen to focus on colour. Instead he accuses the FA of appointing captains based not on their performance, credibility or playing attributes, but on their national and worldwide appeal as stars or celebrities. And Campbell, for whom the idea of 'footballer as celebrity' never seemed to sit comfortably, believes that he didn't fit the FA's mould.

"I never knew you had to be a star and a PR guru to be captain for England. I just thought it was all about performances. And my colour did hold me back to a certain extent," he continues. "It's bizarre how they pick people. When you're one of the best in the world in your position, and at one stage for a couple of years the best in the world in your position, and you're captaining your club and doing fantastic for your country, and you are so far away from being captain or even vice-captain – it's almost insulting. It should be a natural process. You shouldn't have PR in the way. Colour, and what you do in your spare time, shouldn't get in the way."

His remarks over the England captaincy may have sparked a debate, but he believes it's in the manager's dugout and the boardroom, rather than on the pitch, that the true extent of football's colour divide becomes clear. After the sacking of Norwich City’s Chris Hughton this April, the Football League was left with no non-white managers. With 25% of players in English football from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, it’s a damning statistic. 

"If you look at the amount of black players coming through the system in English football, it doesn't weigh up. If you look at the statistics it just doesn't weigh up," Campbell argues. "Out of 92 clubs, there's no presence. There's some black players with some really substantial careers in this country, with a vast wealth of experience. And there's nothing there for them? It's bizarre."

He's wary of calls to introduce a US-style 'Rooney Rule' – a law in American Football requiring teams to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for senior coaching roles – on this side of the Atlantic, but he says the powers that be at the FA now have a "duty" to lead by example. "I look at the FA and I think, I've been with the FA since I was 14 years old. And at the top level I've not seen a change. You'd think they would be the first to want to show the world this is the way to go. You'd think they'd be the first. But they're not."

Campbell has signalled his intentions to go into coaching, and possibly management, himself, and is close to finishing his 'A' license, the second highest managerial qualification in European football behind the 'Pro' license.

"I've got a lot to offer. And people can see that," he says of his coaching ambitions. "The career I've had, what I've done, what I've been through, how I've got out of it, kept my head up high while everything is falling around me, picked myself up again and still won. Not many people have done that. But I never have anyone calling me saying 'do you know what, Sol, we've got a job here for you because of what you've done'. My CV is almost unbelievable. Maybe it's because I don't shout about it. But what I've done in the game is immense. Under pressure as well."

How about coming back to where he started. Could he ever see a time when he returns to Tottenham as manager?

“I don’t think they would have me,” he admits, adding: “Even if I was winning World Cups and championships around the world.”

There’s no smile to accompany the answer. Campbell – who earlier this year apologised for any pain he caused the Spurs fans after that Arsenal move – sounds genuinely sad that his relationship with his first club seems irreparable. He didn’t even play in the recent testimonial game for Ledley King, another east end boy who rose through the Spurs ranks, captained the club, but unlike Campbell stayed there for his entire career.

“Ledley is a great guy. I’d love to have played,” he says. “There’s something going on, love and hate, with me.”

***

Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell is the youngest of 12 siblings. He grew up in East London, where his father Sewell was a railway worker and his mother Wilhelmina worked in a factory.

“You’re not stepped on, but you’re always last – or first – on the list being the young one, and you grow up fast,” he says of being the 12th Campbell child. “You learn. But if there’s any bullying or whatever it seems to go to you. You haven’t got a voice. It’s tough.”

So young Sol faded into the background, often with just his football, and his thoughts, for company. “You retreat into your own imagination – that’s why I’m quite imaginative. Thinking things out, working things out. There were loads of scenes in my head. You become quite independent, and insular as well. But when it really matters, there’s a lot of things bottled up.”

At school he played all kinds of sport, but it was football where he found himself, describing the game as his “release” from the world outside.

“I knew I couldn’t waste time. I didn’t have the luxury to say ‘I’ll try this, or I’ll try that.’ I didn’t have a safety net to catch me if something went wrong.”

Even once he entered the macho dressing room culture, and despite the kind of extra-curricular offers available to all young professional footballers falling at his feet, Campbell’s childhood insularity remained, perhaps even hardened.

“I gave all my imaginative ways into thinking in to my sport. It was my little baby, my little thing, me. I didn’t want anybody to rock it or disturb. I had one way to go. It was all I had and I didn’t want to lose it.”

