Kevin Campbell interview: Arsenal dream, Forest exit and love for Everton

In Depth

Kevin Campbell discusses realising a childhood dream at Arsenal, his surprise exit from Nottingham Forest, and finding a home at Everton in this exclusive interview.

As time goes on and seasons pass, entire careers are lost to the ether. There are great moments from great players that will stick in your mind for decades, but others drift from memory.

Some merit that lack of lasting legacy, good footballers but without that spark, consistency or style to avoid being replaced by the next generation. Yet others are treated unfairly, overlooked in the present and almost forgotten a decade after their retirement.

Kevin Campbell never received an England cap, never won the Premier League and never received much adulation or adoration. But to overlook his career would be to do it a disservice.

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No Englishman has scored more Premier League goals without being capped by his country. Campbell scored 82, despite starting his career four years before the league’s inauguration and despite playing four seasons outside the English top flight.

However, the list of English strikers enjoying their peak in the 1990s dictated that Campbell was always likely to struggle to make an impact at international level. He bears no grudges.

“I was not disappointed at all to not play for England,” Campbell says. He is modest and humble to a tee, evidently grateful for what he had rather than resentful for what he missed. “The England manager’s job is hard enough with so many players to choose from to play in the team.

“There were a lot of good players in that era so it was difficult to get into the team. I was named in a lot of squads but never got a cap; however I was still proud to be called up to those squads.

“I am probably a good trivia question for a player who was called up but never won a cap.”

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Campbell’s career began at Arsenal, having joined the club on schoolboy terms aged 15. Having developed a burgeoning reputation for his goalscoring in the club’s youth teams, Campbell was finally given a first-team debut in May 1988.

However, behind Paul Merson and Alan Smith in the forward queue, he was loaned out to Leyton Orient and Leicester City. His Arsenal career was in danger almost before it had started.

That all changed in 1990-91, when Campbell scored eight goals in ten league games between February and April to help Arsenal to a second First Division title in three years.

The arrival of Ian Wright from Crystal Palace made first-team starts difficult, but Campbell still scored 13 times in the league to finish as the club’s second highest goalscorer.

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By the time he had left Arsenal in 1995, he had won the FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. Not bad for a Gooner from Lambeth.

“You have got to remember I was a London boy and I supported the club so it was a special time to play for them,” Campbell says.

“I couldn’t afford to go to games when I was younger so I waited until the last 20 minutes when they opened the gates to the old North Bank stand and ran in to watch the final action of the game. So to be able to actually pay for the team I supported was a dream come true.”

“I was part of a very successful team of a successful era of youth at Arsenal then. George Graham the manager then had a chat with all of us young players and told us it was going to be down to hard work to get into the team.

“He gave us all a chance even though there was Martin Hayes, Niall Quinn and Alan Smith at the club and they all scored goals, while Paul Merson was also there and he played as a forward then.”

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READ: Perry Groves interview: Making it at Arsenal, 1989 and life after football

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Campbell was eventually sold to Nottingham Forest, managed by Frank Clark, who had been impressed by the striker during his loan spell at Leyton Orient when Clark was manager.

He initially found life difficult in a Forest team that had finished third in the Premier League but was in decline following that overachievement.

Yet when the club was relegated to the First Division, Campbell chose to stay and forged a partnership with Pierre van Hooijdonk that would see Forest promoted as champions, with 52 goals between them.

That summer, however, Campbell’s career was turned upside down when Forest announced they had accepted a bid for their striker from Turkish side Trabzonspor.

Campbell was given little choice in the matter, and his sale would cause Van Hooijdonk to famously go on strike.

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“I really enjoyed playing with Pierre,” Campbell says. “He was a fantastic talent and a good lad, and we had a fantastic dressing room at Forest.

“The pair of us together were the top-scoring partnership in Europe in the Championship and we were really looking forward to doing our stuff in the Premier League together. Then all of a sudden Forest accepted a bid for me.

“Dave Bassett the manager at the time mentioned to me later that it was Irving Scholar the ex-Spurs chairman who decided to sell me, so maybe the reason he sold me was the old Spurs v Arsenal rivalry!

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“I actually spoke to Pierre as he called me as I was leaving the country to fly out to Trabzonspor. He asked me. ‘Is it true that you are leaving?’ and said straight away. ‘I am not going back.’

“As we all know he stuck to his word and unfortunately the worst thing happened and he went on strike.

“We had enjoyed a great partnership and had success together so it makes you question why they decided to sell me. It didn’t make sense at the time, but football doesn’t make sense a lot of the time.”

After a spell in Turkey during which Campbell was reported to have been racially abused by the Trabzonspor president – though Campbell says that was not the case and that the international press had misunderstood a Turkish phrase – he returned to the Premier League with Everton at the age of 29, having never truly found a permanent home.

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At Goodison, he enjoyed an extended Indian summer that lasted for five years.

Having initially arrived on loan, Campbell scored nine goals in eight starts to save the club from relegation and make his permanent signing a formality.

He would become the backbone of an Everton forward line that saw him play alongside Francis Jeffers, Duncan Ferguson, Tomasz Radzinski and Wayne Rooney.

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“I fell in love with the club,” he says. “I was doing my job of trying to score goals for the team, but the fans were great to me.

“The people there are so passionate about their football club and they know to support the players. It is quite a unique experience being an Everton player with the fans supporting you, and that love I have for the club has not waned.”

Campbell says he is “immensely proud” to have been made the first ever black captain of Everton, but there is one record he is less pleased about: he remains the last Everton player to score a winning goal at Anfield, in 1999.

“A lot of people still mention it now, but I want it to be gone and for someone else to create a bit of history.”

By Daniel Storey

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