Sol Campbell starred for Arsenal and Spurs. Now he's a first-time manager leading Macclesfield's survival bid
MACCLESFIELD, England -- Nestling on the edge of the beautiful Peak District National Park, 20 miles south of Manchester, is the town that produced England's robot-dancing, 6-foot-7 striker Peter Crouch, Joy Division's Ian Curtis, New Order's Stephen Morris and double Olympic gold medal-winning sailor, Ben Ainslie.
Macclesfield is one of the 30 wealthiest boroughs in Britain thanks to nearby villages populated by Manchester United and City footballers and former managers including Sir Alex Ferguson, yet a Times report in 2004 labelled the former silk-weaving town among the most boring and uncultured in England.
Twenty miles to the west of Macclesfield near Northwich, Sol Campbell, the track-suited manager of Macclesfield Town, is the last to leave the training field at one of the three facilities currently rented by one of the worst teams in English football. His side, currently 90th of 92 teams in England's four-tier Football League, have one game left to try and stay up. A draw or a win at home on Saturday, against fellow strugglers Cambridge United, would see them safe. [Editor's note: Macclesfield would avoid relegation with a 1-1 draw]
"They're all cup finals," Campbell states when we meet in mid-March.
With no training ground of their own, Macclesfield are using a field belonging to a school and as the former Tottenham, Arsenal and England international sits on a fence to talk to ESPN, he reminds players where they will be training next -- that after telling them to enjoy a rare day off. A stopwatch hangs around his neck and he's relaxed as he has a few words with the goalkeeping coach. He's most comfortable with Andy Cole, his long-time friend and former Manchester United striker who helps Macclesfield's forwards with their shooting a couple of days a week.
Despite a loyal core of fans, Macclesfield (population: 50,000) isn't a football hotbed. The local side, Macclesfield Town, were a renowned name in non-league football; they were the first winners of the FA Trophy in 1970 until their surprise promotion to The Football League in 1997 under former United and City player Sammy McIlroy. They won their league to go up in 1993 but were denied promotion to the Football League as their ground wasn't big enough. Macclesfield chairman Arthur Jones took that news badly, feeling like he'd let the town down, and took his own life in September, 1997. Unbeknown to those at the club, his steel business was struggling too.
Macclesfield flew once they got into the Football League, winning promotion again and playing league fixtures against Manchester City in front of 33,000 fans in 1998-99. They lost their Football League status in 2012 but, to great surprise, won the National League last year ahead of far bigger clubs.
Back in the Football League for this season, they started with one of the lowest budgets. Macclesfield is a loss-making football club (£250,000 in the last financial year) who don't spend money signing new players. They have players in the first team on £400 per week and it showed. Macclesfield won none of their first 13 games and were five points adrift at the bottom. It was into that environment that 73-time England defender Sol Campbell took his first job in management back in November 2018.
Campbell was given the task of getting Macclesfield off the bottom of the league and keeping them up. So far, he's making good on his task, chalking up seven wins. They're currently 22nd in Football League Two -- and 90th overall of 92 teams in the English pro pyramid -- and are, for the first time this season, feeling hopeful. A victory over fellow strugglers Yeovil was vital but their best performance came on March 30, when a beaming Campbell walked onto the pitch to congratulate his players after they'd travelled to top-of-the-table Lincoln City and emerged with a heroic 1-1 draw.
"Lincoln's budget is massive compared to ours," said Campbell, 44, when ESPN met him at the beginning of April. "They're top and were clear favourites. They're easily the best-supported team in the league and 9,500 were there [Macclesfield are the 22nd best supported of the 24 teams in the bottom division and average 2,370 per game]. They have fantastic things going on at Lincoln and they were all set up to win their last few games and then get promoted."
Campbell, dressed in a club tracksuit, pauses. He's sitting on a fence outside one of the three training grounds they rent as the Silkmen don't have one to call their own. He has a stopwatch around his neck after taking a training session. The weather is sunny one minute, but rainy and cloudy the next. Not unlike Macclesfield's season, then. Campbell smiles.
"Then we rolled into Lincoln. We set up properly. We had to stop them dictating play and getting their game flowing. And we did that. We drew 1-1. Results like that should give our players great confidence that we can stay up. Not arrogance that we're going to stay up, but confidence that we're good enough. Play like that again and we'll be OK."
Campbell's got a strong connection with his players and is happy to shout "enjoy your day off tomorrow!" as they pass by during his interview.
"I went straight onto the pitch to be with them," he says of the final whistle at Lincoln. "It's hugely satisfying to see your plans work. It's nothing like when you're a player -- nothing can be like when you play -- but it's still fantastic. I was buzzing inside. We'd worked so hard and got our reward."
Campbell has been in the job four months and absolutely loves it despite the tall task at hand. "I knew what I was getting into," he explains. "We had one of the smallest budgets in the league and some of the teams have two or three times what we have. Macclesfield did very, very well to get promoted last season but were struggling with the step up.
