Sol Campbell went to the bottom of League Two to start his managerial career. If he keeps Macclesfield Town up, it will have been worth it.
If you heard that a former player who described himself as “one of the greatest minds in football” had taken charge of a club in north west England, it’s unlikely your thoughts would immediately turn to Macclesfield.
This is an old (featured in the Domesday Book, as a plaque on a wall proclaims) but small industrial town in Cheshire, once home to thriving silk mills and the proud site of a treacle factory, after which a monthly street market is named.
There’s a tiny football club here, too. Five months ago, Macclesfield Town gained national attention by offering former Arsenal and England star Sol Campbell his first shot at management. The last time they had such coverage was in September of the same year, when they lost 8-0 to West Ham in the EFL Cup.
There is another reason for excitement now. Campbell took over with Macc five points adrift at the bottom, with one win in their first 19 games since promotion from the National League. He has since dragged them to the brink of League Two survival: victory at home to Cambridge United on Saturday, a team who have won just three times since January, will keep them in the football league at the expense of Notts County, who must win to have any chance of staying up.
Campbell, at 44, had never been given a shot as a manager. He argued in the past that being black held him back professionally. While there is no certainty on whether the colour of his skin saw him passed over for roles, this is certainly an issue that needs attention.
After all, he took the number of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) managers in England’s professional game to eight out of a possible 92 when he took over on November 27. Three of those – Jos Luhukay, Darren Moore and Chris Powell – have since lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, Campbell has watched old England team-mates land high-profile positions. Steven Gerrard got the Rangers gig after working with Liverpool’s youth team; Frank Lampard was entrusted with Premier League-chasing Derby County. “Why has Sol Campbell had to go to the bottom of League Two to get his first job?” Danny Rose asked Sky Sports.
“There’s a lot of questions labelled at Sol that maybe have nothing to with football,” Troy Townsend of anti-discrimination campaign group Kick It Out told Omnisport.
“He’s a decorated footballer and it’s funny because many other decorated footballers are higher up the ladder when it comes to first job opportunities.”
This was a gamble for the Arsenal great: outsiders would expect resounding success from a man who has not exactly been a bastion of humility (according to Peter Crouch, Campbell, when asked by Portsmouth players why he was using two masseurs at once, replied: “When you’ve got 70 caps for England, come back and talk to me again”).
There was also, unreasonable as it feels, further pressure for him to blaze a trail on behalf of a BAME community still woefully underrepresented in these roles.
It was similarly a gamble for Macclesfield, who saw club legend John Askey snapped up by Shrewsbury Town after promotion, had Mark Yates struggle desperately as his replacement, and experienced the traditional squad overhaul that comes with modest budgets at this level. Indeed, club wages have not been paid on time for the past three months, according to a report by BBC Radio Manchester.
“All those questions about his character and about whether he could be a good manager or not, they’ve had to be put to the side at the moment,” Townsend said. “He’s waited for an opportunity, he’s said to people that he’s good enough to do it in his own inimitable way and he’s proven that he is. Macclesfield are seeing the benefit of that.
“The journey is difficult for our black and ethnic minority coaches, the stats prove it’s difficult. Maybe, after everything that’s been levelled at him, Sol saying, ‘look, just give me a chance and I’ll make it work’, will empower coaches to believe in that dream.”
If anyone giggled thinking of the 2003-04 Invincible holed up at the Moss Rose, a lopsided little ground where loose balls can disappear onto railway tracks, Campbell has made sure they’re not laughing now.
“I knew what I was getting into,” he told ESPN last month. “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.”
Whether or not he really is one of football’s greatest minds, keeping Macc in the football league is worth shouting about.