Tuesday 25 June 2024

Super Kev

 Kevin Campbell’s left foot volley, lodged into the top left hand corner of the goal at the Clock End past a full-stretch Nigel Martyn, seemed, from my line of sight from the opposite North Bank end, like the show-stopping conclusion to a then 13 game unbeaten run where each spectacular Arsenal goal had been even better than the next. 

This was spring 1992, and Arsenal were about to beat Crystal Palace 4-1, just as they had the previous September at Selhurst Park (which would form the middle part of a trio of 4-goal showings for the Gunners against their South London rivals, beginning with a 4-0 win at Highbury in February 1991, on their way to the First Division title.) Yet, the picture of the double extravagances over Steve Coppell’s side that finished 3rd in 90-91 doesn’t tell the story of the Gunners’ season as champions.

A month before Selhurst Park, Arsenal had laboured to a final-minute salvage of a 1-1 draw at home to Queens Park Rangers on the opening day, and then the team that had lost only one game in the whole of the previous season lost two in succession, both by 3-1, at Everton and Aston Villa. Manager George Graham had been praised by Jimmy Greaves for not joining in the ‘summer of madness’ that had seen £72 million in transfer fees change hands in the First Division, but the resistance was now questioned (certainly by my friend Llyr.) There had been speculation about Paul Parker, but he went to Manchester United. 

Arsenal stopped the rot with a midweek win at home to a Luton Town that would be relegated that season and not seen again in the top flight for 33 years, but idiosyncrasies in individual performance, such as Lee Dixon’s barmy own goal in a 2-1 home defeat to Coventry City and David Seaman’s strange recklessness in a wild 5-2 win at home to Sheffield United, played to the adage that it was much harder to defend a title than win one, as had been the case in 89-90.

Flashes of that title-winning aura came in away draws at Leeds United (who’d go on to become champions) and Manchester United (who’d come second), as well as at Selhurst Park, where Campbell was, as the saying would become, ‘unplayable’. Playing up front in his first full season as strike partner to Alan Smith, having started for the first time against Palace in the 90-91 February 4-0 and scoring eight times in ten games between then and May, Campbell looked like a player who would terrorise defenders for years. In the yellow chevron shirt, he opened the scoring at Palace, who seemed winded by comments in the week made by chairman Ron Noades about black players not showing up in the winter. In the second half, Campbell produced a perfect cross for Smith’s header for 2-0, scored a third and played in Michael Thomas for the fourth. It was an individual performance of talent, confidence, strength, drag-backs and complete goal-involvement. And one that was perfectly timed as the side approached their first European Cup match for 20 years. 

Against Austria Vienna, Campbell didn’t score but, even with some scruffy shooting and less finesse than at Palace, he harmed the defence all the same and helped Smith score four in a 6-1 home rout. Afterwards, Smith told the press he would  “get thirty goals a season” playing alongside Campbell. Both forward players scored in the 5-2 against Sheffield United on the Saturday, commentator Martin Tyler (as would be heard on the end of season video, 92 for 92 - the title signifying the goals scored that season) responding to Campbell’s strike with “that’s a very popular goal, here [Highbury}”.

The signing that Arsenal made in late September brought a player to the club for whom “popular” would become an understatement, Ian Wright regarded just as affectionately today as when he was tearing up grounds all over the country for what would be six years at the club (the affection is mutual, Wright in his role of television pundit unabashedly referring to Arsenal as “we”. ) Yet, amidst the excitement of the £2,500,000 purchase, there was intrigue over George Graham adding an obviously first-choice striker to a team that had just scored 15 goals in the last 3 games. 

Wright’s goal on his debut at Leicester City in the League Cup and hat-trick at Southampton in a 4-0 win of again champion-like quality pushed the doubts to the side immediately, but there is a strong argument that Wright’s flourishing brilliance had a negative effect on both Smith and Campbell’s careers, while the team’s success became tied up in the new man, going out early in the cups without him, defeat at Coventry City in the League Cup followed by a demoralising exit in the European Cup to  Benfica and, humiliatingly, at Wrexham in the FA Cup (the two clubs having finished at either end of the league table the previous season.) Once the team recovered themselves from a bleak midwinter, the rampant charge to the finish line went to 17 games unbeaten, which would prove a little window of glorious sunshine that George Graham seemed happy to tolerate for the time being. Campbell’s stunning volley against Palace at Highbury wasn’t to be the show-stopping finale to Arsenal’s resurgence; there was a goal from near the halfway line by Anders Limpar in a 4-0 home win against Liverpool, but perhaps more prescient was Wright’s dramatic hat-trick completed against Southampton in the final minute of the final game of not only the season but the North Bank to claim the Golden Boot for the league’s top scorer from Gary Lineker of Spurs. While his second goal was a mesmerising, thrilling charge from the halfway line that evaded two challenges and finished with a rasping drive beyond Tim Flowers, the rather fortunate shinned goal that clinched it came from a bobbled shot by Smith (on as sub, having lost his place in the team during the unbeaten run) while it was Campbell who carried the elated Wright on his back during the immediate celebrations. Although Smith would go to the European Championships in Sweden with Graham Taylor’s England - alongside Paul Merson but not Wright or Campbell - he and Campbell, who scored just nine goals after Wright’s early-season arrival, had become the new star’s servants. And it was Wright, not Smith, who had just scored his 30th goal that season - a tally he would match the following season.

