Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography
By Simon Astaire
Spellbinding Media, 2014
‘Sulzeer Jeremiah ‘Sol’ Campbell. Is there a finer English footballer over the last fifty years who has been eyed so suspiciously?’ Simon Astaire’s astute biography of Sol Campbell ends with this most pertinent of semi-rhetorical questions. The former Tottenham and Arsenal centre back is hardly the first footballer to shy away from the limelight; in fact, another famous example was born in that same year of 1974. But whereas Paul Scholes is readily accepted as a quiet, unassuming family man, Sol has always been seen – by friends, teammates and managers – as a man of depth. He is also, through largely no fault of his own, a man of controversy. A claim of assault, a North London betrayal, an episode of depression and an ill-fated stint in League Two all made the headlines, alongside recurring slurs against his race and sexuality. For a private man, Sol Campbell has had a very public career.
Like subject, like book, Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biographyhas had an eventful life so far. Press attention has sadly centred on one sensationalist claim; that racism within the FA prevented Sol from being ‘England captain for more than 10 years’. Appearing to undermine the strong leadership qualities of teammates such as Tony Adams, David Beckham and John Terry, the remark suggested a bitter ex-player voicing long-held grievances now that retirement hadn’t resulted in the kind of opportunities he felt his accolades merited. But thankfully, as Matt Dickinson wrote in his excellent review in The Times, ‘The book deserves far better than to be known for one reckless outburst.’
That ‘outburst’ aside, Sol Campbell offers a considered look at a highly distinguished career. Very few direct criticisms are levelled and even these are mild and reasoned. Wayne Rooney, for example, is condemned for diving but praised for having ‘the imagination to change things’. When it comes to discussing the worst of the Tottenham years, Sol takes no prisoners but names no names: ‘I had muppets as team-mates who were on treble the money.’ Respect is given to both performers and professionals, from half-time smoker David Ginola through to veteran captain Gary Mabbutt. England managers, Arsenal and Portsmouth teammates – all are acknowledged with polite appreciation, if not always overt affection. Present tense narration lends a nice sense of drama to scenes like the historic unveiling at Arsenal but the many high-profile decisions of Campbell’s career are also explained openly and judiciously, from Tottenham’s insufficient ambition (‘I wanted Spurs to show me that they were going to challenge’) to the allure of the Notts County project (‘I liked the idea of being part of the renaissance’).
Penetrating Campbell’s tough football shell, however, is no easy task; he’s not a man who naturally confides his feelings to others, least of all teammates. Lee Dixon sums it up well – ‘I didn’t get to know him and I don’t think anyone really did.’ Life-changing decisions are shared – if at all – with his mother Wilhelmina and his agent and friend Sky Andrew. Until now, that is. ‘Sometimes he would stare at me with a seriously blank expression when I asked something difficult’, biographer Astaire admits in the prologue, ‘but he would eventually open up’. Sol Campbell reveals a man with a deep-rooted emotional fragility. Pressure and hurt build and build inside him until they eventually overflow, as on the night he famously disappeared during half-time of a nightmare performance against West Ham in 2006. ‘The accumulation of storms in his life had finally combined and on that evening hit him so hard and unexpectedly that he had only one choice left. Escape.’
What Astaire does brilliantly is to trace this sensitivity all the way from its roots. Five years younger than the next of his eleven siblings, Campbell was largely left to his own devices as a child, ‘adrift’ as he puts it. Two significant and competing elements of Sol’s character emerge from this upbringing: a fierce independence and a recurring need for appreciation. Whether kicking a tennis ball against the wall in his street or sitting quietly in his front room, Sol’s childhood is dominated by solitude; ‘The calm made me happy. Since then, I’ve always been in search of it’, he confesses. The impact of his father’s very distant parenting style is also felt throughout the story. The care and attention he failed to find at home from Sewell, he held out hope for at Tottenham but while George Graham ‘knew I was a top-notch player…I never felt he rooted for me’. Expressed a different way, ‘The fans may have believed in me but I felt the club didn’t, otherwise they would have done more.’ At Arsenal, Campbell joined a winning mentality but also a family environment with protection and praise from David Dein and Arsene Wenger. Later on, Portsmouth proved another good fit, in part because Harry Redknapp is ‘someone who he felt would manage him in a fatherly way’.
Confidence, determination and focus – in the 21stcentury, the myth of the steadfast sporting mindset is finally being questioned. With this book, Campbell deservedly joins the likes of Robert Enke, Andre Agassi and Marcus Trescothick in a very significant subgenre of sports writing. Yes, key matches are analysed and records are set straight, but the real triumph of Sol Campbell is that ‘The Rock’ is revealed as human after all.