During his playing days Sol Campbell went about his business, on and off the pitch, with ice-cold assurance, so it is gripping, on a warm afternoon in west London, to hear him speak with burning desperation about his desire to become a manager.
The former England defender may look relaxed as he sips a cappuccino outside an Italian restaurant off the King’s Road but it soon becomes clear that he is at his wits’ end about, as he puts it, “building another career”. Campbell has standing, qualifications and coaching experience but he cannot make the breakthrough and such is his frustration that the 42-year-old is willing to offer his services for free.
“It’s proving difficult and if I have to start at the bottom, I will,” he says. “People may think that I just want to manage in the Premier League but I’m prepared to go to a non-league club, and if they can’t pay me a salary just pay me a win bonus. I’m up for that. I won’t be up for that four or five years down the line but definitely for the first year, as long as it’s a good club with ambition. I’m itching to start, I just need a chance, even just an interview in which I can say: ‘Take me for free and I’ll show you what I can do.’”
It was in May 2012 that Campbell called time on a playing career that earned him 73 caps and two Premier League titles with Arsenal and he has largely spent the proceeding five years preparing for a life in management. A course with the Football Association of Wales earned Campbell a Uefa pro licence and then in February he took up an invitation to become assistant coach of Trinidad & Tobago, working alongside the former Wrexham, Swansea, Crewe and T&T centre-half Dennis Lawrence as part of the island’s attempt to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.
“It’s going really well given the budget and infrastructure we have is limited,” says Campbell. “With the head coach Dennis, Stern John [a fellow assistant coach and a former T&T striker] and a few others, the quality of training has been excellent and we’ve gone toe to toe with some of the big countries only to have been let down by some interesting decisions from officials.
“I go over in two-and-a-half-week blocks and usually eight days before the game we’re building up for. I mainly work on the defensive side but I’m also there to add a general level of quality to the setup. I’ve enjoyed the challenge.”
Alongside his work in the Caribbean, Campbell has visited Italy to watch training sessions at Sampdoria and Milan and travelled to the United States to observe his former Arsenal team-mate Patrick Vieira manage New York City. Each experience has been enriching and strengthened not only Campbell’s desire to manage but his openness to doing so abroad. To that end he is planning to develop his language skills. “A little bit of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French,” he says. “Something that gives me a base to work from.”
But the ideal scenario for Campbell would be to secure a job in England, because he has a young family, so he can continue his ambassadorial work with Arsenal and because that is where he spent the entirety of a playing career that began at Tottenham Hotspur in 1992, ended at Newcastle United in May 2011 (he officially called it a day 12 months later) and in between earned him a reputation as one of the finest central defenders of his generation. Familiarity breeds comfort but for Campbell the search for a post on these shores has become increasingly disheartening.
“I’ve spoken to a couple of agents to help get the word out that I’m available but so far there’s only been tentative inquiries,” he says. “Some clubs may be thinking: ‘We don’t want to talk to Sol because of his history,’ but that’s what an interview is for – meet the person and get to know what he’s actually like. If I don’t impress you in an interview then fine, but at least give me that chance. That’s all I want; to talk to a chairman or owner about my philosophy and what I can do for their team. I’m a winner. I love to build. I’ve got great ideas. I’ve got the passion. I’m very diligent, and if given a chance I’ll work my rear end off to be a success.”
Campbell’s passion is emphatic and what also catches the attention is his mention of “history”, which, it becomes obvious, is in reference to his outspokenness on British football’s attitude to race. In an interview with the Guardian in September 2013, Campbell suggested “archaic” attitudes to black players in this country would force him to begin his coaching career abroad and six months later, in an extract from his biography that appeared in the Sunday Times, he accused the Football Association of being “institutionally racist”.
In both instances it can be argued Campbell has a point, and as for opportunities for black coaches the situation has, if anything, got worse. In September 2013 there were four British and Irish BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) managers working across England’s 92 professional clubs – that figure is now down to two: Chris Hughton at Brighton & Hove Albion and Keith Curle at Carlisle United. Last month Heather Rabbatts stood down as a nonexecutive director of the FA because of her frustration at the lack of British black coaches in football.
Campbell would, then, be within his rights to stand by his views but he is keen to stay away from such controversy. “I don’t want to rub anyone up the wrong way,” he explains. “I’ve got to the stage where I don’t want to keep banging the same drum. I’m a doer and I just want to do it. Whatever attitudes, prejudices, stereotypical ideas that are in front of me, I will break them. But the only way I can break them is by getting a job, and if I need to start in the gutter, I will start in the gutter and work my way up. Money isn’t an issue.”
And how would a Sol Campbell-led side, here or abroad, perform? “Very defensive but amazing on the counterattack,” he says. “Like Arsenal of old.”
There follows a chuckle, with Campbell clearly aware that replicating the style of play that made him, Vieira and others not only title winners under Arsène Wenger but invincibles is easier said than done.
Campbell is serious, however, when tackling the assertion that one reason he may struggle to break into management is because of the widely held view that great players generally fail to become great managers. “Zidane. Cruyff. Rijkaard. Pep. Even Deschamps – they’ve all achieved a heck of a lot as managers and they were all great players,” he replies. “So no, I’m not buying that. It’s about being given a chance, that’s all I want. And once I get into the system, that’s it, I’ll be flying.”