The next two seasons saw a curious mix of ground-breaking trophy success and a dispiriting malaise in the league. Although 4th in 93-94 was a clear uptick on 11th in the inaugural Premier League season of 92-93, the rise and rise of Wright went off in a different track to the growth of the team. The firepower was now consolidated into one player, the production line hampered by the engineered sales of David Rocastle (to Leeds) and the increased marginalisation of Limpar. Campbell did score 19 goals in 93-94, including the decisive header in the Cup Winners Cup semi-final against Paris St.Germain (his big moment typically overshadowed by Wright’s tears that followed a second yellow card of the competition - ruling him out of the Final) and Smith bagged the only goal of the game against Parma to win the trophy, but both players would be out of the club after only one more season. 

Smith’s retirement was enforced due to ankle problems, and had he remained fit would probably have been kept on by new manager Bruce Rioch for the 95-96 season, even with Dennis Bergkamp arriving from Italy to join Wright and John Hartson as the club’s central forwards. Campbell’s move to Nottingham Forest that summer at the age of 25 came five years after he burst onto the scene with a goal on his debut against them in March 89-90. His 59 goals in one season with the youth team had built eager anticipation among the fanbase to see the latest home-grown star come through the production line. Even the most annoying Tottenham fan in my school and football circle (he was quite a specimen) admitted Campbell was “one for the future”.

That future, if regarded in terms of starting in the first team, began in just under a year with the last of the four goals against Palace in February ‘91 and first of the eight in the run-in, as he and another youth product (who would also fall out of favour and be gone by 95-96), midfielder David Hillier, gave the team fresh impetus. 

Next time round against Palace, Campbell was the boss, no longer a prospect but becoming one of the best strikers in the league, an international tournament in the summer to aim for and others in the future, including one on home soil. Who knows if Ron Noades’ comments had any bearing on Wright taking centre stage at Arsenal so soon after. Wright would have left South London for bigger things at some point, and at 28 would have been aware of the urgency around it if he wanted to add some trophies to his career. 

Is it that simple that Campbell’s Arsenal trajectory was punctured by Wright? Or was it that his impact was only ever going to be brief? Did he bulk up and lose mobility, and subsequently confidence? He didn’t seem to hit the ball so cleanly; evidence of that pre-dated Wright, such as in the Austria Vienna game that still benefitted Smith, but the drilled winner past Chelsea’s Kevin Hitchcock to complete a 3-2 comeback a couple of weeks after Wright’s arrival would become rarer. 

Campbell scored on the opening day of the Premier League season at home to Norwich City with a half-fit Wright on the bench, but a two-goal lead was lost in a sensational turnaround for the Canaries, winning 4-2, and the title hopes that followed the 17-game unbeaten run faded in the gloom of other unexpected and dispiriting results. Campbell was shunted wide, sometimes in a three-up-front formation, and as an unprecedented double-domestic cup triumph became the priority, Campbell’s muscularity seemed to be used as a wrecking ball. The double-cup triumph was gloriously secured, channelled through Wright, scorer of nearly half the team’s goals. Campbell managed just four in the league and five in the cups, his season undermined by a series of missed chances. For the supporter, the hope remained that this was just a blip, that the Campbell who first emerged on to the Highbury pitch to such acclaim against Forest, and whose presence ensured that Andrew Cole’s £500,000 transfer to Bristol City barely registered, would return in time.

The 19 goals in 93-94 including two hat-tricks suggest there was something of a return to his former self, but still the explosion and the aura were not quite there, while the misses continued. In the early big game of the season at Manchester United, he failed to put away a good chance to open the scoring and the home team won 1-0 thanks to a stunning Eric Cantona free kick. The nadir, though, came at home to Bolton Wanderers in the defence of the FA Cup, Campbell fluffing chance after chance, one notably gilt-edged, in the 4th round replay defeat (3-1) to the Division One side managed by Rioch. In the North Bank stand, my booing was joined by many others. Graham defended his man, making the point that he didn’t miss on purpose and then, more insightfully, that he didn’t hide either. Graham’s friend and 1970-71 Double-winning captain, Frank Mclintock, stuck up for him too, though he did happen to list several faults in his game before saying “but apart from that…”. But when physio Gary Lewis explained Campbell’s spell out of the team as a back injury, adding “with backs, you can’t take chances”, there was an accidental punchline, 

One display at Torino, in Wright’s absence as the team navigated a goalless first-leg draw in the Cup Winners Cup quarter final, was perhaps Campbell’s most abject display, and yet there he was in the next round to score the goal that put Arsenal in the Final, and with it a place up front with Smith again, his old strike partner the goal hero this time.

