Sol Campbell has always had a reputation for being a man of few words. Even then, it comes as a complete surprise to hear his response to those who have rubbished his claim he was not made England captain because of his colour.
“Good,” he tells me, then falls silent.
So does that mean he is having second thoughts? That is when he opens up and it becomes clear he is being ironic.
We are meeting in a central London hotel and Campbell’s authorised biography, containing the sensational claim, lies on the table in front of us. Leaning forward, the 39-year-old says emphatically: “No. I’ve got it right. If I was white, my chances of captaining England would have been definitely enhanced. Look at it this way. Take an African country which has a kid who’s white. He grows up to be a wonderful player and wants to be captain. I can understand it might not sit easy with the majority black people.”
But what about Paul Ince, a black captain, who says his leadership sat very easily in a predominantly white country? Or Herman Ouseley, chair of Kick It Out, John Barnes and Ian Wright, all saying Campbell has got it wrong? “It’s their prerogative,” he says. “They’ve got their feelings. I’ve got mine. That’s it.”
And, as proof, he refers to the Football Association preferring Michael Owen as captain. “Michael was a fantastic player, a great centre-forward, but captain material?” Campbell’s tone indicates the answer is no. “I captained most of my clubs. I totally understand there are different characters. I was very vocal on the pitch and, as captain, that is how I wanted people to see me. But Michael Owen was quiet off and on the pitch. I just couldn’t understand. Obviously his face fitted more than mine. It’s as simple as that.”
But one headline over the last week has made Campbell uncomfortable. That is his comment that, had he been white, he would have been England captain for 10 years. “I said, within my 10-year career, I should have captained an England side many more times than I did. People took the 10-year thing too literally, read too much into it and were too quick to comment on it.”
So his character played no part? “My character,” he says firmly, “was spot on.”
But what about his behaviour during Arsenal’s derby with West Ham in February 2006? Then he walked out at half-time, saying: “I can’t go on.” And, after driving out of Highbury even as his team-mates were still playing, he spent the next two days in Brussels taking refuge with a friend. Does this not suggest a character flaw?
“You can look on captains from way back,” says Campbell. “Things have happened to them and they’ve carried on. Anyway, that scenario happened way after I wanted to be captain.”
Campbell even argues that the way he coped with the storm raised by his move from Tottenham to Arsenal in 2001 proves he had the character to captain England. “My first season I won the Double, which was incredible. I was under extreme pressure to win and everybody was doing a lot to stop me from winning, by writing, ‘He’s not playing well. He’s not doing this. He’s not doing that’.
“So, with all the c**p flying around, it took a lot to concentrate and focus. There are not a lot of people who could take that pressure and win. If I can get through that, I can get through most things. That’s character. Doesn’t that show captaincy [qualities]?”
Character and courage are words Campbell uses a lot, even to explain why he has taken so long to finally talk about his life. The cynic may say the claims in his biography are a money-making exercise but Campbell says: “The book is about reflection. And it took a lot of mental courage to reflect. Some of the issues were very personal to me. From time to time, people wanted to write a biography and I said, ‘No, I’m not ready.’ I had to wait for the right time to speak out.
“It took me time to get football out of my system, mentally, physically, to patch up all of those things that needed to be patched up and to heal. Now I’m happy within myself and ready to talk about things which I couldn’t talk about while I was playing.”
This happiness, he says, has come from having kids and getting married, in 2010, to Fiona. But, even as he expresses his contentment, Campbell emphasises he is not like other footballers. “You’ve got to have something special in your locker that sets you apart from the rest of the players around the world.”
What he had in his locker was effectively two personalities. “You probably wouldn’t like me on the pitch because I’m very demanding, very aggressive but focused at the same time. Some players are the same on and off the field. But when I was off the pitch, I wanted to be calm, I wanted to discover more. And I’m not like some of the other guys. Some of them had three biographies before they were 30. I’m not into that.”
Nor was football’s drinking culture for him. “Some of them were just drinking all day, they would go straight from training. I’d say I’d meet them at 10 o’clock at the nightclub because I didn’t want to drink from three or four o’clock in the afternoon to six o’clock in the morning the following day.”
Campbell’s private life was a source of speculation throughout his career and he blames the media for fuelling incorrect stories that he was gay.
“They think you’re going to be married with 2.4 kids before you’re 21. Some guys need a woman to control them and to make sure they don’t go out on the p**s all the time. I was very disciplined. It’s not like I didn’t go to dinners with my girlfriends or go on holiday with them. How private are you if you’re on a plane going on holiday with your girlfriend? Or you’re going for dinner? Some of the journalists are very lazy. They just see what is in front of them. They don’t look behind the scenes.”
And he would also like Tottenham fans to take a deeper look at his reasons for crossing the north London divide. For many, even those who do not go so far as to call him Judas, this remains the great betrayal.
“Of course they’re going to have some kind of anger towards me,” accepts Campbell. “I totally understand where they’re coming from and I accept it. It is quite simple really. It’s just because I went from Tottenham to Arsenal and also I was successful.
“But I’m not a villain. I did not go to Manchester United when they came for me when I was 21 or 22. I just didn’t feel it was the right time for me. And everyone seems to forget that, when I was a youngster, there were a couple of years when I kept Tottenham up.”
However, did he not allow his contract to run down so he could go on a Bosman to Arsenal and get a bigger salary? “Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to be paid extremely well. But I offered Tottenham a four-year contract with a one-year break if we didn’t get to where I think they should have been. They did not accept that. They were offering me the same money but ‘chopped up’ so I had to get to about five different levels [of performance on the field] to get the same money. I said, ‘Well, if you don’t buy the players, then how am I going to get to that level?’ Everyone else was offering me straight money.”
Everyone included Inter Milan and Barcelona but it was Arsenal who secured him, pursuing him with secret midnight meetings at the home of then vice-chairman David Dein. Campbell says: “I don’t regret going to Arsenal because I had a wonderful time. I’ve been very successful and they’re a tremendous club inside and out.”
And one very superior to Spurs. “At Tottenham, I was just playing on talent all the time. Talent is great but you have to structure it and there was no structure. Arsene Wenger had a structure with everything he did and my talent just slotted in with the structure. Talent with no structure is just like a boat with no rudder. It doesn’t work.”
Wenger shines through in Campbell’s book, the only manager with a chapter to himself, and he was the man Campbell turned to in October 2009, after his Notts County debacle. Campbell walked out of the League Two club after just one game, realising all was not as it seemed under the ill-fated ownership of Munto Finance. Wenger provided Campbell the home he desperately needed, allowing him to train with the club before signing him that January, and Emirates is now the only place Campbell watches football.
So no chance of a reconciliation with Spurs? “You’re having a laugh,” he says when I ask. “I don’t think I’m welcome there. All my pictures have been taken down. They invited me once for an anniversary thing but I never went.”
Three months ago Campbell did shake hands with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy at a game. “It was pleasant. But they’ve moved on and I’ve moved on.”
Campbell has certainly moved on. Now appreciating that his Jamaican father had a tough life in this country as an immigrant, he is keen to forgive him for not showing his son any love. But the fact that he cannot reconcile himself with the way England treated him shows that he still has some way to go to be at peace with himself.