Just a relatively short hop back in the time machine to the summer of 2001, when Tottenham’s captain crossed the great divide in the most sensational Arsenal transfer of them all. Instantly becoming a Highbury Hero before he had even kicked a ball for us. Yes, it’s Sol Campbell!
Sol was a rock at the centre of the Arsenal defence. He was a man mountain standing six foot two inches, very powerful and muscular and was so quick and athletic for such a big man. It must have been like being hit by a tank when he tackled an opposing player. His big frame also made it extremely difficult for forwards to get past him. Arsene Wenger said one of the reasons he signed Sol was that “when playing against him [his] attackers could not pass him like they could other players. It was as if he was indestructible, such a power spread from him.”
He read danger so well, reacting instantly to intercept the ball. Although a quiet man off the pitch, Sol was very vocal in the heat of battle on the pitch. In the latter years of his Arsenal career, using his experience, Sol would always urge the younger defenders such as Ashley Cole and Kolo Toure to get into the right positions, moving them around to cover any gaps within the Arsenal defence. He was brilliant at marshalling the defence and directing operations at the back.
The bigger the game the better he played. He had tremendous will to win and although quite a complex person in some ways, he had such immense strength of character- whatever the situation, Sol would rise above it to play like the outstanding world class centre back he was.
Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell was born in Plaistow East London on 18th September 1974 to Jamaican parents. His father, Sewell, worked on the railways and his mother Wihelmina, was a factory worker at Fords. Sol was the youngest of twelve children, nine of whom were boys. His parents were very strict, particularly his mum, which kept Sol from getting himself into trouble with the wrong crowd growing up in a tough neighbourhood in Plaistow, East London. Sol attended Portway Primary School before going on to Lister Community School.
As a child Sol played locally for Sunday League Club Senrab, a club which has proven to be a launching pad for football talent. Many of their players have gone on to build professional football careers. Sol later went to the FA School of Excellence at Lilleshall. This was where he met Sky Andrew who was later to become Sol’s agent. While at Lilleshall Sol, filled in many gaps in his earlier education. Away from East London Lilleshall was the perfect environment for Sol. He said it was a lifesaver and gave him the chance to catch up academically. Sol was disciplined and would stay behind after class to work on his Maths, with his parents working and with twelve children to support, it was left to Sol alone to push himself to do the extra homework to catch up. This was an early sign of how focused and determined he was, even at such a young age.
Sol was an outstanding young football prospect, although (amazingly) his parents didn’t take any interest in Sol’s football career. Sol was a shy person as a youngster and didn’t even mention to his parents that he’d made his debut for Tottenham. (Many Arsenal fans probably don’t blame him!) It was only later, when Sol’s name started to appear in the newspapers that they knew he was making a name for himself as a footballer.
Before going to Tottenham, Sol was at West Ham but left when one of the West Ham coaches said “you’ll be pleased to know that the West Indies are beating England at cricket” which Sol considered a racial slur. Two months after leaving the Hammers he joined Tottenham. When Sol went on his first England tour as a youth. The announcer on the tannoy pronounced his first name wrong and as he never liked the name Sulzeer, all his brothers had names such as John, Paul, Peter and Tony, he decided to change his name to Sol and it stuck. Sol says it’s like a stage name really.
On 5th December 1992 at White Hart Lane with 20 minutes left of the London Derby with Chelsea Terry Venables gave Sol his Tottenham debut, coming on for Nick Barmby and Sol scored Spurs goal in a 2-1 defeat. At the start of the following season 1992-93, new manager Ossie Ardiles played Sol at left back in place of the injured Justin Edinburgh, then he played at right back in place of Dean Austin. At the end of that season, Sol signed a four-year contract with Tottenham. By the 1994-95 season, Gerry Francis was manager and led Tottenham to the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup, which Sol missed through injury and without him, Tottenham lost to Everton. Over the next two seasons Sol progressed rapidly and Gerry Francis made him captain. However, as a team, Tottenham didn’t progress and finished mid-table both seasons.