At Tottenham Hotspur he became the fans’ favourite, club captain, and one of the most coveted defenders on the planet. But while Campbell’s reputation soared, Spurs struggled. His contract wound down, the biggest names in football began to circulate. It was the big footballing question of the 2000/1 season: what would Sol do next?

Rejecting Barcelona and Inter Milan, he stunned the footballing world by joining Arsenal, Spurs’ great north London rivals, for free. While the trophies followed, it's hard to overestimate the level of animosity inspired by his move across North London. In the years that followed, his annual return trips to Spurs became rituals of vitriolic abuse. Effigies were burnt. Invectives, and missiles, were flung. He was condemned as 'Judas', and he even began to adopt an almost biblical attitude towards the situation himself. "I was there for people to whip, throw stones at and mock – and the majority did," he said in an interview at the time.

The abuse continued and soon become laced with increasingly unpleasant claims about his late father, his personal life and, more often than not, his sexuality.

From early on in his career Campbell had to contend with baseless rumours swirling around the football world that he was gay. But after his move across North London, what had begun as hearsay and innuendo in the media quickly evolved into homophobic abuse from the terraces.

Campbell says he felt "let down" by the FA's failure to act on the abuse he received "year after year after year" from fans. “They didn’t know what to do,” he reflects. “Maybe it doesn’t come into their remit. But it should do.”

After one particularly rancourous incident at a game in 2008 he decided to act himself and arranged to appear on Radio 4's Today programme, where he claimed the abuse had now moved beyond football and was becoming "a human rights situation". “I had to go outside of football almost to reclaim who I am as a footballer, just playing my game without being abused at that level,” he recalls. “The FA did nothing, head in the sand. They haven’t even apologised.”

A complaint was made to police and eventually several fans were convicted for homophobic chanting and banned from football grounds in England and Wales. “I’m a much better, stronger person because I have done it myself,” he says of his intervention. “Nobody helped me, Association wise. I did the interview, I started the process, and that began to hold responsible and accountable the people who did that. I started that.”

He attributes the speculation around his sexuality to his "shy" nature, and particularly his reluctance to join in dressing room banter about girlfriends and sexual conquests. "I wasn't a guy who wanted to show who I am around the football club all the time," he says. "I was dating and had girlfriends from time to time, but I wanted to keep football separate."

His experience is not unique – ex-player Graeme Le Saux once claimed he was on the receiving end of homophobic abuse from fellow footballers, most famously Robbie Fowler, simply because he was a regular reader of the Guardian. 

It's a situation Campbell can sympathise with.

"If you play rugby and you like reading the Guardian, you go to the opera, in that type of environment it's fine, it's cool. When you play rugby," he explains. "But if you do that in football – no. It’s a 1970s blueprint."  

But did he ever receive similar abuse on the football pitch? "No – I'd knock them out," he fires back with a grin. He bursts out laughing – but you get the feeling he's not joking.

"Football is a funny world," he continues, with a perplexed shake of his head. "It's so insular, it's embarrassing. It's archaic in a lot of ways. It's like it can't move, it's just stiff."

Earlier this year Thomas Hitzlsperger, a former midfielder for Aston Villa and West Ham, became the most high profile ex-player yet to come out, and the positive reaction he received, particularly from the media, led many to speculate that it's only a matter of time before we see a gay player take to the pitch in the Premier League. 

Campbell, jaded by years of homophobic abuse from the stands, is not so optimistic. "It depends on the club, it depends on the media," he says. "But the fans? I can't see them being ready for 20 years. Other countries might be ready for it, other sports. But fan-wise, I can't see it for 20 years. It's the following, it's the macho way. Twenty years plus. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't see it."

While Campbell’s intervention may have had a positive outcome, the personal toll was huge. In 2006 his form began to dip. Half way through a game against West Ham, with Arsenal already two goals down, Campbell failed to return for the second half. He had left the ground altogether, and made no contact with the club for a number of days.

Once again, Campbell had not behaved the way footballers are expected to.

Was he suffering from depression?

“Probably not depression, but definitely pressure,” Campbell replies after a pause. “What I had to deal with off the field, emotionally, father passing away, people being homophobic to me, people being horrible to me on the internet, injuries, not being able do what you want to do, my position under threat. I was suffering. A lot of people are saying things, a lot of people are second guessing. Maybe I should have brought the book out then...”

Again, he criticises the FA for offering him no support. “No chance, no way – maybe they didn’t understand it?” Arsenal, he adds, “probably didn’t know how to deal with it. No one else has helped me.”

