Ivan Campo: Folk hero turns the surreal into the Real thing for Wanderers

After a crazy start to his Premiership career a Basque old boy is basking in the big family spirit at Bolton. Simon Turnbull talks to him
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The Independent Online

"Big Sam Hits Back", the front-page headline in the Bolton News proclaims. Sam Allar-dyce has already been in the Sun protesting his innocence of alleged bung-ho behaviour. The Max factor treatment is starting to be applied, it seems.

It would be no great surprise to find Max Clifford himself stalking the corridors of the Reebok Stadium. Then again, the PR king has been busy on the airwaves, attempting to give one last makeover to Steve McClaren and to England's minimalist performance in the Maksimir Stadium - something like Trinny and Susannah attempting to furnish the Emperor with a winning look in his brand-new clothes.

Sitting in the Chairman's Suite at the Reebok, Ivan Campo is dressed in standard footballer- casual style - zip-front woollen top, ripped jeans. It is one of the great triumphs of Big Sam's seven-year stint as manager at Bolton Wanderers that the old boy from the Basque country has come to look so comfortably part of the furniture in the corner of the industrial English football heartland that LS Lowry once immortalised on canvas.

Of all the many unlikely lads that Allardyce has brought to Bolton from foreign parts, Campo rates as one of the least likely - to settle, let alone to succeed. For a good deal of his first season as a Wanderer, on loan from Real Madrid, the native of San Sebastian was the squarest of pegs in the roundest of holes: playing himself and his team into trouble when he attempted to weave the ball out from the back. It might have worked in the uncluttered highways of La Liga but not in the traffic-jammed motorway of the English Premiership.

With his distinctive mop-top, Campo looked like a refugee from the 1970s as well as from the Bernabeu. But then Allardyce - whose prosaic interpretation of defending in his playing days moved Tommy Docherty to observe that he made Jim Holton, the late, great intimidating idol of the Stretford End, "look like Franz Beckenbauer" - deployed the Spaniard's ball-playing talents where they were most naturally suited. From a base camp deep in central midfield, Campo has looked more like the Real thing than the surreal - not least in the purple- patch start to the season that had Bolton sitting in the Premiership's top three at the recent international break.

Outstanding from the opening day, when he caused Paul Robinson his first embarrassment of the season with a wickedly swerving long-range daisy-cutter, Campo was inspirational in the 2-0 win against Liverpool a fortnight ago. At 32, he appears to be playing as well as he ever has, on English soil at any rate. Not that you will get him to concede as much.

"In my opinion?" Campo says, uncomfortably juggling the question. "For me, I only want to play for Bolton and to enjoy playing my football. I don't like to speak about me. I prefer to speak about the team, the players. I don't like to speak about me."

Still, he speaks well in his hard-learned English - well enough to turn to his interpreter for only occasional assistance. After four years as a Wanderer, Campo is happily at home in Bolton, just starting out on a new three-year contract. "In my first year here - after six, seven months - I didn't know if I wanted to continue at Bolton Wanderers," he reflects. "Before this I was playing in the best team in the world, at Real Madrid, and when you come to Bolton the team is not so big and it's very different.

"I had been in a bad situation at Real Madrid and I needed confidence and a little love. This is where Bolton is the best, for me. The club showed me a lot of kindness. They made me feel at home.

"For me, Bolton is the best in this situation because we are a big family. When you have a problem or need something all the players can help you, or the gaffer or the staff. That is always, always. It is fantastic to be here."

Campo first came to Bolton in the summer of 2002, after four years at the Bernabeu. In his time with Real he played in the team who won the 2000 Champions' League final against Valencia in Paris, alongside Steve McMan-aman, who recommended Bolton to him as a "homely, close-knit club", and Nicolas Anelka, the latest "misfit" to arrive at the Reebok. After his initial misgivings, he signed for Wanderers on "a Bosman" at the end of his 2002-03 loan season.

His ambition now is to get back into the Champions' League, not with Real but with his beloved Bolton, who line up at Newcastle today looking for a fifth win in eight Premiership matches this season. "In our first seven matches we have played very, very well," Campo says. "We are in a good position. Now we have difficult matches with Newcastle, Blackburn and Man United. If we win two of those matches we could be in a great position.