George Graham controversially took over the Tottenham hot-seat from Christian Gross during the 1998-99 season and he had a difficult relationship with Sol. George wanted to make Tim Sherwood his skipper. Sol was never told this directly by George, but he found out for certain when Spurs played Newcastle. In the tunnel, before the teams came out, Sol was standing next to Alan Shearer and Shearer deliberately said “Tim, have you taken the armband off him yet!”. Sol refused to give up the captaincy and led Tottenham to the League Cup, becoming the first black player to lift a major trophy in this country. He was also named for the first time in the PFA Team of the Year.
In 2000/2001, Tottenham boss, Glenn Hoddle, took a risk playing Sol, who was not at full fitness in the FA Cup semi final at Old Trafford against Arsenal. Tottenham were 1-0 up when Sol injured his ankle fouling Ray Parlour and was off the pitch receiving treatment and before Ledley King could come on to replace him Patrick Vieira headed home the equaliser. Robert Pires later fired home the winner to take us to Cardiff. As I watched Campbell hobble off that day, I never dreamt that this would be the last time Sol would wear a Tottenham shirt and the next time I’d see him play he’d be wearing the famous red and white Arsenal one!
Little did I or any other fan in the stadium that day realise that Sol and his agent Sky Andrew were looking enviously across North London to Highbury. Sol could clearly see that Tottenham were never going to match his ambition of winning or even competing for the major trophies and it was Sky Andrew that came up with the inconceivable idea of the Tottenham captain moving down the road to Spurs most hated rivals and becoming a Gunner.
He made tentative contact with the Arsenal hierarchy and they responded positively. Tony Adams was in the twilight of his career and Sol was one of the few players with the stature to replace the lynchpin of the Arsenal defence. However, such was the fear that Sol had of being spotted with any Arsenal officials that he used to have clandestine meetings in the early hours with Arsenal Vice-Chairman David Dein and Arsene Wenger at Dein’s house in Totteridge. It took three months to build up the trust between Campbell and Dein. The pair used to talk for hours about all manner of things not just football. David Dein did a marvellous job of convincing Sol to ignore the lucrative offers from some very big clubs abroad and become part of the Arsenal family.
When Sol signed for Arsenal (a beautiful summer’s day on 3rd July 2001), it caught everybody by surprise including the media. Arsenal had called a press conference and there were only a few journalists at the training ground as they assumed Arsenal would only announce a low key signing. They couldn’t be more wrong!
I recall looking at my phone that morning to see I’d received a text message from my friend who supports Manchester United. I stared at the message and couldn’t believe my eyes it simply read “I see you’ve signed Sol!” I immediately put Sky Sports on and amazingly there was Sol strolling along with Arsene at London Colney. The yellow strip at the bottom of my TV screen read Sol Campbell signs for Arsenal. It was surreal. I phoned my son, Neil, who was on work experience and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sound so overjoyed and excited!
For an Arsenal fan, it was similar to when President Kennedy was assassinated in the way that everyone could recall exactly where they were and what they were doing that day when they received the news. I remember being at Highbury a day or so later and outside the marble halls there was Garth Crooks filming for Football Focus wearing an Arsenal shirt with CAMPBELL and the number 23 printed on the back of it. “it’s good to know you’ve seen the light Garth!” I shouted across at him. He put his forefinger to his lips and replied “Shhh. You haven’t seen anything!” and laughed.
The elation from all of us Arsenal fans was in stark contrast to the white half of North London. They were initially stunned before becoming very angry indeed at being betrayed by their former captain. Sol and his agent had been stalling for months saying Sol was going to sign a new contract for Tottenham, all the while deliberately allowing Sol’s contract to run down to enable him to be available on a free transfer. The Tottenham supporters were livid and outraged at what had transpired. They found it difficult to accept that Sol had left them to join a far superior and successful side to win trophies. The hatred simmered on for months before reaching a crescendo when Sol eventually returned to White Hart Lane in November 2001 as an Arsenal player.