For a brief while, 94-95 seemed as if Campbell and the team might rekindle the title credentials of old; with a European trophy in the cabinet, and new signing Stefan Schwartz patrolling the midfield in front of the famous back five, even a match atmosphere of near terrace-quality surrounded an opening day 3-0 beating of Manchester City, Campbell opening the scoring after two minutes. At Leeds in midweek, Howard Wilkinson described Arsenal’s performance as the best by an away side in his time there…scant consolation, though, when the game was decided by a David Seaman mistake in the final minute, giving the home side the points. They started well at Anfield the following Sunday too, only for Robbie Fowler to score a four-minute hat-trick to settle the game. A 0-0 draw at home to eventual champions, Blackburn Rovers - reduced to ten men after Jason Wilcox’s sending off - was followed by another stalemate at Norwich, and that was how brief that while was. 

The wheels truly came off that season amidst two ‘scandals’ involving Merson and Graham, with only the player surviving at the club and, in between, Arsenal signed two forwards in January, 19 year old John Hartson, a raw prospect from Luton Town bought for £2,500,000, and Chris Kiwomya, who’d fallen out of favour at struggling Ipswich Town, coming in for £500,000 as set at a tribunal (he was replaced at Portman Road by Lee Chapman, who’d gone to Arsenal for the same fee, also set by a tribunal, from Stoke City in 1982.)

Hartson, like Campbell, was a tall, physical striker who formed an instant partnership with Wright, while the nimble Kiwomya scored against Forest the night Graham was sacked, ending a run of four months without a home win, and added two in a 3-0 win at Palace, where just four years before Campbell had shone so brightly. Campbell did actually score at Selhurst Park that season, albeit with the aid of a hand, presumably unseen by the ref unlike most of us in the ground, in a 3-1 win against Wimbledon, but his goal at home to Chelsea the following week, on 15th October 1994, would be his last for the team. Arsenal reached the Cup Winners Cup Final again, despite the season of turmoil, but Campbell played no part in the heartbreak defeat to Real Zaragoza.

Campbell returned to Highbury in the yellow and black away colours of Nottingham Forest four games into 95-96, although for the player who’d won a league title, both domestic trophies, a European trophy and had always given his best for the club he’d cone through the ranks of, it wasn’t a warm homecoming. His every touch was booed by a significant section of the crowd while the transfer fee paid by Forest was mocked to the tune of the Roses advert: ‘Thank you very much for two and a half million, thank you very much, thank you very, very, very much!’ The last few years of missed chances seemed to be the driver, although possibly some fear, too, realised when he scored past Seaman in the second half, equalising David Platt’s acrobatic first half strike. This, his last goal at Highbury, had come in the same fixture as his first. I found the Roses song amusing, but the booing said more about some Arsenal fans than their former player; after all, he wasn’t the only player wearing 10 that they turned on that night. 

Campbell later became a popular player at Everton, scoring a run of goals to save them from relegation, just as he’d helped Arsenal win the title; he would also become the only player in 20 years to score the winning goal for them at Anfield in the Merseyside derby. Happily, once his career was over, the mutual affection between himself and Arsenal shone through in his media work and social media presence. Since his sad death at 54 last week, his warmth and kindness has featured in the tributes just as much as his career exploits, Arsenal bloggers and podcasters and ex team mates and media colleagues all saying the same thing in slightly different words. During 90-91, when Campbell was the face featured on that month’s club calendar, my Dad, close to the club staff, made an inquisitive remark about his close-shaved hairstyle, before adding “very nice young chap” and walked off.

I wasn’t lucky enough to know Campbell, settling for a liked Twitter post when footage of his Selhurst Park 91-92 performance against Palace was uploaded, Smith getting in on the conversation too. I remember him also, as part of those halcyon North Bank days between January 1991 and May 1992 when from about 2:20 in the afternoon, he and Lee Dixon would be first out of the tunnel for the warm up, their emergence and the reception from behind the goal becoming excitingly anticipated, then the chanting - “Super, Super Kev, Super Kevin Campbell!” - the mutual applause and maybe a request for a silly dance or ‘twist’. Perhaps most of all, it’s how he made me feel with that breathtaking volley at Highbury against Palace (from, for balance, Wright’s pass!) when he set me off with my friends in a frenzy of face-contorting, body-launching excess of absolute joy and happiness. 



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