Sol Campbell & The Challenge Ahead
It was always likely that Sol Campbell’s first managerial appointment would be accompanied by a cacophony of media noise. The former England defender’s outspokenness about the failure on the part of clubs to give him the managerial position that he craved and prove himself as capable has been an ongoing story for several years now, with his supporters arguing that the colour of his skin has been the biggest barrier to him finding employment and his detractors countering this with the claim that his lack of opportunity might have more to do with him being Sol Campbell than with the colour of his skin alone.
The last quarter of a century or so has seen the rise of a new breed of professional footballer, and it’s a group that keeps on growing. These are the players who don’t need a job following retirement after a career spent earning enough money to never have to work again following the end of their playing career, and those amongst this group who have moved into management have frequently been criticised for using their high profile status to leapfrog other managers to jobs which they don’t “deserve.”
It’s a nebulous, somewhat unfair, and ultimately circular debate which can’t be resolved definitively one way or the other, of course, and it’s certainly been a criticism that has been levelled at Campbell in the past. With his appointment at League Two’s Macclesfield Town earlier this week, however, at least this strand of criticism will finally end. There are smaller clubs than Macclesfield Town, of course, but managing the club at the very foot of the Football League could hardly be described as “glory-hunting.” Indeed, such has been the nature of the last couple of years of the club’s history that it would not be particularly surprising if Campbell couldn’t find a way of making things work out at Moss Rose this season.
That Macclesfield Town are even as high as the foot of the League Two table at present is a story that didn’t quite receive the attention that we felt it might have deserved at the time. The club started last season in the National League with one of the smallest wage budgets in the division, and even with their relatively modest outgoings it looked as though the club might be teetering on the brink of a precipice when its players and staff went unpaid at the end of January. It was only a short delay in getting paid, but a reported lack of communication from owner Amar Alkhadi led to a statement being issued on behalf of those affected which expressed their frustration at the situation:
Whilst this is alarming, what disappoints us most is that we were not notified by the owner or the chairman of the situation and have not been contacted since. All despite numerous attempts for clarity from the players and management.
It has been well publicised that we have one of, if not the smallest budgets in the division and yet despite this, we are top of the National League.
Throughout this season the team, management and staff have always and will always be 100 per cent committed to the hard work and endeavour of gaining promotion to the Football League.
It wasn’t the first time that the club had been in this position, either. Following relegation from the Football League in 2012 the club suffered extreme financial difficulties, and by the summer of 2014 there was considerable talk of the club needing new owners or needing to pass into community ownership if it was to survive. Alkhadi, however, cleared the debts and stayed on as owner. To be clear, Amar Alkhadi is no fly by night investor hoping to make a quick buck out of the game. He began his involvement with the club, alongside his brother, a decade and a half ago and, whilst there have been problems on the way, he remains with the club to this day.
With the end of January’s crisis averted, Macclesfield went on to win last year’s National League title by ten points from runners-up Tranmere Rovers (who followed them up through the play-offs) and secure promotion back to the Football League. The attention that such success brings, however, is not always welcome, and the dust had barely settled on the end of last season when manager John Askey, who’d racked up six seasons as the club’s manager over two periods, was poached by League One’s Shrewsbury Town. Such is the nature of football’s food chain. His replacement was Mark Yates, formerly of Kidderminster Harriers, Cheltenham Town, Crawley Town and Solihull Moors.
Yates’ time at Solilhull – where he racked up twelve wins from twenty-nine matches to keep the club in the National League when relegation had previously seemed a near-certainty – seemed like an appropriate grounding for the likely fire-fighting job ahead at Macclesfield following promotion, but he was shown the door last month after failing of win any of his twelve league matches in charge of the club. On the 20th October, the club finally recorded its first league win of the season against Carlisle United under caretakers Neil Howarth and Danny Whitaker, a result which – and it’s necessary to reach back to the second half of the club’s 2011/12 relegation season to achieve it – prevented Macclesfield from setting a new record of thirty-seven consecutive Football League matches without a win.
Indeed, if there is anyone that may have a justified sense of grievance at Campbell’s appointment, it’s Howarth and Whitaker. They did, after all, win a further two matches during their caretaker period as managers, and they might have considered this small run of positive results as being enough to seal the job on a full-time basis. Campbell, however, must have had something about him which impressed the club, and having spent time taking his UEFA pro-licence, coaching with the England under-21s, and as the assistant manager of the Trinidad & Tobago national team, there’s a cogent case to argue that he has earned this opportunity.
It’s equally true, however, that Sol Campbell has not always been Sol Campbell’s best form of positive publicity. The manner in which he left Tottenham Hotspur for Arsenal in 2001 left a sour taste in the mouth – although this obviously doesn’t excuse the abuse that he received in subsequent seasons from a proportion of Spurs supporters – while his later claim to be “one of the greatest minds in football” provoked guffaws from some quarters, and comments which were interpreted as him considering himself too good for the lower divisions may well have cost him interviews at smaller clubs in the past. Professional football, however, is full of enormous egos. Perhaps part of the problem that Campbell has faced over the years has been that he seldom seemed to have an off switch in terms of saying whatever might have been passing through his mind at any given moment.
Conversely, however, it’s not difficult to see how he may have reached the conclusion that his unemployability as a manager was down to the colour of his skin. He becomes only the eighth BAME manager amongst the ninety-two clubs of the Premier League and Football League, and many of his contemporaries have walked into considerably higher profile managerial positions with relative ease. We can never say for certain that the reason why it took so long for him to get a managerial position was the colour of his skin but, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we can’t say that it wasn’t, either.
In advance of his first match as the manager of Macclesfield Town, it’s worth bearing in mind that success or failure at this particular club will not be a particularly barometer of his abilities. Money was extremely tight at Macclesfield last season, and the club’s promotion to the Football League is unlikely to have improved that by an enormous amount. Should he be able to keep the club up this season it will be considered an achievement, but a failure to do so may only be considered a reflection upon the size of the challenge that he faces in the first place. Ultimately, two clubs have to be relegated from League Two at the end of this season, and Sol Campbell arrives at Macclesfield Town with the club as one of the favourites to occupy one of those positions. He got there eventually. Time will tell, whether one of the more thankless tasks in English football matches the bumpiness of his journey to get there in the first place.