Sol settled in well with the rest of the squad making his debut on 18th August 2001 in the opening game of the season a 4-0 win up at Middlesbrough. The weeks rolled by and on 17th November 2001 it was time for Sol to make his long awaited return to Tottenham and as the Arsenal team coach approached White Hart Lane the hatred towards all things Arsenal and Sol in particular went to another level. The windows in the team bus went through and the vitriol and abuse was incredible. The Tottenham fans had been stewing for four months and they wanted to let Sol know exactly what they thought of him. The Tottenham fans released 4,000 balloons and held up cards with “Judas” printed on them. Sol even spotted his own brother Tony in among the contorted raging faces of the Tottenham fans!
Dennis Bergkamp recalls in Amy Lawrence’s book ‘Invincible’ how toxic and volatile the atmosphere was towards Sol “as a warm-up we used to run on the pitch. From side to side. Sol was running next to me and I could hear the whistles and everything. I was a little bit scared. I’ve never experienced that and when he came on the pitch the hate – there really was hate in people’s eyes. They could do something to him, they could really hurt him”. Also noted in Amy Lawrence’s book, Martin Keown thought that particular match was the making of Sol as an Arsenal player. Martin said “once he got going he was unstoppable. And I felt that the train really started to fire when we went to Tottenham and he walked out. The windows had come in on the bus, I’ve never seen such anger towards us, and when you walked out onto the pitch you saw people snarling. They felt that they’d been sinned against, you know? And Sol really responded that day and he took off from that. We shared it with him, and we didn’t like the Tottenham fans either, so when one of yours is the figure of hate you rally round”.
Robert Pires scored for us in a 1-1 draw that day and Sol who came under unbelievable pressure and hostility was absolutely magnificent. Many players wouldn’t have been able to cope mentally with what Sol faced that day. He rose above it all and almost relished the challenge. However, the abuse and hatred he got that day was unacceptable and way over the top.
Martin Keown was right about that day being the making of Sol and he went on a brilliant run of form. He scored his first goal for Arsenal against Chelsea at Highbury on Boxing Day when he headed home the equaliser in a 2-1 victory. He also scored against Newcastle United in March 2002, he scored Arsenal’s other goal in the 2-0 win which often is forgotten, when Dennis Bergkamp scored that wonder goal up at St James’ Park. He also scored in the 3-0 win in the FA Cup quarter final replay against Newcastle at Highbury, when Robert Pires sustained that cruciate ligament injury which put him out for the rest of the season.
Sol scores his first goal for The Arsenal against Chelsea at Highbury
Sol was immense in the run-in to the Double. He played alongside Tony Adams in the victorious FA Cup final against Chelsea. That was Mr Arsenal’s final apperance for the club and it was like the changing of the guard.
He also played up at Old Trafford when Arsenal clinched the Title and the Double at the home of their fiercest rivals Manchester United as Sylvain Wilford netted the winning goal. This time Sol was paired with another Arsenal centre-back legend Martin Keown. Sol had empathetically justified his decision to move to The Arsenal to win trophies.
Arsenal had pulled off a master stroke snapping him up on a free signing. Sol was so influential at the heart of the Arsenal defence in his first season in an Arsenal shirt and the Arsenal fans had a new song “Double Double Double. Sol Campbell has won the Double and the scum from the Lane have won f*** all again. Sol Campbell has won the Double”.
In 2002-03, Sol had another outstanding season and was named in the PFA team of the year for a second time, along with five of his Arsenal teammates, Lauren, Cole, Vieira, Pires and Henry. However, things went awry for Sol and the team at the business end of the season. Sol controversially received a straight red card for allegedly elbowing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a 2-2 draw at Highbury. Sol claimed he fended him off with the palm of his hand. He received a suspension which Arsenal appealed and lost that ruled Sol out of the last crucial few games of the season including the 2003 FA Cup Final against Southampton at Cardiff. We lost Patrick Vieira as well as Sol for the run-in which scuppered Arsenal’s defence of the Title but Arsenal did manage to retain the FA Cup. Robert Pires being the match winner in a 1-0 victory.
