It was a curious irony of Walter Smith’s prolific transfer activity, that his signings which seemed to hold least promise for Everton supporters turned out to be his most successful. The arrivals of Richard Gough, David Weir and Lee Carsley each barely mustered a shrug from Evertonians, but all went on to have excellent Goodison careers. Even more unheralded, and arguably more crucial to the club’s history, was the arrival of Kevin Campbell on a loan deal in March 1999.
Considered something of a journeyman when Smith signed him, Campbell had been the last of a crop of outstanding black London players to break into the Arsenal team during the 1980s. Following a tradition set by Paul Davis, David Rocastle and Michael Thomas, the centre forward established himself in the first team during the 1990/91 season, scoring eight times in ten games as Arsenal lifted the First Division title. Although he was overshadowed in subsequent years by Ian Wright, Campbell played an important role in Arsenal’s FA Cup and League Cup successes in 1993, and their European Cup Winners’ Cup victory a year later.
The forward joined Nottingham Forest for £2.8million in July 1995, and was part of the side that was relegated in 1997. He helped Forest to promotion the following year, but chose to make a personally lucrative move to Turkish team Trabzonspor over a return to the Premier League. That transfer soon unravelled after Campbell suffered a torrent of racist abuse from his chairman, who publicly derided him as ‘discoloured’ and a ‘cannibal’.
Alerted to Campbell’s obvious distress, Walter Smith moved to sign the 29-year-old on loan for the rest of the season. It was hoped that Campbell might fill the void controversially left earlier that season by Duncan Ferguson, and the misfiring Ibrahima Bakayoko.
CAMPBELL’S home debut, against Sheffield Wednesday, was a disaster for Everton, who conspired to commit defensive suicide and lose 1-2, dropping into the relegation places. ‘The signs are that no one at Goodison Park believes they can drag themselves back from the brink this time,’ reported the Independent after the match. ‘After 45 consecutive seasons of top flight football,’ added The Times, ‘this could be the year that Everton go down in flames.’
Nobody, however, had banked on Campbell, who showed some deft touches amid the debacle.
Indeed the impression of a clumsy and wayward striker, garnered in his last days at Arsenal, was actually unfair, and took no account of the fact that he was often asked to play out of position, wide on the right. Campbell was very much a hustling, bustling centre forward, very much in the tradition of the Everton number nine. Indeed his movement was good and link-up play excellent, and he possessed a poacher’s eye for goal – an instinct not always apparent in the departed Ferguson. If there were any lingering doubts about Campbell, the centre forward was to dispel them over the final weeks of the season.
Six days after the Sheffield Wednesday game came another ‘six-pointer’, this time against Coventry City. Campbell scored twice as Everton recorded a 2-0 win. One week later, against Newcastle United, Everton won 3-1, their first win at St James’s Park since they had last won the title. It suddenly meant that Everton were five points clear of the third relegation spot going into the meeting with its occupants, Charlton Athletic, at Goodison. Knowing that a win would effectively secure survival, Everton took to the task with gusto, with Francis Jeffers and Campbell running amok in a 4-1 win. Again Campbell scored a brace. A fortnight later he hit a hat-trick in the 6-0 demolition of West Ham, which took his end-of-season tally to nine goals in eight games, and gave Everton the security of 14th place. Almost single-handedly, Campbell had saved his new club.
SMITH MADE the deal to sign Campbell permanent that summer, amid crippling financial problems. He scored 12 league goals in 26 appearances in 1999/2000, including a derby winner at Anfield, and his experience and ability aided the development of the promising Jeffers. Perhaps surprisingly,
Smith rewarded Campbell, now aged 30, with an improved five-year contract at the end of that season. Worth a reputed £30,000 per week, it made Campbell the most highly paid player in the club’s history and was to place constraints upon Everton’s transfer-market muscle in subsequent seasons. If that raised a few eyebrows, the award of the captaincy to Campbell– Everton’s first black captain – was seen as a deserved reward for a popular and consummate professional.
THE inevitable toll of age and injuries lessened Campbell’s effectiveness as the Walter Smith era petered out under a fug of disappointment. Yet following the arrival of David Moyes in March 2002, Campbell was revitalised and his fitness and movement improved. Although he conceded the captaincy, he was to end the 2002/03 season top scorer, having played in almost all of Everton’s games. Moreover his experience and composure aided the development of Wayne Rooney, as it once had Jeffers.
From thereon, however, injuries made Campbell a peripheral figure at Goodison. When he was fit, which was not often, his pace and power had obviously diminished markedly. In his final two seasons at Goodison he was to start just a dozen league games, scoring only once. Although he is due respect for his earlier achievements, his plight emphasised the folly – committed all too often under Smith’s watch – of awarding large and long contracts to aging players.
In January 2005, Campbell was given a free transfer and joined West Bromwich Albion, helping them avoid relegation from the Premier League that season. He subsequently had a short but fruitless spell with Cardiff City, before retiring in 2007 to pursue business interests.
A former England under-21 and England B international, Campbell holds the distinction of being the Premier League’s leading English scorer never to have won a full cap.