Sold a Dream: Sol Campbell at Notts County

sol campbell notts county

Becoming one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players is an excellent accomplishment, but becoming the most hated is arguably more impressive. Luckily for Sol Campbell, he’s experienced both.

From wanting to become a Conservative Party candidate to his never-ending slide tackle against Croatia, it is fair to say that the former England centre-half has never been too far away from the limelight. Like most controversial footballers, there’s always a highlight moment that you look back on and think, this guy is trouble. For Emmanuel Adebayor, it was his lung-busting run to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans, the quickest I’ve seen him move. When it comes to Joey Barton, you have a choice of about 11 individual controversies. However, with Campbell, the decision is clear-cut.

In 2001, the former Portsmouth captain committed one of football’s biggest cardinal sins, joining Arsenal from Tottenham. For his ultimate act of betrayal, Campbell was labelled ‘Judas’ by the Tottenham fans, a label that has stuck with him ever since. The former Spurs man doesn’t strike me as the sharpest tool in the box, as years later and he is still bemused as to why the Tottenham fans don’t like him.

Embed from Getty Images

Campbell ended his 14-year association with Tottenham, where he had transitioned from a baby-faced academy prospect to the club’s captain and best player, also establishing himself in the England setup. Just months after being quoted in the Spurs Monthly Magazine as saying that he’d be signing a new contract and would never play for Arsenal, the former Macclesfield boss did the complete opposite. Don’t get me wrong, as an Arsenal fan I love it, but if Bukayo Saka pulled off a similar stunt, I’d feel just as betrayed as the Spurs supporters do with Campbell.

As much as it is frowned upon, he got everything out of the Arsenal move that he had hoped. Two Premier League trophies, three FA Cups, and two PFA Team of the Year nominations significantly improved his trophy cabinet, which looked rather empty throughout his spell at Tottenham. I guess you could class the move as a success, but one does wonder whether it was worth the backlash he received.

His transfer from Tottenham to Arsenal is so infamous that people just brush over his move to Notts County in 2009, although it would be forgivable for forgetting that this move ever happened, as his spell at the Magpies only lasted one month. In this article I will tell the story of how one of Arsenal’s Invincibles rejected Premier League sides to sign a contract from a League Two side, only to throw the towel in 30 days into a four-year project.

Portsmouth Problems

Campbell’s spell at Portsmouth was a bit of a mixed bag. Signing for the club on a free transfer in 2006 after his Arsenal contract expired, the England international immediately formed an excellent partnership with fellow centre-back Linvoy Primus. Under the management of Harry Redknapp, Campbell was named as the club captain and led Pompey to a FA Cup triumph in 2008.

Embed from Getty Images

Despite their success in England’s most prestigious cup competition, Portsmouth entered a turbulent spell of financial difficulties. Redknapp jumped ship as soon as possible, taking the vacant managerial role at Tottenham. As wholesale changes were made to the Pompey squad ahead of the 2008/09 campaign, Campbell reiterated his desire to stay at the club until the end of his contract. We’ve heard that one before Sol.

To be fair to him, he did stick to his word this time, helping Portsmouth avoid relegation and elevating himself into cult hero status at the club. That’s of course until he decided to sue the club for £1.7 million, knowing full well how troubled they were for money. BBC reported that he was owed £1.7 million in image rights and bonus payments. It was a real low blow for the Pompey fans, but it’s not the first time that his decision-making has destroyed his reputation at a club.

With his contract up at Portsmouth, and their financial situation restricting any chance of renewal, Campbell was once again a free agent. Here’s a fun fact for you – throughout his 19-year career, he accumulated exactly £0 in transfer fees, moving on a free transfer every single time. It would be hard to argue that the former Invincible was past his peak at 34 years of age, but he proved at Pompey that he was still capable of playing at the top level.

The next step in his career is arguably the most bizarre of the lot.

Campbell joins the Notts County Revolution

In 2009, Nottingham’s rather less successful side Notts County were taken over by Munto Finance, who had apparent connections to a Middle East consortium. Fans’ excitement went into overdrive, as names like Roberto Carlos, David Beckham and Patrick Vieira were suddenly being touted with a switch to League Two. The Magpies’ new owners had outlined their intentions to get the club to the top of English football, which was laughed at by the whole country.

Nobody really paid much attention to the rumours, but when former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson walked through the door, people began to take notice. Despite his vast managerial experience, Eriksson took up the Director of Football role at Meadow Lane, tasked with attracting some top names to join the club. The dream role really, like a real-life Football Manager save.

Embed from Getty Images

Supposedly with all the money in the world, Notts County were struggling to attract any of the big names that they had previously been linked with. This should have been a red flag in itself, as we all know that all footballers care about is money. Or that’s at least how they are portrayed by the media.

Known to Eriksson through his time as the England national team manager, Campbell was the first (and last) big-name star to arrive at Meadow Lane. Despite offers from other Premier League outfits, the former Pompey man was quoted as saying that “it was the best club for where I am at the moment in my life”, which actually translates to “they offered me more money” in football vocabulary.

Just three years on from scoring in a Champions League final, Campbell signed a four-year contract at the League Two side, pocketing a ridiculous £40,000 a week. His weekly wage was more than what most fourth-tier players earned in a year, but hey it wasn’t about the money. As he was unveiled to the delighted Notts County fans, he had this to say:

“I am genuinely excited by what the club is trying to achieve. I have been guaranteed that the club is going to move forward and I believe that all the people behind this, from the manager to the hierarchy, will make that an achievable aim”

Unfortunately for Eriksson and Campbell, they had both been sold a dream. The promises that the new owners had made were about as trustworthy as the internet popups that claim you’ve won the lottery. There is a reason that no other big names made the switch, as Campbell was soon about to find out.

