The ‘Invincible’ season has seen documentaries, interviews and spawned countless items of merchandise, and for good reason. The team which went unbeaten through a domestic season achieved footballing immortality and will forever be used as a barometer to which all future teams will be measured up against.
Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires consistently grab the majority of the plaudits but every single meber of the squad was equally vital to permanently etching themselves in the record books.
One of these luminaries is Sol Campbell. Some would argue the very moment he chose to jump from the wreckage that is tottenham to our outfit meant he instantly earned a place amongst the greats, but it was his displays in defence during our incredible run that gilded his name in gold.
The day Arsenal travelled to Carrow Road for an away Premier League game was the day I travelled to our home ground for an event organised by one of Arsenal’s corporate partners – Europcar. The invite was extended to me kindly by a certain Daniel Cowan of Goonersphere and NLIR fame. He, along with @JamesRaulStokes, @GreeneBantern and @SimplyEnigmatic were my partners in blogging as we were to ensconce ourselves within the inner sanctum of The Emirates – The 49’ers Bar to be precise – and enjoy the hospitality that Europcar provided.
We met up early and enjoyed a Nando’s of the cheeky variety, before taking the short tube trip to The Emirates. The Diamond Lounge entrance was the illustrious start for our day and we were ushered to the bar. This was no normal watering hole though, with a smorgasbord of TV’s displaying the days footballing exploits and every bit of decor modern and clean – unlike the majority of bars!
We set up camp and enjoyed the bar, but not too liberally, before The Invincible came into view. Already knowing that Campbell was a hulk of a man did no justice to the moment I saw him in person. He is simply vast. He was straight down to business and started to be questioned by the various writers in the vicinity.
I started to get antsy and just hoped that I wouldn’t allow my nervousness to manifest in its usual manner – by way of profuse sweating and a stutter that wouldn’t sound out of place from an automatic weapon. Soon enough, we were notified that our small time slot to quiz ‘The Sol Man’ had arrived.
I grabbed my pad and pen ( the old school approach ) and, along with Daniel and James, finally got the chance to shake the hand of Sol Campbell.
The man’s handshake was warm and firm, and his grasp swallowed my hand quite easily. I allowed my hand to be swallowed by his and thanked him for allowing us the time to speak to him. His smile was infectious, but a lack of eye contact meant that it was time for the nitty gritty.
We were allowed two questions each, and I went for the ubiquitous approach for the first poser, to act as a warm up. I asked him who was the striker who gave him the hardest time on the pitch?
His response never strayed far from the fence, although it was a well articulated answer. He said that defenders must adapt to any given situation, whether the striker be a pace merchant or more of a physical presence – a la Emile Heskey and Duncan Ferguson – the defender must utilise all of his nous to nulify the threat. He avoided singling out any one player during his career that was a perennial thorn in his side, but his answer was concise and well thought out.
Daniel then asked him about Per Mertesacker and the opinion surrounding his aversion to pace; would he have liked to have partnered the big German?
Sol stated that the majority of his playing partners in the centre of defence could shift across the turf when the demand arose. Players such as Martin Keown and Kolo Toure were rapid when snuffing out threats and Rio Ferdinand during his England career had great rapidity that allowed him to recover. He also said that it was vital that defenders prepare correctly before a game and work out between them a way to render any strength in a striker moot. If there was any perceived chinks in each others armour, then they would devise a way to mask this weakness that didn’t allow it to be ripped open.
Again, he didn’t answer directly whether Mertesacker would be a desired playing partner or not, but his response was clever and full of thinking.
James went next and approached Campbell regarding the current fascination with transforming central defenders into holding midfielders. Seeing as Arsene Wenger mentioned Calum Chambers possibly being able to play this role recently, did he think he could have adapted himself to play as a defensive midfielder?
Sol started off by saying that in his younger days, roughly 21 or 22 years old, he could see himself playing that position, but by 28 and 29 years old, he had found his perfect spot in central defence. He went on to say that he didn’t see Calum Chambers playing this role, and that the young England man should try and concentrate on one role for club and country. He thought centre back was his best position ( Arsene Wenger has the same opinion ) and he should learn his trade in this spot.
A direct answer, and a very good one. We were just starting to tenderise the big man with our incisive questioning when we were told that our time was up and the open Q&A session was about to start.
I never got to ask him who we would bring into his hypothetical backroom staff if he were to delve into management.
The Q&A however, was rather revealing, thanks to some brilliant questions fielded by others. In particular, Sollet his guard down when talking about the disappointment of the Champions League Final of 2006 in Paris. He said that it would always be his biggest bugbear, and that the teams assembled during his Gunners career should have fared far better in Europe’s top competition. In particular, he shed light on the teams failings on a lack of research for the man who changed the game for Barcelona – Henrik Larsson. Sol said that his defence, including himself, were pulled out of position by the Swede and if some prior research had gone into looking at his favoured runs, then they maybe would have been able to keep him quiet.
His answers were thoughtful and precise, but he missed a trick when asked about tottenham fans. He was amongst a partizan crowd and any thinly-veiled dig at that lot down the Seven Sisters Road would surely herald laughter, applause and smiles that beamed more than his own. Instead, his politician’s approach kicked in and he sat firmly on the fence. It was a shame but it didn’t spoil the experience.
By this time, the match had kicked off, so everyone filtered toward the screens to hopefully see our team dispel the November blues.
I saw this as my opportunity to grab a picture and an autograph! The problem was, so did the majority of people who were there!
This was when Sol really showed his graciousness, by posing for countless photos, signing a preposterous amount of items and not once did his grin slip. He looked genuinely happy to give a Gooner something they will treasure.
After a while, Sol had to leave due to prior engagements, so we all bid him farewell with a round of applause. Europcar then handed out a bag of freebies which we all took gratefully and we settled down to enjoy the game in excellent surroundings and with Europcar’s hospitality adding the gloss.
The result sadly didn’t match the rest of the day, which was excellent. I had great company and got to question yet another of the men who achieved greatness for my beloved club. A massive thank you to Europcar for giving us all a fantastic day and an opportunity to speak to a genuine Arsenal hero.
It is a day I won’t forget in a hurry.