Football: Campbell turns on full power: Norman Fox meets the striker at last beginning to establish himself

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WHEN a young powerhouse called Kevin Campbell first thundered towards David Hillier in a Bexley and District League match there could be only one outcome. Hillier is no Vinny Jones, and though these days he snaps and snarls in Arsenal's midfield, and takes the occasional scalp, that confrontation persuaded him that his days as a centre-half should end at a tender age.

At Arsenal, Hillier leaves the bouncer's work to Tony Adams and Andy Linighan. He admits that Campbell is one of those players you always hope will veer off in someone else's direction. To his relief they are now on the same side.

The six foot, 13 stone Campbell, who comes from a Lambeth family of 10 children, is on a goalscoring streak and relishing his role as Ian Wright's side-flick. Tomorrow night, in the third round of the FA Cup, Arsenal go to Millwall's new Den, down the road from where Campbell grew up. As he admits, he might have got into a lot of 'bother' if his dad and football had not intervened.

Millwall may be having a good run but they know that the Campbell-Wright partnership is formidable, even if it took a long time coming to fruition. George Graham prides himself on his timing of Campbell's arrival as a serious first- team contender midway through the 1990-91 season, but what happened to Campbell last season? 'Well, all I want to say is he just took a year off to study.' Graham's pointed sarcasm is something most players at Highbury have to accept, though not all with Campbell's equanimity. He is one of football's happy, uncomplaining optimists. 'I'll not moan if I don't always play. We've got internationals like Paul Merson and Alan Smith who sometimes have to sit on the bench.'

Graham reckons Campbell, 24 next month, can still gain an England place. Strikers, he says, tend to be at their best in their mid to late twenties. 'Of course I think he can play for England, but his first priority is to stay in the Arsenal team.' Becoming established at Highbury has been a tough process for a player who was taken on as a trainee and found himself competing with Andy Cole, who is now with Newcastle and scoring even more goals than Wright.

Campbell, though, would not be surprised to find himself back on the bench when Smith regains full fitness. He accepts Graham's policy of altering the team tactically and spreading the load. Equally, Smith knows that it would not take many more outstanding performances by the increasingly confident Campbell to make his own return improbable.

Campbell was always impressive physically. As a teenager he enjoyed boxing and was a promising sprinter but putting his strength to good effect as a footballer came slowly, and not before his father had struggled to keep him out of trouble. He joined Arsenal from school and made his first- team debut at 18 but though Graham appreciated his power and pleasant enthusiasm, he decided to farm the youngster out first to Leyton Orient then Leicester City where he was hugely popular with a crowd not previously noted for cultivating good race relations. The then manager, David Pleat, recalls that Campbell was 'awesome but he also had a nice attitude - he could brighten up the day, not just with his goals, but with a smile'.

There were times after Arsenal won the championship in 1989 when Graham was heavily criticised for not buying strikers to help defend the title, but with Campbell slowly developing he decided to live with accusations of Scottish meanness. Campbell was never for sale. Pleat would have bought him, no question. This was a 'raw, powerful runner who lifted everyone, including me', but he had agreed with Graham that the unpolished diamond had to go back. 'What a loss when he went. Players used to bounce off him - they just couldn't cope,' Pleat says.

Graham still held Campbell in reserve until what he considered to be the right moment, which was two seasons ago when Anders Limpar was injured. Six goals in six matches was convincing evidence that Campbell had stopped trying to run through defenders and was using his strength more effectively. But the real question was always whether he could form a proper partnership, first with Smith, then with Wright, whose arrival caused Smith and Merson to wonder what the future might bring and persuaded Graham to play Campbell wide on the right, a position he hated but from where he still scored goals.

Linking with Wright is totally different to partnering the selfless Smith, who Campbell praises generously for doing 'the things that people don't necessarily notice'. Smith is seen by Graham as an exceptional 'leader of the line' but only in the last few months has Campbell done a similar job with comparable effect. Campbell says: 'I enjoy making goals but I'm chosen to score them.' He admits that in the periods when it seemed possible that he would not make the grade, his confidence depended entirely on getting the ball in the net.

In spite of his recent hat- trick against Swindon (his second this season), trying to keep up with Wright's prolific scoring is impossible, but their understanding is visibly progressing by the week. 'At first we just got thrown together but we soon developed the understanding. Things just seemed to gel. I read his runs and he reads my flicks, but he's more of an instinctive striker than me. He's the best in the business.' Even so, Campbell senses a new sharpness in his own game that he puts down to Graham continually telling him to be 'more greedy'.

He regrets that the partnership did not really start to operate properly until the second half of the 1991-92 season when Arsenal went on a run of 17 unbeaten matches; he scored eight times in 14 games, Wright 13 in 16. 'It's not just something between us,' Wright says. 'He works for all the team. He's good at holding the ball up; he can get people out of the way and I can get the tap-ins. But he's got a lot of pace and skill himself.'

And Hillier still avoids him in five-a-sides.

(Photograph omitted)