"Before I signed, I had a good look around. I watched the players train. I looked at the systems they were playing in games. I looked at the food they were eating. It was all a bit loose. The players probably thought they were going back down, that they would fade throughout the season. That's now gone. There's no fading here.
"Their will to stay in the game has changed too. That wasn't there when I arrived. I had to talk to the players, player to player, manager to team. And I learned that while you can't please everybody, you have to get a core of players and work with them."
Wait, what were they eating?
"I saw things being ordered and thought that it had to stop. [His players had been offered hamburgers one Thursday and were naturally happy to eat them.] I can't control them away from here but I can while we are here," he says. "It's not ideal how we're set up for training [at so many different rented facilities] and we don't have a full-time fitness coach, but I try to have us settled and with a system where everyone knows what they are doing."
Campbell called in a few favours.
"We didn't have budgets so I asked a company to help us track how many metres each player runs. That might be normal at other clubs, but it wasn't here. You can only ask so many favours but I've got a good relationship with the owner who has had the club for 16 years."
Macclesfield does have a fast train link to London, where Campbell's partner and three children have stayed, so they visit and he goes back on odd days off when he's not trying to keep Macclesfield up. He grew up in Plaistow, working-class East London.
"A real Cockney, rough and ready area," he says. "It was tough then and it's probably rougher now. I've got mates from childhood. Some moved away, some are still there. It's one of the most diverse areas in the UK. There's wealth and poverty. You learn fast in those areas, you have to box clever to survive. I stayed out of trouble and didn't get mixed up with anything. You step back and stay out of getting sucked in."
It took Campbell seven years to finally get this job. Why?
"Who knows?" he said, preferring not to elaborate given the struggle for black managers to get managerial opportunities in England. "I chatted to about 10 clubs about becoming their manager over the years but only really had proper conversations with three or four, some in the UK and some abroad."
Was it frustrating to have to wait so long? "Frustration is a state of mind," Campbell says. "It took time, but I stayed positive and I always knew that I would get a chance sooner or later."
Campbell had learned from the managerial masters he's played for over the years, too. "I learned a lot from Arsene Wenger, especially his tactical systems and how to plan things game to game, week to week and month to month. I learned a lot of good and bad from George Graham, too. He was stubborn at times and you have to be stubborn sometimes. You have to be single-minded and yet flexible.
"I learned from Steve Perryman and Ozzie Ardiles when I was at Tottenham. They loved football and had a really good way about it. You have to be switched on and focussed yet you need banter and characters. I'm from an era that I need characters."
Campbell thinks that the main difference between him and his players is their football education.
"I'm a street footballer and you still get street footballers from Africa, South Africa and really poor parts of Europe," he says. "I think that [trend] has gone from the UK. I think mine is the last generation of street footballers and it's a shame that has gone. You see 'prohibited' signs saying that you can't play here or there in the UK. A lack of street footballers dulls the imagination, dulls that natural thinking outside the box. You need that on the street when you're 9 and have to beat a 14-year-old on the dribble. Or if you get knocked out and have to sit on the side and come on.
"Most of my players have come through academies with clubs. That's not a bad thing, but it's very different to what I grew up with."
At least being close to Manchester and so many clubs means Campbell is near a pool of footballers, something Exeter, whom Macclesfield play on Tuesday, isn't given their relative isolation on the south-western tip of England.
"You can pick up players from around here," says Campbell, "but you also have more competition because there are more clubs and almost all of them have more money than us. [League Two rivals] Bury are also close to Manchester and can pay more than us."
It's true that a very good Bury side are second in the table, but they didn't pay their wages the week prior to our interview.
"I'd like to think that some players want to play for me too," explains Campbell. "I can't say to them that they're going to be top of the league but I can tell them they can improve under me if they're up for a fight and want to play football."
The Macclesfield squad can improve under Andy Cole, the former Manchester United striker Campbell has brought in, too.
"[Cole] is one of the best strikers this country has ever produced," Campbell explains. "I know him personally and asked him to come in. It helps that he's local and a couple of days a week is perfect for him. He can pass on his knowledge to the forwards or the forward thinking midfielders."
Cole is loving it. He's had a rough few years, enduring a kidney transplant and bouts of depression, but is energized by joining his former England teammate in a management setting.
"This gives me a structure in my life," he says. "I'm enjoying working with the boys and being out on the training field. Sol is a good boy. He's doing a good job. [Campbell's] hands are tied by a very small budget, but he has done well.
"He has a good rapport with the players. He's very energetic, very vocal just as he was as a player. He's always trying to get the best out of the players. He's very professional and wants his players to be the best they can be. He'd be happy for them to do well and move on. And he tries to play football, this isn't a long-ball team."
Macclesfield have one game left and Campbell's determined to complete the job. "I'm loving it and loving the responsibility," Campbell says. "It's tough and we need a little bit more luck, but it's still in our hands whether we stay up and I think we can."
He'll be a hero in Macclesfield if he can pull off that great escape, especially in his first football job on the sidelines.