'To throw it away now would break our hearts'

DJ Campbell and Blackpool made a flying start but are now struggling to remain in the top flight. The striker tells Tim Rich why staying there means so much
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The Independent Football

The top of the Blackpool Tower is covered in tarpaulin, giving the town's most famous landmark a wounded, injured air and the same is true of its football club.

Most casual observers imagined an impoverished, freshly promoted Blackpool side would find themselves in the relegation zone as the season reached its climax. Few imagined how they would come to be there; no big dipper on the Pleasure Beach could have sent them hurtling to earth quite like their last half-dozen matches.

On 22 February, they overcame Tottenham 3-1 at Bloomfield Road to give one of English football's most naturally entertaining teams 32 points with 11 matches remaining. Interviewed afterwards, DJ Campbell, who had scored the second, suggested that another two victories should do it. Nobody dared mouth the words but realistically they were home, they were safe.

Instead, they seized up so completely that the next six matches produced a single point and that a skittish 2-2 draw at Blackburn. Last Saturday, something happened at Bloomfield Road that was unheard of; supporters began leaving the ground early. They were playing the bottom club, Wigan, the side they had thrashed 4-0 on the opening day of the season, but now they were three down and hopelessly beaten.

Those that made their way to the gates early would have missed Campbell's goal, a thin consolation, albeit one that maintained Blackpool's record of having scored and conceded in every one of their home fixtures.

"I wrote the goal off because realistically it meant nothing," says Campbell of his 10th of a remarkable season. "We needed a win, we needed points on the board, not a consolation goal."

Win or lose, and there has been a lot of losing lately, Campbell's routine is the same. "I live in Blackpool so whatever the result, I would drive home and just chill. With the situation we have been in, losing regularly, dropping into the relegation zone, the evenings have been quite a bit harder. I take losing very badly and I do get depressed. It affects me quite badly and the goal on Saturday, it meant nothing."

Despite the walk-out against Wigan, belief is still largely intact. When we meet there is a small, fast-flowing river of tangerine shirts pouring through the main entrance for the young supporter of the year awards. Upstairs, in the Presidential Suite, with a cartoon of Charlie Adam leaving Pepe Reina in the dust to commemorate their two wins over Liverpool, DJ – not even his mother calls him Dudley – is conducting a talk-in.

His themes are that everyone, supporters and players, are "in this together", which makes him sound like David Cameron with gold teeth and a tracksuit, but he is listened to with respect. The only time he and they become agitated is when the subject of refereeing decisions comes up; the penalties for Blackpool not awarded, the ones given against them, the cosy familiarity some referees appear to have with big-name footballers, a friendliness not extended to freshly-promoted ones. "It is not something we are making up, it is there for everyone to see," he says. "It is little Blackpool who suffer."

We have repaired to one of Bloomfield Road's executive boxes. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that to gauge a club's potential you should go to the highest point of a stadium and look down. From up here, the ground looks tiny, an indication of what flimsy resources his manager, Ian Holloway, has had to work with.

"We have tried so hard to put the gaffer's philosophy into practice, to keep playing attacking football and to see us throw it away now is heartbreaking," he says. "We have played some great football, we have pushed teams hard but to be relegated after all that would be difficult to swallow."

When Campbell moved from Birmingham to Leicester for a fee of nearly £2m, Holloway was managing Plymouth and wrote that to spend that kind of money on someone who had "played for Birmingham Reserves and Brentford was madness." Holloway then left Devon for Leicester and since he took the forward to Blackpool, it is safe to say that any misgivings have long been buried.

Comedians are famously nothing like their public persona. Eric Morecambe was privately funny but he was also a deep-thinking, mild depressive with a fondness for Margaret Thatcher and bird-watching and Holloway does not address his players with the kind of ridiculously overblown metaphors he reserves for the press room. In a sense he is like Jose Mourinho, employing his own ego to shield his players from pressure.

"The best way I can put it is that he is different from other managers in that he speaks like a normal person," says Campbell. "He is a good guy, he is one of us. That's what makes you want to play for him but he is also technically very gifted in the way he changes formations, the way he can explain exactly how he wants you to play.

"He has changed since I first came across him at Leicester. He is more relaxed. Then he was a lot more tense to be around and his style of play was different. It was a straight 4-4-2 and 'get it into the corners' stuff. Now he has the guts to play the way he probably always wanted to play.

"He changed in the last year in the Championship. I wasn't here then but from what the other lads have said, he decided to go a different way, to keep attacking. A lot of the lads were confused and told him they couldn't play this way but he was so adamant that this was the best way to get Blackpool where he thought we could go."

Six years ago nobody was very sure where Campbell's career was going. He had started out on Aston Villa's books as a teenager and drifted away to the extent that at the age of 23 he found himself playing non-league football for Yeading, which sounds like it should be in Somerset but is in fact not far from Heathrow Airport. Campbell squeezed in a career driving vans for DHL with football and when in January 2005, Yeading drew today's opponents, Newcastle, in the FA Cup, the limelight fell upon him and lingered.

Although Yeading lost 2-0, Campbell played well enough for Martin Allen to watch him, with the then Brentford manager recalling that he needed only until half-time to offer him a professional contract.

"When I was in non-league it was my love of football that got me through," Campbell says. "I was driving a van, trying to squeeze my football in, trying to keep my family together, working long hours. I had a few jobs back then. I worked for Yakult in their warehouse and I used to help out a mate who had a marble company and helped fit kitchens with marble tops.

"It was a hard, hard life but I wouldn't have changed it for the world because it gave me a perspective on life and made me the footballer I am today. I have lived two lives; one where I have had no money and it's been tough going for my family and my little girl and now I am doing what I love doing and being paid relatively well for it."

Those who have risen to the top via non-league football have a fierce determination never to let it go. It is why Kevin Phillips is still scoring goals at 37 and why he watches videos of himself scoring before games. They know where they have come from and they are never going back. It is part of the reason why Allen and Campbell have formed an organisation called Pro FC to unearth footballers who have dropped out of or never been picked up by Premier League academies.

"I based the idea on my experiences when I was 15 or 16 at Aston Villa, dropping out of the game," he says. "The ages between 15 and 17 are the hardest periods in your football career, I believe. You are still a young person, you are not yet a man; it is easy to get caught up in other things.

"You haven't really got a job, your mates are going out clubbing and it seems so easy to slip out of football. My attitude wasn't exactly spot-on. When you are 17, it's been maybe three years since you signed YTS forms, it's getting to be a real slog but your mates don't do what you do. They can go clubbing, stay out late and do whatever they like and all you've got is the training ground in the morning. It is the hardest moment of a football career. But by going to Chesham and Yeading, I kept my hand in. That's what I keep telling kids; it's never too late, you never give up."

DJ Campbell was speaking at a Barclays coaching event as part of its sponsorship of the Premier League. Every 90 minutes throughout the season Barclays is offering fans the chance to win free tickets to Premier League matches by going to a Barclays ATM and requesting a receipt or by visiting www.barclaysticketoffice.com

DJ's Record

*Chesham United: Starting in non-league in 2000, he scored 16 in 29 games.

*Stevenage Borough: Moved up two divisions to the conference a year later.

*Yeading: Dropped down to eighth tier but was a key man as they gained promotion and reached FA Cup third round.

*Brentford: Martin Allen signs him for £5,000 in 2005. Scores both goals in a 2-1 FA Cup win over Sunderland.

*Birmingham City: Signs for £500,000 – promoted and relegated in 18 months.

*Leicester: A £2m price tag hangs over him in 2007 – has loan spells at Derby and Blackpool (twice) before signing for the Seasiders permanently last summer.