As he so often seemed to during his footballing career, Campbell felt alone, and with nowhere to turn. “I was in a dark area and there was no-one to talk to. I thought I could talk through my sport, but obviously if your sport is not going properly, you’ve got nothing to go into. Every time I was trying to retreat, to find some salvation, there were more problems. Every time I got into a house it burned, got to another house there was an earthquake, I’d go to another house and there was a flood. So wherever I went for a safe haven – it wasn’t there.”

So once again, he took the problem into his own hands and dealt with it, this time with the help of his family, by himself.

“It was good to have that blow out. One of the best things that happened was me saying, my system saying, ‘I’ve had enough.’ Now I’m in a much better place, and it has given me strength to do more, put myself together again, and be a better person. It’s testament to me, my mother, my wife, the kids. I had a duty to get myself together again. I went to Portsmouth, I won the FA Cup, I played for England again. It was a remarkable turnaround.”

***

Sol Campbell’s footballing career didn’t end with the glorious farewell he might have hoped for. Instead, it sort of fizzled out. That baffling cameo for Notts County was followed with a brief return to Arsenal and an unfulfilling season at Newcastle. And then, nothing. With little fanfare, Campbell called it a day.

Although he had endured, occasionally created, some problems during his playing career, Campbell looks back fondly on “some beautiful moments” on the pitch.

“Winning the double. Winning my first cup for Tottenham. Playing beautiful football for a couple of seasons. Playing for England for the first time. Nearly scoring one of the most amazing goals against Colombia in 1998, going through the Colombian defence like a knife through butter…”

And, despite everything, he wishes was still out there on the pitch.

“I miss football,” Campbell admits. “I know I can’t play forever, but it’s hard. If you’re really good at singing, or you’re an artist, or whatever, you can be really good and say ‘I need a holiday’. That might be five years. Then you can come back, you can start doing film again, start singing again, start writing again and you’re back, you’ve got new experiences in your life, you’ve travelled, you’ve recharged your batteries fully, and you can go on until your 60 or 70 years old. You can’t do that in football. That’s the sad thing about it. I wish I could play football until I’m 70.”

But football, it seems, doesn’t want Sol Campbell back. No coaching offers have arrived, and not one broadcaster has approached him to discuss a punditry role at the World Cup.

He won’t be going to Brazil at all – “Too much hassle” – but is optimistic about England’s chances. “I think they’re going to do well,” he predicts. “They’re going to learn a hell of a lot and even if it doesn’t work they should take what they’ve learned and not forget. That will benefit them in the future.”

While Campbell, the only England player to go to six consecutive tournaments, would like to help with that learning experience, he’s not waiting by the phone. Instead, following the publication of his book, his horizons, and perhaps his audience, have shifted.

A paperback version, with new chapters added, is due, the William Hill Awards have been mentioned, and there is talk of developing some of the themes Campbell has raised into a documentary film.

He has also been invited, by Labour MP Keith Vaz, to speak at a Rainbow event on diversity in Parliament next month, joining a bill which includes David Cameron. It will, he says, be “scary, but fulfilling”. But he’s just pleased that Westminster has reacted to what he is saying.

“They wanted my views on it and I told them. Let’s see what happens over the next year or so. It’s nice that people are actually listening. That’s the difference. They are listening and want to listen. Even though I am from East London, intelligence isn’t for certain people, it’s for everyone.”

Perhaps, he suggests, his book was too much for the football world to handle.

“A lot of heart and soul has gone into it, and it was written in a totally different way, which was refreshing to a lot of people,” Campbell argues, before adding a comment which may not build any bridges he burnt as a player. “Maybe it’s not refreshing for people on the terraces. I don’t know. It just goes over their heads. Who knows?”

After being approached by MPs 18 months ago, Campbell is also a part of the team preparing to open the new black archives museum in Brixton. “It’s going to be one of the biggest things to hit black history this county has ever seen,” he enthuses. “There’s a lot of people behind it. And I’m one of those people. I saw the project and thought this project deserves the right people behind it… behind the scenes. This is a massive thing. I’m helping out like other people. I’m doing things, not in people’s faces.”

It sounds as if this former footballer is straying into territory that most footballers want nothing to do with: politics. There’s always something a bit squirm-inducing about politicians doing football – however much of an Aston Villa fan David Cameron claims to be or a Leeds United loyalist Ed Miliband really is, somehow it doesn’t quite work – but what about the other way around?

