The hulking, indomitable centre-back of days gone by was a corroding shadow of his former self: Sol Campbell, the one-time Arsenal and England icon, was, so they said, a spent force.
Just four days after his 35th birthday last September, he had walked out on Notts County, a club based in the English fourth flight and a million miles from the prestigious fields on which he established himself as one of world football’s finest defenders. Campbell had already flirted with retirement. Now logic was urging him in that direction.
But Campbell’s footballing career has never been filled with regularity or rationale. He entered the sport as a budding striker, scoring on his professional debut in that role, yet curiously earned esteem at the other end of the pitch; he become one of only a handful of players to join Arsenal from fierce enemies Tottenham Hotspur, and that after declaring he would never sign for the Gunners; he was the first high-profile player to exercise the Bosman ruling in the Premier League and the first to appear for England at six major tournaments; he had a role as a bouncer in the Guy Ritchie film Snatch and appeared in the television drama Footballers’ Wives; he once went AWOL at Highbury and duly took a ten-week recess from first-team action; and if he raised eyebrows when, after quitting Arsenal “to play abroad”, he penned a deal with Portsmouth, he left mouths agape by thereafter dropping three tiers to make Notts County his employers.
Despite departing Meadow Lane just five weeks and one match into a five-year contract, however, Campbell was not ready to don his conformist’s cloak and hang up his booys. Instead, he swiftly began training with the Arsenal side he represented between 2001 and 2006, during which time he helped them win two Premier League titles and reach the UEFA Champions League final [Campbell actually broke the deadlock in that game en route to a 2-1 loss to Barcelona in what was his last appearance for the Gunners].
Manager Arsene Wenger insisted it was just to help Campbell keep fit: “He asked me if he could come back here and have some fitness sessions," said the Frenchman at the time. “We’re helping him out but we won’t be signing him.”
Wenger reiterated this declaration: once, twice, multiple times. He had never re-signed a player in his 13 years in charge in north London, and he maintained wouldn’t be arresting that statistic for his former defensive rock. But, sure enough, in a move that befitted the capricious career of Campbell, he rejoined Arsenal on 15 January.
"We are delighted to have signed Sol Campbell until the end of the season,” said Wenger, whose team are top of the Premier League, above Chelsea, who have a game in hand, on goal difference and Manchester United by a point. “For both club and country, Sol's career just speaks for itself. He is a hugely experienced and intelligent footballer who will bring a great amount of quality and knowledge to our squad. Sol as a player and a person will be an enormous asset to us."
Campbell said: “I'm ecstatic really to be back at Arsenal, and I have worked really hard to get there. It's fantastic, great, marvellous. The old enthusiasm is back. Arsene Wenger has been an inspiration. He has watched me closely after letting me train at Arsenal for nearly two months now. He's not stupid - he wouldn't have taken me back if he didn't like what he has seen, and I have worked and worked.
“I really have my confidence and fitness back and I believe I can make a big, big contribution. I am fresh and raring to go. I've got the hunger, it's a craving really, a craving for the ball and for me I need that. I’m desperate to play. If I keep training like this then I can play for two or three years of real good quality. There is fantastic quality all around the pitch within this Arsenal team and I want to be part of it.”
Campbell will initially begin duty as deputy to first-choice centre-backs William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen, but if he can force his way into the Arsenal starting XI, and remain there, he may just be able to add to his 73 England caps – the last of which he won in 2007 - and force his way into Fabio Capello’s squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
"I have seen him in training and he is very sharp,” said Wenger, “His attitude is good, his talent is good. It (England) is not the immediate target but you should not rule anything out. If you are in his shoes you would say, 'let's give as much as I can'. You never know."
From the English fourth tier to the biggest platform in world football… now that would be a fanciful tale even by Campbell’s standards.