After the final whistle at the Stade De France, Paris, when the Barcelona players were celebrating their win over an inspired Arsenal side, a big burly man in red and white cut a forlorn figure on the pitch; Sol Campbell had been hoping for a fairytale finish to his Arsenal career in 2006, and his headed goal in the match seemed to have put Arsenal in cruise control. However, Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti had other plans, and Campbell’s Arsenal career ended on a sad note. Or so people thought.
Many believed that the defender’s best days were behind him. He had a relatively modest success at Portsmouth for three years, where he also led the side to an FA cup success against Cardiff City in 2008. However, he was showing clear signs of age and rustiness, finding it difficult to cope up with the intensity of the Premier League as the years went by.
In July 2009, he made a surprise move to Notts County in League Two after his Portsmouth contract expired, citing the then director of football at the club, Sven Goran Eriksson, as the main reason for his decision. But he featured only in one game for them, before walking out on the club – a sign that he was still not satisfied with his current situation, and was seeking something more to bring back the form he displayed in his stints at Tottenham and Arsenal.
Return of the king!
The ‘Sol’dier returns
In the middle of October in 2009, Campbell returned to London to train with the Arsenal team, in order to shape up in time for the January transfer window. Arsene’s observations during the training sessions over the months leading up to January must have shown him that the English defender possessed the kind of steel and determination which the ‘still maturing’ Arsenal side would need to succeed over the course of the season, even though the age factor could be a hindrance in this aspect. Nevertheless, the Frenchman decided to re-sign Campbell in order to provide cover for the centre-back position, raising quite a few eyebrows.
The questions began flowing in. Can Campbell play after a long layoff? Can he cope with the high intensity and frenetic pace of the League? He’s too old, Wenger should be looking for someone younger right? What value will he add to the team, and will he be any better than Silvester? Needless to say, Campbell addressed these doubts in style and panache, taking advantage of the void left behind by an injured Gallas to establish himself quickly in the centre of the defense.
He made his second Arsenal debut in the FA cup loss to Stoke City, and his first Premier League start was a substitute appearance in the goalless stalemate versus Aston Villa. With more regular appearances on the field, Campbell showed the tricks of his trade, matching the opposition’s physical players tooth by tooth. Arsenal fans were soon chanting his name, as the rock-solid Sol from ‘The Invincibles’ showed up again. What is even more astonishing is his ability to catch up with the fast wingers and forwards of today; if the Sun is to be believed, he is the second fastest player in the league, only behind team-mate Theo Walcott. But for a thirty-five year old, his pace is quite deceptive.
In his first Champions League match of the season, against Porto, Campbell started from where he left last time, scoring yet another headed goal; unfortunately, the match ended in a 2-1 loss as well, owing to some disastrous goalkeeping by Fabianski. He did make a few mistakes and some needless fouls, but the impeccable timing of his tackles and his handling of aerial balls in his own box, showcased the kind of defender which Arsenal sorely lacked in the past few seasons. Moreover, he was one of the very few players who displayed exemplary commitment and the will to win, in a string of matches marred by lackadaisical and tired performances. Had he been in a team, which possessed the kind of players who never give up till the last breath, he would have been wearing a medal around his neck by now.
The feelings that an Arsenal fan goes through whenever he/she witnesses the Englishman in action, cannot be described in words alone. He brings back the old glory days of the Invincibles – the kind of positive vibes which reverberate through the side and invigorates them to perform to their best. He knows the value of the Arsenal crest, the effort and mental strength it takes to carry the club through the League, and above all, the reward and pride that comes with winning a trophy for his side. He has demonstrated how age is not always a deciding factor – playing with hunger and passion compensates for his old legs, something which the much younger and more athletic players in the side should take heart from. In short, he is a born leader and a fighter to the core, a trait which epitomizes the tough no-nonsense English style of football. He’s possibly the only Gunner in the side who understands the necessity of playing dirty when the occasion demands it.
Such has been his phenomenal form in the second half of the season that Wenger even suggested he could be considered for a place in the World Cup squad, an acknowledgment of how vital Sol’s contributions have been to Le Professor’s team. Thomas Vermaelen seems to be in the same mould as the veteran, albeit with a better attacking capability, and he and Johann Djourou would immensely benefit from training and playing alongside the latter, perhaps picking up the finer nuances of defense in the meantime.
Wenger is keen to offer the defender another one-year contract, with Celtic also looking to acquire him in the summer on a free transfer. The Gunner faithful are hoping that he stays in the team for the next season, as his experience and know-how could motivate the Gunners to take a leap to the next level, come August.
Although he will be considered as a third choice centre-back, he can be deployed in the games against the teams which indulge in the long ball game. With the potential departure of William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre, and the time taken by new players to settle into the League, Wenger would be relieved if Sol stays around for the next season, to provide a semblance of balance to the defense. Only time will tell whether Sol will stay in England or try his luck in the Scottish League.
For the Arsenal brigade, it would be considered a fitting tribute if Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell hangs up his boots at the Emirates, after adding one or more trophies to his already impressive silverware accumulation. They would thank Big Sol for making things a bit brighter in what has been a rather abject second half to the season. It’s been a delight to see him back in red and white, and the Gooners will hope he enthralls them for one more year!