Campbell admits there will be “diehard politicians saying ‘what are you doing, getting involved?’ and diehard footballers saying ‘what are you doing, getting involved in politics”, but he insists there are “certain levels that footballers can get involved in politics”. “There’s a balance, there’s a happy medium where it can happen, and be beneficial to both sides.”

So when he recently heard Gary Neville, the footballer turned Sky pundit, complain that David Cameron should focus on running the country, rather than looking into football, Campbell disagrees. “I say, that is running the country: sorting out the FA, football, getting a magnifying glass out and saying ‘what the hell are you up to? You’ve been left alone for far too long’. There are some things you don’t have to get involved in, but there are other things that cross [over], that he should be looking at: like me and the situation with homophobic and racial abuse over the years. And other players have had that.” So the prime minister needs to take the lead in reforming the Football Association? “It should be looked at,” Campbell replies. “If you leave the FA to do things they take forever.”

And when asked about the recent embarrassment for the Premier League over its chief executive Richard Scudamore’s allegedly sexist emails, Campbell’s answer suggests he is thinking about the political process, and the darker arts it sometimes involves.

“It’s quite funny how that all came out… You’ve got to think, what else is going on behind the scenes? Who is pushing? Who is trying to expose who, and for what gain?”

But what about the world outside the FA’s Soho Square headquarters? Do footballers really talk about what David Cameron’s priorities should be, whether Ed Miliband’s One Nation message is cutting through, or if Nick Clegg will survive the next 12 months?

Campbell smiles. “You know what comes up in the changing room? Tax!”

The smile breaks into a big laugh.

So with those high wages to bank, presumably footballers end up as natural Conservatives in the end? It’s time for Campbell to reveal the political secrets of the dressing room.

“I think most start Labour, because of the backgrounds they are from. And I can imagine as time goes on most of them go to the Conservatives.”

And what about Campbell himself? A working class East End boy turned millionaire?

“I look at Labour, and I look at the Conservatives…”

But when it comes to polling day?

“I love Labour, I love their mentality, but I just don’t like the policies. I don’t like the mentality of the Conservatives, but the policies are conducive to me.”

It turns out that Sol Campbell, the lilywhite turned red, is a true blue.

Considering which Labour leaders have appealed to him he says Tony Blair was “the closest one”, but more interesting perhaps are his views on the man of the hour, UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

‘It’s confusing,” he says when asked his thoughts on UKIP’s rise. “I can understand why people feel disenfranchised, that their parties aren’t representing them in the right way. Nigel is trying to be the solution. But is he? I don’t know. The history of it [UKIP] is not… it’s not an a la carte menu. Elements are not savoury, and he’s trying to change that. Whether he changes that soon enough, I don’t know.”

We’re a long way from the chalkboard or the training ground, but Campbell is not quite alone in being a footballer with a thing or two to say. While most players prefer to Instagram their latest embroidered boots, Joey Barton has used the Twittersphere to rebrand himself as a philosophising controversialist, while Rio Ferdinand isn’t shy of an opinion either. Campbell doesn’t sound impressed.

“Twitter is not authentic. It’s just words,” he replies when asked what he makes of the tweet-happy footballers – though he admits that Twitter “is a fantastic tool for some people.”

So why not for him?

“I’m old fashioned. I like to hear people, to see someone’s eyes,” Campbell explains. “I like to see how people look at certain people, how they shake someone’s hand, how they interact with people saying different things, at a conference or whatever. I think sometimes there’s a cloak around Twitter. A lot of people can follow you, but do they really know you? You could say anything. Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and talk, the old fashioned way, and you listen to people. Words are good, but seeing, or hearing, is believing.”

It’s an answer that any aspiring politician could have given. So could Campbell cross the football-political divide? Other sportsmen, such as long distance runner Sebastian Coe and rower Colin Moynihan, have made the leap. Could a premiership centre half join them?

“I think I’m better outside,” he replies. “I think once you’re inside the party, you get locked. I’m more useful outside.”

But if football doesn’t want to hear him anymore, then perhaps Sol Campbell needs to look elsewhere.

“I’ve got a lot to offer. I’m so underused. I’m from the working class, I’ve gone through the whole spectrum and at each stop I’ve been quite diligent and not forgot things on the way. I’ve got so much to offer. Why are people not using me?” he asks – perhaps pleads – as the interview draws to a close. The footballer who refused to play the game, who stood up to the fans, and took on the FA, might just have one more twist in his extraordinary, unpredictable career.

“Maybe politics is the only place I can be myself? Maybe football doesn’t like being honest. Who knows?”


Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography by Simon Astaire is published by Spellbinding Media

 

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