They Also Served: Kevin Campbell
“When it feels right, why would you want to go anywhere else?”– Kevin Campbell
I’ve always believed that the number of international caps a player has tells you more about the context of that nation’s football scene at the time than it does about the player themselves. Wayne Bridge, for example, is the proud owner of 36 England caps, despite being, by common consensus, no great shakes. Andrew ‘Andy Cole’ Cole, by contrast, despite being the Premier League’s second-highest English goalscorer (with a majestic 187 goals), only earned fifteen caps for his country, and scored a single goal. When Cole retired from international football in 2002, ‘retired’ was usually ensconced firmly between two insulting inverted commas.
Kevin Campbell is, by contrast, the Englishman with the most Premier League goals never to have been capped. You won’t hear this cited as one of the great injustices of modern English football. You generally won’t hear his name at all. Those 86 Premier League goals– along with his hauls in the Championship and Turkish top tier– have dropped off the face of football’s consciousness.
I would like to make a case for Kevin Campbell. Not a case that he should have been capped– who needs it?– but rather, that he should be fondly remembered as a striker of considerable quality, and of possessing a first touch that belied his burly frame.
Born in 1970 in that crucible of footballing talent, South London, Campbell came through the ranks at Arsenal and established himself in the first team by the age of 20. That such a young English striker was playing at such a high level, winning the First Division title in 1991, was remarkable; and yet, he was never quite at the forefront of public attention. The arrival of Ian Wright added to a feeling that Campbell was a good player without being destined for the very top of the English game. Despite playing regularly in one of the country’s best teams for five full seasons, a total of only 59 goals in 224 games seems rather meagre. One can make the comparison with a player like Nicklas Bendtner: leaving aside his peculiar personality and off-the-field problems, Bendtner is clearly a very capable striker: like Campbell, he combines physicality and technical ability, and, considering he is only 24, he has shown enough quality to suggest he has a good career ahead of him. His statistics are actually rather better than Campbell’s– 33 goals in 98 league games– but, as with Campbell, if you can’t score consistently in teams that are going to create plenty of chances, your career path is liable to drop off swiftly. It is no surprise that Wenger has lost patience with Bendtner and sent him on loan to Sunderland, and he’s hardly set the Wear on fire either.
Campbell himself dropped down the prestige ladder in 1995 to Nottingham Forest. After two mediocre seasons, Forest were relegated; however, Campbell’s part in their immediate return to the Premier League was recognised by Turkish side Trabzonspor. Despite being apparently well-loved by the fans, not least for this well-taken hat-trick against an excellent Galatasaray side, Campbell’s time in Turkey ended unhappily, as the club’s chairman Mehmet Ali Yilmaz criticised his £2.5m signingfor being a “discoloured cannibal”. Rather than ignoring such abuse, Campbell admirably drew a line in the sand and declared his foreign adventure over: “I am first of all a black man,” he said. “I can accept routine criticism, but when comments are made concerning my race, football is not important.” He surely deserves credit for moving abroad, something regrettably uncommon for English footballer, and I suspect that Yilmaz wouldn’t last as long in Brixton as Campbell did in Trabzon: a city that appears to be a mixture of Chernobyl and Back Swamp, North Carolina.
Campbell was back in England on loan at Everton by March of 1999, and it was surely this loan spell that did maketh the man: if Campbell Also Served, then surely in was in the last eight games of 1998-99 that he Served best. Scoring nine goals, Campbell etched himself into the heart of every Everton fan as he single-handedly kept Walter Smith’s utterly average side in the Premier League. His fifty other goals, I suspect, don’t really matter when a player does something as extraordinary as this. I experienced a very similar thing 2006-07 with Manchester City: it took the arrival of a past-it Belgian, Emile Mpenza, to keep Stuart Pearce’s terrible Blues up, and the dreadlocked man-tank will be lovingly remembered forever in the Blue half of Manchester; this despite only scoring three goals, one of them in a 2-1 defeat. Campbell scored nine in eight games.
As with Danny Mills, I suspect that Kevin Campbell’s career could conceivably be summarised in a single crazy season. In 1998-99, he had shown himself to be free-thinking, mentally unbreakable, deadly, and lovable. It had never been better than that, it would never get better than that. After signing for Everton in the close season permanently, Campbell stuck around for five and a half years, regularly captaining the side, albeit with gradually diminishing returns. His later spellsat West Brom and Cardiff would not do justice to his former stature, and he retired in 2007.
I’ll remember Kevin Campbell for the statistic about England caps, and that’s not really fair. But if Campbell’s story does anything, I hope it dispels any stigma attached to the figure of the journeyman pro. We hear so much crap about one-club-men, ‘die-for-the-shirt’ types, and look where that gets us. Journeymen can love and be loved too, perhaps moreso. Their love is the best kind of love: impure, accidental, fleeting. Irresistible.