Macclesfield Win Their Sol Gamble

Somehow or other, by the skin of their teeth, they made it over the line. Macclesfield Town survived at the foot of League Two. There was a period during which it felt as though it might not happen. They needed a draw from their home match against Cambridge United to ensure their safety. Anything else, and a Notts County win at Swindon would send them down. For fourteen agonising minutes during the second half, they were a goal down while Notts were a goal up. Over the course of the eight minutes from the sixty-sixth on, though, the game swung rapidly their way. They equalised against Cambridge and Swindon came from behind to lead Notts. By the time of Swindon’s third goal, the party had already started at Moss Rose.

And at the centre of the story stands Sulzeer Campbell. For several years prior to his appointment into this job, Campbell complained loudly about the lack of opportunity that he was getting to manage in England. In his 2014 authorised biography, he claimed the Football Association to be “institutionally racist.” When appointed at Macclesfield, the club was five points adrift at the bottom of League Two and seven adrift of safety. A stench of dry rot blew through the club, which had been somewhat unexpectedly promoted from the National League at the end of last season, a familiar story of a hand-to-mouth existence being destabilised by bad ownership. On the pitch, things were going disastrously badly. Two league wins from nineteen games at the time of his appointment spoke for itself, with the club having got rid of the previous incumbent, Mark Yates, on the eighth of October and Campbell not being appointed until the twenty-seventh of November.

It is highly likely that the wage budget at Macclesfield Town is amongst the lowest, if not actually the lowest, in the entire Football League. As such, coming in above the relegation places would be achievement were nothing going wrong within the club itself, but that hasn’t been the case there this season. The players have been paid late on four seperate occasions, while they also found themselves in the High Court at one point, seeing off a winding up petition brought against them by HMRC.

But as they struggled to stay afloat, Yeovil Town plummeted past them like a stone to the foot of the table. Yeovil had started the season reasonably well, winning four and drawing two of their opening seven matches, before absolutely falling off a cliff with just five wins throughout the entire remainder of the season. Their sudden downward trajectory reduced the number of relegation places to just the one, and the other club scrapping to avoid being pulled down into the National League had been a basket case for years, even if they were founder members of the Football League.

Sol Campbell has only lost nine league matches as the manager of Macclesfield Town. Indeed, what threatened to drag his team down throughout the last three months of the season was the number of matches they were drawing. Between January and April they went on a run of just one win in eleven matches in the league, but they did also draw six of these matches. Those single points proved to be critical, when push came to shove, but had they managed to convert a couple of them into wins their end of season would likely have looked very different indeed.

And while he didn’t win many games last season with Macclesfield either – just eight, from a total of twenty-seven, the other ten were drawn – his teams did turn up when it mattered. They beat Notts County by two goals to won on Boxing Day, and beat Yeovil Town away, by two goals to nil in March. And then, last weekend, after two defeats and a draw, they did it again at Port Vale, a one-nil win which turned the battle to stay up on its head. To take the team to this position is a considerably greater achievement than many would recognise or understand. Trying to break losing habits in others can be a fruitless and hopeless task.

It’s doubtful that there will be too much pontification on the subject of what Sol Campbell’s success means in a broad sense. There was a glut of stories about Macclesfield’s promotion over the course of the weekend, but these were broadly concerned with Campbell’s “personal journey” rather then the gritty details of what might have been going on behind the scenes at the club and how he might have come to turn things around. The best that we can glean is that he got the players organised, improved discipline, and got the players playing for each other. It’s easy to mock this sort of “heart” but at this level of the game, where all concerned are all decent if not quite great athletes, it counts for a lot.

The current high churn rate for managers means that it’s impossible to say what Campbell’s success might mean for BAME managers in a broader sense. There were eight BAME managers in the Football League and Premier League at the time of his appointment, in November last year. Three of them have since been relieved of their duties. The FA already employs the Rooney Rule – an NFL rule in place since 2003 which requires teams to interview at least one candidate from an ethnic minority for a head coaching role – when making its appointments. Would it really be beyond the ken of the governing bodies to roll it out throughout the professional game?

Of course, to call all of this a gamble is to only tell a very selective truth. Untested managers get offered gigs all the time. But so much of the language surrounding Sol Campbell as he spoke out against the inequity that he saw spoke volumes about racial attitudes in this country. Campbell has not always been his own best public relations person at times, but this season has demonstrated that he is plenty capable of managing in the Football League. Indeed, at this point, it’s likely that his achievements this season will not have gone unnoticed elsewhere. Will he see through the eighteen month contract that he signed in November 2018, or will he move on, should he receive a better offer? Only time will answer that question, but his post-match interviews on Saturday seemed to indicate that he was planning to still be with Macclesfield.

Broadly, though, Sol Campbell has done exceptionally well in his first managerial appointment. He joined a club in an extremely difficult position, with no money and talk of chaos behind the scenes. Somehow or other, he did enough. He pulled Macclesfield Town back into the race and, on the last day of the season, when the pressure is enormous and holding one’s nerve is amongst the most valuable character traits that any player can have, they edged their way to safety. It’s an excellent and overdue first step on the managerial ladder for Sol Campbell.