20140419

Sol Campbell and the Old Harrovian: an unlikely team proves to be a winning combination

Having spent a career in defiance of professional football's stereotypes, Sol Campbell was never likely to put his name to a conventional biography.  So when it came to choosing the right person to turn his life story into words in print, the former Tottenham, Arsenal and England centre half naturally made a left-field decision.

Most players plump for a football writer, either someone they know or who at least comes with the recommendation of a publisher or agent, sometimes a teammate.  And there would have been many who admired his ability as a player who would have found his enigmatic nature an irresistible challenge.

But Campbell did not go down that route.  Indeed, even as his playing career moved towards a conclusion he was not convinced he even wanted to tell his story at all.  But then he met Simon Astaire.

They are an unlikely combination.  Astaire is from a background almost as diametrically opposed to the East End-born Campbell's as is possible. The Harrow-educated son of a wealthy stockbroker, he left school to become an agent, publicist and media advisor with a client list that included Hollywood stars and members of the British Royal Family.  Nowadays he writes novels, drawing on his experiences at school and in life, that explore the darker sides of wealth and celebrity.  But he had one thing in common with Campbell: football.  Astaire, as it happens, is a Tottenham fan.

They happened upon each other in an Italian restaurant, La Delizia, on Chelsea Manor Street in west London, just off the King's Road, near where they both live.  It consists of one long room with tables along each wall, not a place in which to hide away in a corner, so when Astaire, sipping his latte on one side of the room, had his attention drawn towards the figure sitting at a table on the other, chatting to the owner, he could not fail to recognise who it was.

"On the day we met we were the only two customers," Astaire said. "I was sitting on one side of the restaurant, he on the other. I recognised him, obviously. The owner, Michele, introduced us."

"I'd always been a football fan," he added. "I was the only boy at Harrow who took Shoot magazine. Nowadays, all the public schoolboys go to Stamford Bridge or wherever but in those days they were all rugby types.  Football was a game for oiks and I was looked upon as a pariah.

"But I had been brought up with football.  My grandfather had been a Tottenham fan and my uncle, Jarvis Astaire, was a sports impresario who used to run Wembley Stadium, so I got to see all the big games there."

They chatted. Astaire even asked him why he had left Tottenham for Arsenal, which remained a controversial issue for Tottenham fans even though, by then, Campbell was playing for Portsmouth and was about to embark on his ill-fated move to Notts County, having fallen for the con-men who duped Sven-Goran Eriksson (his take on that episode makes informative reading).  But for this new acquaintance to gain his trust took some time.

"He is fundamentally shy," Astaire said. "Very few of the people I spoke to about him spoke as if they knew him, even Lee Dixon, who used to change next to him. Thierry Henry says he did, but he was one of very few. To me, that's what makes him an interesting character.

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"But if he was slow to open up, eventually he never stopped talking.  It was as if he wanted to release everything he had inside."

That happened only after many conversations, during which Campbell rejected the notion of Astaire writing a book about him several times before he at last announced that he was ready.  After that the chapters in his life, along with the issues surrounding them and the observations Campbell wanted to make, began to emerge in detail.

The one that provoked the biggest headlines, naturally, was the assertion he makes, in the chapter covering his England career, that had he not been black he would have been captain of the national side for perhaps 10 years or more.

It was a statement controversial enough for Astaire to need an assurance from Campbell that he definitely meant what he had said. "I asked him about that and he was very clear, so I couldn't not put it in," he said. "I quoted him exactly as he said it, because he thought if he had been a different colour he would have been England captain for 10 years. He fundamentally believes that."

The claim was a debating point for several days, in print, on radio phone-ins and television shows, But, as Astaire is keen to stress, there is much more to Campbell's story than the disappointment of wearing the England captain's armband only a handful of times in his 73-cap career.  Indeed, given his reputation for reticence when confronted with a probing interviewer, it is remarkable how successful Astaire has been in persuading Campbell to share thoughts and feelings he had previously kept largely to himself.

Astaire wanted to know as much about what happened to him off the field as on it, about the character he was when not wearing a football shirt, about his upbringing in what is now the borough of Newham, a deprived area of inner-city east London, the youngest of 12 children, struggling for the attention of a father not inclined towards shows of affection.  The parts of the story that he enjoyed most, therefore, were those in which Campbell revealed his innermost thoughts.

The most compelling among them, he felt, was the one he called Lost Weekend, the episode in which Campbell walked out of Highbury at half-time during a midweek game against West Ham, unable to continue as a catalogue of stresses took their toll, the racist and homophobic abuse, and the effect on him and his recently widowed mother when his brother, John, was sent to prison for assaulting a fellow student who had accused Sol of being gay.  His form on the field began to suffer and an error-strewn first half against West Ham left him emotionally at rock bottom.

Astaire describes Campbell's escape via Eurostar to Brussels, where he stays with a female friend in whom he knows he can confide, going to ground until David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, manages to track him down, without the knowledge of the English media, who report even on the following Sunday that Arsenal know nothing of his whereabouts.

This is the section where the author uses his novelistic approach to best effect.  "For me, this is the most fascinating part of the story," Astaire said. "It is something that anyone who has ever run away can identify with.  It is all about fame and how, as it is always said, the higher you climb the bigger your fall."

By the end of the project, Astaire was no less fascinated with Campbell than at the beginning. He would like to write more, similar biographies.

"I had always been intrigued by Sol Campbell and found him to be a multi-layered character, a complex personality who is difficult to get to know and who is easily misunderstood," he said.

"I have read a few football biographies and not many of them impress me because they tend to be formulaic and focus on playing careers.

"But sports people are now much more open about their lives and we will see that in the future, in their biographies, that they can be incredibly honest and that's what is fascinating to the reader."

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography, by Simon Astaire (Spellbinding Media) is available from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith.

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