Sol, we hardly knew ye

IT’S difficult to shrug off the feeling that, as he watched Nathan Bishop pick the ball out of his net over and over again during the 7-1 defeat against Doncaster, Sol Campbell knew he had made a terrible mistake before the ink had even dried on the contract he had signed earlier that day.

A mate of mine was in the tunnel after the match that night as part of a birthday mascot package for his father, and recalls a senior player approach Sol, probably while the new manager was still processing what he had just seen, to tell him he wouldn’t be in training the following day, because he had a speed awareness test.

Even after spending months at Macclesfield without pay, he could surely not have believed that he would be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

After a very tough run of three league games that unsurprisingly saw no points taken by a team that was practically relegated before the clocks went back following the worst start to any team in England since the 1960s, the FA Cup defeat at Dover saw fans turn on the players at the final whistle, launching a tirade of abuse that left those in yellow visibly shocked.

That night, another senior player was filmed in a pub laughing and cheering with Dover players celebrating their win.

January came with the same false hope it brings every year. Sol saw several senior players sold or released from underneath him, leaving him ever more reliant on young players, many of whom were nowhere near ready for first-team football, to bridge the gap. He was promised reinforcements but as it turned out, the club was under a transfer embargo – not that the powers-that-be were saying much about it. Sol did eventually persuade Emmanuel Osadebe and Theo Vassell to leave Macclesfield and sign for the Shrimpers in February but they could not be registered because of the ongoing embargo. Presumably now they never will be.

Campbell cut a sullen and beleagured figure during this period, frequently expressing his bewilderment with the situation. His catchphrases included “I don’t know” and “it is what it is”. It was no doubt embarrassing for such a decorated figure in football to be messed around like he was and then shoved in front of a camera to try and explain it.

There were frequent suggestions that all was not well between Sol and some players. However, many fans rightly pointed out that many of these players had undermined every manager they had played under in recent years, so it probably wasn’t a bad thing that some had to face some home truths.

The global pandemic that curtailed the season in March this year almost came as a blessed relief to Southend fans who had been treated to four wins all season and eight since the start of 2019. Apart from a club statement in April encouraging people to stay safe and to provide a vague update on matters around the club, Sol was not heard from again.

An interview with Mark Milligan recently suggested that nobody from the club had been in touch with him about a new contract or coaching role, which raised question marks about whether the management was communicating with the squad. Out-of-contract players were then informed by letter that they would be released or offered terms.

The only surprising thing about Sol Campbell’s departure was the length of time it took to announce. There have been suggestions that his desk has been cleared for some time.

The club’s statement suggests that Campbell nobly agreed that he was a financial burden in unprecedented times, and valiantly stood aside. It’s a nice PR line that suits all parties. The reality is that Sol Campbell’s position had been untenable for a while through very little fault of his own. Is it really just a coincidence that Ron Martin released a statement through the Echo just this weekend, bemoaning the commitment of certain people at the club?

For all Campbell’s merits – and there were plenty – he appeared aloof to many and rarely appeared to covet a special relationship with the supporters. Some were triggered by his social media antics, which while doubtless intended as light-hearted ways to communicate with his wider following, became less and less humorous as the situation at Southend became more and more serious. After all, if you can’t even bring yourself to pick up a phone to tell a player some bad news, it doesn’t look great to be sat in Chelsea, wearing a straw-hat and telling people you’ve got your thinking cap on.

Sol Campbell will be a success as a manager, of that I have no doubt. He is determined and professional, has no time for slackers and understands the game. He did oversee improvements, had a ground of young players playing with heart by the end, and he leaves the club in a better place than he found it. Unfortunately, it was just the wrong place for him at this time. I wish him all the best, and may his next job be at a club which is much less of a basket case.