Morecambe Marring

One of the many false promises made by the Magpies was that there would be a significant investment into the training facilities. Accustomed to state-of-the-art Premier League training facilities throughout his career, Campbell had quite the culture shock when he turned up to training on a pitch owned by Nottingham Trent University. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that a Premier League winning defender had joined a club that was sharing their training pitch with a bunch of school kids. He made his concerns heard, but was assured by the Magpies’ hierarchy that they were ‘in the process’ of making improvements.

Nevertheless, Campbell continued to build up his match fitness ahead of the 2009/10 League Two campaign. He eventually made his long-awaited debut on the 19th of September, being named in the starting 11 against Morecambe. After blitzing shirt sale records at the club, several hundred Notts County fans made the long trip to Morecambe to watch their new hero in action.

Similarly to the training ground situation, Campbell had gotten used to playing in the top capacity arenas with fancy dressing rooms and a nice jacuzzi. A penny for his thoughts when he got off the coach at Christie Park, which is one of the more rundown stadiums in the country. No offence Morecambe fans. With his 6’2” frame barely fitting in the dressing room door, it was worlds away from the luxuries he had at his previous clubs.

Embed from Getty Images

Many expected him to completely dominate League Two, I mean it’s a pretty reasonable prediction given that he has 73 England caps, two Premier League winners’ medals, and several years of experience playing against the world’s best talents. However, Campbell was soon handed a big reality check as to what life in the fourth tier of English football is like. Morecambe came away with a 2-1 victory, and the former England centre-back had a torrid afternoon.

Morecambe played very direct and aggressive, physically outmanoeuvring the Magpies’ defence. It was a brutal experience for Campbell, who definitely wouldn’t have been expecting that when he arrived at Christie Park. Two goals from set-pieces really epitomise what lower-league football is. 

A disappointing trip for the Notts County fans, who had to make the 152-mile trek back to Nottingham in the knowledge that their team had been humiliated. A disappointing debut for Campbell, but things can only get better, right? Yeah, about that….

Campbell Calls it a day

Sensationally, just three days after the Morecambe drubbing, Campbell came to the realisation that he had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the new owner’s false ambitions, walking out on the club just four weeks into a four-year contract. The below-par training facilities, hard lower league pitches, and lack of other big-name signings were all cited by the former Portsmouth man as he left the club by mutual consent.

With his decision to quit only made known to the Notts County players when they rocked up to training and his kit was gone, it’s fair to say his exit came as quite the surprise to all associated with the club. The Magpies’ loyal supporters who had spent their hard-earned money to get his name printed on the back of their shirt feeling betrayed by his actions, it must have felt like deja-vu for Campbell.

Embed from Getty Images

Chairman Peter Trembling was extremely disappointed with Campbell’s decision, especially after waxing lyrical about the former England man just weeks prior. Bewildered by Campbell’s abrupt departure, Trembling claimed that “he was unable to adjust to the long-term nature of the project”. It does seem rather stupid, joining a club and stating that you are “genuinely excited by what the club are going to achieve”, only to throw in the towel just four weeks in. I don’t know what Campbell was expecting, Premier League football was mathematically out of reach for at least three years anyway, regardless of how truthful the new owner’s promises were.

Campbell’s decision to leave was almost as bemusing as his decision to join Notts County in the first place. It had all gone Pete Tong for the centre-back, who I am sure now deeply regrets rejecting several Premier League clubs in favour of a fourth division Galactico project that was complete fiction. It also left him clubless until January, as FIFA rulings only allow you to play for two clubs in a calendar year. A hefty price to pay for his poor decision-making, although I am sure the £160k he accumulated over his whirlwind four weeks softened the blow significantly.

The Aftermath

As it turns out, Campbell’s hunch was completely right. In December, just two months after he had walked out, Munto Finance abruptly put the club up for sale. Trembling claimed that the significant investment promised by the Middle East consortium had not materialised, leaving Notts County scrambling for finances.

The club was sold to local businessman Ray Trew in February 2010, who later found over £7 million worth of debt that Munto Finance had left behind. It was later revealed that convicted fraudster Russell King had been pulling the strings at the club, making a series of unusual payments to Bahrain, which is conveniently where he had fled to after a previous scandal.

Eriksson and Campbell had been duped, justifying Campbell’s decision to walk out. The “Middle Eastern Consortium” was completely made up by King, who feigned connections with royalty, before leaving the club with debts topping £7 million. Showing his experience as a fraudster, King’s name does not appear on any of the takeover paperwork, instead referring to himself as Lorde Voldemort from Harry Potter on all official documentation. Sounds like a joke right, but unfortunately that is 100% a fact. Surely somebody at the club should have seen this on the paperwork and realised it was a scam. King was clever though, and even flew the chair of the Magpies’ supporters trust, John Armstrong-Homes, out to the Middle East to seal the deal.

Notts County took several years to recover from the financial mess that King had negotiated, with the club being treated like a game of hot potato by the various owners that they’ve had in the last 12 years. In 2019, Notts County were relegated from the Football League for the first time in their 157-year history. Quite the fall from grace for the Magpies’ supporters when you consider that just 10 years prior, they had Premier League ambitions. A sad ending for England’s oldest professional club.

Embed from Getty Images

As for Campbell, his career also never really recovered from the Notts County move. In a bid to maintain match fitness as a free agent, he returned to Arsenal to train, eventually signing for Wenger’s side on a short-term contract until the end of the season. Following his second Arsenal exit, he joined the other Magpies, Newcastle United, where he retired after just one season. Campbell has since dabbled in management, heroically saving Macclesfield from relegation on the final day of the 2018/19 season, before relegating Southend in 2020.