GARY THACKER looks back on Sol Campbell’s bizarre debut for Notts County, a game that would be his last for the club
Sol Campbell was one of the Premier League’s most accomplished defenders in the early years of the 21st century. After a nine-year career at Spurs during which he lifted the League Cup in the 1998/99 season, he took the short – and highly controversial – journey across north London to join Arsenal. It was a move that saw him add two league titles and two FA Cups in five years at Highbury. He also scored in a Champions League Final, albeit when the Gunners lost out to Barcelona in 2006.
In total, he played over 400 league games across his time with the two North London rivals, and won 73 England caps. In 2007/08 he won his third FA Cup, this time under Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth, but just over a year later, he would be involved in one of English football’s most bizarre transfers, moving to League Two club, Notts County. Even stranger than the move itself though, was the fact that his time at Meadow Lane, despite signing a five-year, £40,000 per week deal in August 2009, lasted a mere one game, and that one appearance proved to be embarrassingly bizarre in itself.
The East Midlands club had been purchased by Swiss-based consortium Munto Finance, who were fronted by executive chairman Peter Trembling. Talk was that there was big money from unnamed Middle Eastern backers who were prepared to fund big-name signings, and they declared their intention by employing former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson as the club’s new Director of Football.
It was the blandishments of the Swede that apparently persuaded Campbell to make the move, together with assurances that other major signings would follow. For some reason, Campbell was convinced by such seemingly outlandish talk and was persuaded that Roberto Carlos was soon to join. Upon later reflection, Campbell confessed that he’d been a “mug” for taking such bravado at face value and admitted to his embarrassment and naivety.
For all those later reflections, Sol Campbell signed a contract with the club in August and approached the 2009/10 season as a League Two player. It quickly became clear however that he wasn’t to be the first of a line of star names moving to the club, and the ‘dream’ of a club backed by billionaires careering up through the leagues evaporated just as Campbell, the club and its fans reached out to touch it.
Whilst rumours swirled around about investigations regarding the ‘fit and proper’ status of the club’s owners, the early season games ticked by without Campbell taking to the field, but on 19 September, in an away League Two fixture against Morecambe, the long-awaited debut took place. The game would be a microcosm of the way things were going for the club and Campbell. A mere four seconds had elapsed when the centre-back made a hash of a back-pass, and the home team plundered to score. At least things didn’t get any worse but, at full-time, Notts County had lost 2-1 and the assessments of Campbell’s contribution to the cause were less than effusive.
It was clear that Campbell’s gamble of leaving the higher echelons of the English football structure for the apparent wealth and romance of a nouveau riche club had been a dramatic failure. County manager at the time, Ian McParland, agreed to grant his disillusioned star player a day off on Monday to consider things, but the following day it was clear that Sol Campbell would never play for the club again. After completing training on Tuesday, the former star of Spurs, Arsenal and England, collected his things, packed his boots into a bag, and said his goodbyes. He left Meadow Lane, never to return as a player, after a single game and one month into a five-year deal. It later became known that Campbell had requested the club to tear up his contract and, perhaps wisely, Notts County agreed.
How did things come to such a sorry pass? Firstly, employing Sven-Göran Eriksson could only be justified as some kind of bait as it seems the club were bent on bringing a big name in the hope that it would prove a lure to star players. Offering a five-year deal to a player already 35 years old and reported to have mobility issues was an extreme folly, and one almost guaranteed to backfire. Allowing Eriksson to agree – if it was the Swede that did so – to such a deal borders on negligence, and the results that followed were surely predictable.
From Campbell’s point of view, he saw himself as a well-meaning player duped into a scenario not of his making. Talking to the News of the World later, he denied being “embarrassed, hurt or humbled or anything like that.” Going on to say that he was, “just disappointed.” He had, “bought into a dream and I wanted to make that dream a reality. But it took me less than a month to realise that it was all heading to a different conclusion.” Very few would dispute that conclusion.