On July 3rd 2001 Sol Campbell breezed into Arsenal’s training ground just a matter of hours after he had put pen to paper on a deal that wouldn’t just see him become one of the highest paid players in the game but also meant he would be one of the few men to make the short journey down the Seven Sisters Road and play for both Tottenham and Arsenal.
Journalists had been summoned to an announcement at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground, on the assumption that the much sought after Ipswich Town goalkeeper Richard Wright, who had been riding on the crest of a wave after sealing promotion with the Suffolk club, would be confirming his highly publicised move to Highbury.
What they were actually about to witness was the confirmation of one of the most memorable and talked-about transfers in recent English football history.
At that time Campbell was the tenth player to represent both north London rivals but his move was by far the most controversial. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, players swapping allegiances between the two great rivals didn’t make the front page headlines that this move did. Jimmy Robertson, Willie Young and Pat Jennings were just three players that had played for both teams and the latter is still regarded as something of a hero by both sets of fans.
Compared to the nine others who had “swapped sides” previously though his move was tainted to say the least; probably due to the fact that he had come through the ranks at Spurs and said he would never play their hated local rivals, not to mention running down his contract, refusing to sign a new deal that would have made him the club’s highest-ever paid player, turning down a host of offers from Europe’s elite, and promptly leaving for Arsenal on a free transfer.
Born in Plaistow, East London, to Jamaican parents, Campbell had begun his career with West Ham United, so could never be accused of being one of Spurs’ “own” compared to other players who have pulled on the famous white shirt previously or since. But due to his commitment, hard work and fighting spirit he would soon become something of a cult figure at White Hart Lane.
In a Spurs team which for long periods of their 1990s existence in the Premier League languished near the bottom or settled for mid-table obscurity, Campbell was seen as the rock that held the side together. Soon adopted by supporters as one of them, Campbell became adored by the home faithful and regarded as a key figure in the Tottenham team, he even became the first black captain to lift a major trophy at Wembley after the League Cup victory over Leicester City in 1999.
But as the accolades poured in for Campbell and the interest in this prominent, young, gifted, English talent inevitably grew, his willingness to commit his future to the club became less apparent. Though unlike nowadays, with the constant speculation that surrounds a player who is nearing the end of his contract, Campbell entering the final 12 months of his deal at Tottenham was not seen as the huge drama that now comes as standard with contractual uncertainties.
Okay, on numerous occasions Campbell did confirm he would indeed remain in north London, calming fears he would become the latest exponent of the Bosman ruling and leave for a domestic or European rival – but as for which north London club, he was not willing to divulge – to this day fans are split on whether that was purely a change of heart or just a very clever piece of PR.
In May of 2001, however, there was something of a significant turning point in the saga when Campbell rejected a new contract offer after he’d submitted a clause-laden proposal to the club. Far from being the stable Premier League outfit of today who make millions each year from lucrative TV and sponsorship deals, the club were unable to match the £20m, three-year deal he was looking for and passed on his demands, with then executive vice-chairman David Buchler describing the requests as: “ridiculous and unacceptable.”
And so it now seemed inevitable that Tottenham would lose their favourite son; but if Tottenham fans thought their worst fears had been realised with the imminent departure of their captain, they were unprepared for the nightmare scenario that was about follow as – although Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid were among the clubs in the running to sign Campbell – it would be arch rivals Arsenal who would eventually meet his demands and therefore secure his services.
Despite the fact that players had made the same switch in the past the transfer was seen as something of a watershed moment in the new era of the modern, post-Bosman, mercenary footballer. Campbell was looked upon as the acquisitive player of his time in the eyes of the media and neutral fans around the country – but as for the Spurs fans, he would forever be known to them as Judas.
What was to make it worse for those fans was that Campbell’s move would also coincide with a gloriously successful period for the Gunners. He may have lived off slim pickings down the road at his former club but the move to Arsenal brought with it the glory he had yearned for in the form of two Premier League titles, three FA Cups and a Champions League final appearances.
The inevitable backlash soon followed from Spurs fans who felt they had been betrayed by a man who was simply looking for more money than they could offer him. Each north London derby was played against the backdrop of those baying for his blood and those who were more than willing to welcome a “defector” to their club with very few in between.
Campbell himself even claims that he does not understand why some Tottenham fans are still angry about his move. “Some of the fans have moved on but they have not totally forgotten,” he told the Daily Mail in 2015. “If I was coaching in America for 20 years, maybe they would.
“I am 41 this year and people who were perhaps five at the time, or were not even born, still feel strongly about it. Who is perpetuating this? It is incredible. People have a mental block. The anger never goes away.”
The move may have made huge waves among watchers and commentators at the time, with some Spurs fans receiving stadium bans for the nature of their animosity towards the player, but for Campbell himself it appears to be a case of doing what he had to do with no regrets.
“It was a move that I needed to make,” he told ESPNFC when asked recently if he had any regrets over the free transfer. “Going to Arsenal was a big progression for me. Everything about Arsenal was better than Spurs at the time from the players, management to the mentality of the club and the facilities.
“I wanted to improve myself as both a person and a footballer. It was a highly controversial move and Spurs fans have not forgotten it, but it was the best thing that I could have done for myself.”
Campbell would eventually leave Arsenal and taste further success at Fratton Park, winning The FA Cup in 2008, before going on to join Newcastle and finally ending his career with a second stint back at Arsenal.
But that transfer of all transfers in the summer of 2001 will always be his legacy, whether he likes it or not, and puts him among the likes of Mo Johnston and Luis Figo in the eyes of many football fans, who as we know, have longer memories than most.