For the Invincible season Sol had a new centre-back partner. Kolo Toure, who had found his best position and formed a great partnership with Sol. In fact, the whole defence had evolved from when Wenger first took over. The famous back line of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn and Martin Keown had either retired, moved on or were no longer first choice players and used as cover. Sol was very much the senior statesman of the defence now, with Kolo learning from the vast wealth of experience that Sol offered. Together they were a powerful and formidable duo.
David Seaman had also played his last game for Arsenal, captaining the 2003 FA Cup final team and had been replaced by Jens Lehmann, who was to prove a shrewd replacement for the magnificent “Safe Hands”. Our new German keeper was somewhat volatile. However he was experienced, an excellent shot-stopper who came for every cross dominating his area and he wasn’t slow to berate his defenders if he thought they weren’t doing their job properly. Together Jens and Sol marshalled the defence superbly. Although the Invincibles were known for their exciting attacking football they had a great defence as well conceding just 26 goals that season.
The deciding game to clinch the title in 2004 was at White Hart Lane, just as it was in 1971, although this time there were not 30,000 Arsenal fans spectating like in 1971. The Arsenal allocation was around a minuscule 3,000. Naturally for this Arsenal side, they brilliantly tore Tottenham apart twice on the counter attack with goals from Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. In the second half, Jamie Redknapp pulled a goal back for Tottenham and just before the end Jens Lehmann stupidly reacted to Robbie Keane’s provocation pushing him and conceding a penalty which he converted to level the game at 2-2. However, a draw was enough to give Arsenal the Title. Sol’s teammates celebrated while he went straight to the dressing room. Sol didn’t want to take the attention away from what the team had achieved. He waited until the Tottenham fans had departed the stadium before returning to the pitch to celebrate with the rest of the squad, dancing the can-can and having to make do with a plastic inflatable Premier League Trophy!
The pressure mounted as Arsenal played their final four Premier League fixtures to complete their historic Invincible season. I don’t think people appreciate how hard it was to remain focused and motivated for those final four games after the title had already been secured. Sol was also named in the PFA team of the year for a third time, along with the same five teammates from the season before.
The 2004-05 wasn’t a good one for Sol. He was injured for a lot of it and only started 16 Premier League games, as well as being an unused substitute at the 2005 FA Cup final, with Philippe Senderos partnering Kolo Toure at centre back, when Arsenal beat Manchester United in the competition’s first ever penalty shoot-out, when Patrick Vieira won the cup with his last ever kick for The Arsenal.
Not a great season for Sol but he did score the winner at Portsmouth with a cracking goal
In his last season at Highbury, Sol wasn’t fully focused on his football career. In February 2006 Sol uncharacteristically made two bad mistakes in the first half against West Ham United at Highbury which led to two goals conceded and it culminated in a 3-2 defeat. Shockingly Sol asked to be taken off at half time and then promptly got changed and left the stadium. There were rumours that a newspaper story about Sol’s personal life was about to break and he went away to Brussels for a few days. Sol said he wanted to get away and play abroad. He said he just wanted to get out of London and find a club where he could just play and all he needed to worry about was winning a game of football. Sol also suffered from injury again playing just 20 Premier League matches. In his absence an unlikely back four of Eboue, Toure, Senderos and Flamini went nine matches without conceding a goal in the Champions’ League. However an injury to Senderos allowed Sol to make a timely return to the side against Villarreal in the Champions’ League semi final second-leg, a Kolo Toure goal in the first leg turned out to be enough to take us through to the Final in Paris; despite a late scare when Jens Lehmann had to save a last minute penalty from Villarreal’s Argentinian playmaker Riquelme in Spain. The 0-0 was the tenth game and 995 minutes without a goal conceded which set a record for the best defensive record in the history of the competition
Sol played in the last ever game played at Highbury against Wigan and In the Champions’ League Final when we were reduced to ten men, after Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down Samuel Eto’o. Sol powered home a header from a Thierry Henry free-kick to score the most important goal in the biggest club game of his career to put us 1-0 up. Despite having chances to seal the game with a second goal, particularly a one-on-one chance that Henry didn’t take we lost 2-1. With just 13 minutes left on the clock, we came so close to becoming Champions’ League winners. It was a heartbreaking night in Paris. What nobody knew at the time, apart from Sol and the Arsenal hierarchy, was that this was meant to be Sol’s last ever game for Arsenal.
