Ivan Campo is ready to play the game of his life - in the final of a competition he had never heard of before leaving the insecurity of a bit-part role at Real Madrid to become the heartbeat of Bolton Wanderers.
The 30-year-old Spanish international, a converted midfielder who is instantly recognisable for shaggy-dog curls more redolent of Harpo than Campo, has quite an array of winners' medals. They include two from the Champions' League and another from the Inter-Continental Cup (in contrast with his team-mate Simon Charlton's trophy cabinet which, he confessed, houses only a Blue Peter badge).
Perhaps understandably, the Carling Cup's questionable charms had escaped Campo's notice. "I knew all about the FA Cup, but not this one," he admitted as Bolton prepared to head for Cardiff and Sunday's final against Middlesbrough in the Millennium Stadium. Just as well no one from the sponsors was monitoring the interview. "I figured it was the same as in Spain, where the King's Cup is the only major one."
Campo, Bolton fans can rest assured, is in no doubt as to what is at stake. Though his grasp of the Greater Manchester vernacular remains patchy, the man from San Sebastian is aware that the club have never reached Europe, nor won significant cup silverware since Nat Lofthouse vanquished Manchester United to claim the FA Cup in 1958.
"It is not a problem 'getting up' for any final," he said. "For every player, games like this are a gift, or a reward - something special for all the hard work they have put in over the season. To me, winning the Carling Cup would be just like winning one of the really big trophies."
Before anyone could mutter "Well he would say that", Campo developed his theme. Precisely because Bolton and their supporters have had so little to celebrate down the decades, he ventured through his interpreter, beating Middlesbrough would represent "a fantastic triumph".
When he arrived at Bolton in search of personal and professional fulfilment - taking up Steve McManaman's recommendation of a "close-knit, homely" club - Premiership survival was their overriding ambition. Sam Allardyce's side had twice cut it fine. Last season, victory over Boro, of all teams, ensured it on the final day.
Campo has since undergone a radical transformation. The centre-back whose inclination to pass rather than launch the ball into the mythical Row Z sometimes led him into trouble now uses his skill to constructive effect as a holding midfielder.
The balance with the attacking instincts of Jay-Jay Okocha and Kevin Nolan has been instrumental in Bolton's Carling Cup run and improved the club's Premiership performances.
"It was one of the biggest surprises of my life," Campo said of the switch. "But I felt I could play that type of role. So did the manager. I've really enjoyed it." And pleasure from playing is a quality he values after his time at Real. "When you lose at Madrid, there are a lot more repercussions. The pressure is incredible. You can't afford to lose."
This time, the same is true of Bolton. In the unlikely event of Campo needing a reminder of the fact, the presence of Gaizka Mendieta in Middlesbrough's midfield will provide it. The pair were together on Valencia's books and in opposition when Real beat their Spanish rivals in the European Cup final of 2000 in Paris.
Mendieta is beginning to recapture the form that prompted Lazio to break the bank for him, warned his friend, with particular reference to his set-piece prowess.
But in Campo, Bolton have their own born-again footballer with a mission - not to mention a medal collection to update.Reuse content