"I think the most important thing is that we have a great confidence, and with that you can play very, very good. We are playing well and we are winning. And every year we are getting experience. We have played in the Uefa Cup, in the Carling Cup final. It is possible this season we can get into the Champions' League. That is what you need to do to become a big team. It is possible. But you need to have some good luck."

It is Bolton's good fortune that Campo has struck such a rich vein of vintage form, and that Gary Speed has done so too. Against Liverpool, the veteran central midfielders scored the two goals and ran much of the show. It was the 37-year-old Speed's 750th appearance in club football. "This player, I think, can play three, four years more," Campo says of his indefatigable compadre. "He's incredible. He's a great person, a great player, and he's in great physical shape.

"For me Gary Speed is the best professional footballer. For young players to have this example at Bolton Wanderers is fantastic. He's the best."

Sir Bobby Robson called Speed "one of the best of the best" when Newcastle sold the Premiership's Peter Pan to Bolton in the summer of 2004, against their manager's wishes. Clearly, someone at St James' Park deemed the Welsh dynamo to be past his sell-by date, which will provide further grist to Bolton's motivational mill on Tyneside today.

Before the Liverpool match, Allardyce pinned newspaper headlines of Rafael Benitez dismissing his Bolton team as a latter-day Wimbledon on the dressing-room wall. This afternoon he could nail up a calendar, or 47 of them. Not since a 2-0 success on 23 October 1959 have Bolton won at St James' Park. Nat Lofthouse was still a Wanderers player, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and John F Kennedy was just the Senator for Massachusetts.

In recent times, Bolton have had to contend with that latter- day Lofthouse, Alan Shearer. Last season he scored the second goal in a 3-1 Newcastle win. This time, with the Toon Army totem in retirement, the prospect is a little less daunting for the Bolton defence, who have gone four Premiership games without conceding a goal. The Newcastle forward line is likely to be led by the pint-sized Obafemi Martins, possibly in tandem with Albert Luque, who has yet to live up to the £9.5 million price-tag he arrived with from Deportivo La Coruña.

"It has been difficult for Luque at Newcastle," Campo says. "Perhaps he needs another Spanish player in the team at Newcastle. It is very difficult to be in England alone. The life is very different from Spain - the food, the people too.

"It's possible it will take him one year, two years more, but I think Luque is a great player - only he needs more confidence. When he gets that, he will play very, very well. I will speak to him in the hotel and in the stadium at Newcastle, because we are good friends. Sometimes we have been together on holiday in Majorca. Luque is a fantastic person; a very, very funny boy."

Luque has won nine caps for Spain, five more than Campo. Last weekend he scored for the Catalan side in their 2-2 draw against the Basque country. Not that he has been the talk of the football chat shows back home.

"In Spain, all the radio and television stations have been speaking about David Beckham," Campo says. "It's a big surprise that he is not playing in the national team. I know he is not starting in the Real Madrid team but he must understand he is with the best team in the world. Sometimes other players are playing very well."

Which is not quite the case with Beckham's national team, hardly the best in the world. "I think it is the same situation as it is with the Spanish national team," he reflects. "Always we go to the World Cup saying we have the best team, we are going to win it. And at this moment we are playing very, very bad.

"I think always, if you want to win something, you must go there with a lot of humility. You must keep your powder dry."

Life & Times: From Bernabeu to the Reebok

NAME: Ivan Ramos Campo.

BORN: 21 February 1974, San Sebastian, Spain.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 12st 10lb.

CLUB CAREER: Alaves 1993-95 (45 games, 2 goals), Real Valladolid '95-96 (24, 2), Valencia '96-97 (fee £12m; 7, 1), Mallorca '97-98 (33, 1), Real Madrid '98-2002 (60, 1; Champions' League winner 2000, La Liga winner '01), Bolton 2002-current (free, 118, 10; League Cup finalist '04). New three-year contract signed in July.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Debut for Spain v Sweden, March '98. Four caps, no goals.

NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH: A band from Preston "with a unique and mildly unsettling sound, like David Lynch circa Blue Velvet".