Sol’s goal to put us one up against Barcelona in Paris
Sol left Arsenal by mutual consent in July 2006 for a fresh challenge. But Sol didn’t go abroad. In fact he didn’t go very far at all and ended up signing a two-year contract at Portsmouth, with Harry Redknapp as his new manager. In Sol’s second season at Portsmouth he captained Pompey to the 2008 FA Cup final where they faced Cardiff City at Wembley. Sol’s old Arsenal teammate Kanu got the winning goal in a 1-0 victory and the Arsenal connection didn’t end there as Tony Adams was Portsmouth’s coach that day. The following season Harry Redknapp resigned and the club started to get into severe financial difficulties. Sol also sued Portsmouth for £1.7m in unpaid image rights and bonus payments.
Sol’s next move in August 2009 was a major surprise when he agreed to join League Two side Notts County on a five-year contract. Sven-Goran Ericksson his old England manager was the Director of Football and convinced Sol that a Middle Eastern Consortium of billionaires was going to pour money into Notts County and take them to the promised land of the Premier League. It was the most money he’d ever been paid in his whole career and alarm bells should have been ringing. If something is too good to be true it probably is and this was no exception. Sol played just one game and walked out of the club three days after and later had his contract cancelled by mutual consent. Sol was embarrassed and said he felt like a mug for believing it. Sol was also annoyed that Sven has never apologised or said sorry for getting him involved.
Sol’s story with Arsenal wasn’t quite over yet though. He returned to train with Arsenal to maintain his fitness in October 2009 and on 15th January 2010 he re-signed for the club. I remember Sol looking a bit more portly than he did in his first spell with us, although to be fair he was 35 years old then and understandably wasn’t the same player. Sol made his second debut for Arsenal on 24th January 2010 in a severely weakened second string losing 3-1 at Stoke City in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Sol was also wearing an unfamiliar 31 shirt instead of his old number 23. In Sol’s second game, he picked up where he left off in 2006 by scoring in the Champions’ League against Porto away in a 2-1 defeat, which was to be last goal he scored for Arsenal . He then started 11 of the last 15 fixtures, including the last five Premier League games that season.
Sol turned down a two-year deal at Celtic to stay in the Premier League signing a one-year contract for Newcastle United in July 2010. Sol made his debut for the Magpies in a League Cup win against Chelsea. After making his Premier League debut by coming off the bench to replace Fabricio Colloccini in a 2-1 defeat against Manchester City, he became only the second player after Ryan Giggs to play in each of the first 19 seasons of the Premier League. However Sol only played eight times for Newcastle and he was released by Alan Pardew in May 2011 and announced his retirement a year later in May 2012.
Sol also had a wonderful international career with England. He played for England for eleven years and was capped 73 times scoring one goal for his country. He made his debut against Hungary on 18th May 1996 when he came on as a substitute. He became England’s second youngest captain after Bobby Moore, when aged 23 and 248 days he played against Belgium in a 0-0 on 29th May 1998 and is also the only player to be selected in six consecutive major tournaments for England between 1996 and 2006. He was named in the FIFA All Star World Cup team for 2002 and named in the EUFA European Championship team of the tournament in 2004. Sol had a goal controversially disallowed against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, which would have taken England through to the quarter finals. He also had another goal dubiously ruled out in the 2004 European Championships against Portugal, which would have put England into the semi finals.
Sol’s last appearance for the Gunners was a 4-0 victory against Fulham at the Emirates in the last game of the 2009-10 season. In total Sol Campbell played 211 times for Arsenal and scored 12 goals. Sol attempted to run as the Conservative candidate for London Mayor in 2015 but didn’t make the final cut. He is married to Fiona Barratt, the granddaughter of Barratt Homes founder Sir Lawrie Barratt. He hasn’t done too badly for a kid from the East End of London! Thanks for the memories Sol
A fine compilation of Sol Campbell
As always thanks for reading. There’ll be another Highbury Hero coming along shortly…