Kevin Campbell, Baggies' soul survivor

Kevin Campbell, West Bromwich's main man in last season's escape act, aims to take the club higher
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The Independent Football

Small wonder, as he prepares to lead Albion into a fresh campaign at Manchester City on Saturday, that the 35-year-old Campbell positively bounds in from the training pitch, reflects on his 18 seasons in the game and declares: "I don't want it to end".

After leaving Highbury as a title winner in George Graham's class of '91, Campbell experienced wildly fluctuating fortunes with Nottingham Forest and a character-building sojourn in Turkey that was blighted by racism. At Everton, where he became the club's first black captain, his goals effectively preserved their Premiership status.

Yet none of it, insists Campbell, compares with having played a part in Albion's survival. "Success is measured in different ways depending on where you are," the striker says. "When you don't finish top at Arsenal, it is seen as failure. The big clubs have the most money, biggest resources and best players. What we did here was a championship in our terms. It ended up being a four-team league with Southampton, Norwich and Crystal Palace - and we won it."

When Campbell arrived in the West Midlands, passing up the chance to speak to Leeds United, among others, Albion had not won a league fixture in 12 attempts under the management of Bryan Robson. Although they began to claw back the deficit separating them from their fellow stragglers, they went into the last round of games, which brought Portsmouth to The Hawthorns, propping up the entire division.

"We not only had to win but three other matches had to go our way," Campbell recalls. "The roller-coaster ride on the day was something else. As we were playing we could hear the crowd suddenly break into cheers, but we didn't have a clue which game the noise concerned."

Albion reached half-time failing in their own imperative of beating Pompey. Campbell felt compelled to speak out. "Ranting and raving isn't my style, but if I have to say something, I will. I told the lads: 'It's as if we are afraid to win the game.' I said that if each of us upped his contribution by five per cent, we'd definitely win. There were a couple of inspired substitutions, especially with Geoff Horsfield scoring with his first touch. Then the gods smiled on us with the other results."

Robson and Campbell were swamped by pitch invaders and showered with champagne, a finale neither could have envisaged during the early part of the season. The former Middlesbrough manager scarcely rated a mention for the vacancy created by Gary Megson's sacking, while the Londoner had become increasingly marginalised at Goodison Park.

"I started off in the Everton side, then I was out of it, making appearances from the bench and sometimes not even getting stripped. At 34 or 35, you need to be playing. Everyone at the club was great to me, but I had to do something for Kevin Campbell.

"When the call came to meet Bryan Robson to discuss a free transfer, I went for it. I heard what he wanted to achieve at Albion and I was hooked on it.

"He reckoned he needed a particular type of character to come in and lift a talented team that had forgotten how to win. He told me: 'You're that guy.' For me it was a matter of getting everyone together and saying: 'This isn't impossible. We can do it. The ability was there; the belief wasn't."

Far from Campbell's age deterring Albion, he suspects Robson viewed it as an advantage. "Experience is something money can't buy. When people label me a veteran, I take that as a compliment. Lots of players never reach the stage where they can be an influence at a club. Someone like me, or say, Teddy Sheringham at West Ham, sees things in a game that even the manager doesn't notice."

Robson was viewed by many, in the media and among the Albion faithful, as merely a nostalgic appointment. Campbell, remembering the "highly competitive" Middlesbrough teams built by the former England captain and the "fearsome opponent" he faced against Manchester United, was convinced such impressions were false.

"That same quiet steel he had as a player - the determination not to fail - is still there. You can see it in his eyes when he goes round each player in the dressing-room. His man-management is second to none. He knew there was pressure but he took it off our shoulders and on to his own. Even at the darkest times, when people said, 'Well, that's West Brom down now', he kept believing."

Surely even Campbell's faith wavered after only two points came from three, supposedly six-pointer games against the teams who would eventually go down? "Not one bit. I knew our performances were good. Over time, I felt our luck must change."

However, the surge to safety was about good judgement as well as good fortune. Robson dropped three players - the then captain, Darren Purse, the top earner, Nwankwo Kanu, and Megson's midfield linchpin, Jason Koumas. And he restored Ronnie Wallwork, who, like Campbell, had been stuck in reserve-team limbo. "Ronnie could have been on the moon for all that he was involved under the previous manager, yet he came in and ended up with the club's Player of the Year award."

Campbell also made a vital decision by shelving his fledgling record label, 2Wickid. The soul-loving proprietor candidly confesses he "couldn't juggle the music business with football".

Last season was the second in succession he finished fourth from bottom. Everton, of course, rose to fourth from top, and though he does not claim Albion will emulate them, nor does he accept another desperate scramble as inevitable. "Our aim is never again to be in the position we were in last time. The players have proved to themselves that we're nobody's poor cousins in this division.

"The first priority when you come up is to hang in there. Then you have to move on to the next level, like Bolton, Charlton and Middlesbrough have done. The great thing is that we have broken the yo-yo cycle."

The yo-yo cycle sounds like an exotic piece of equipment in a gym run by a progressive continental coach. Campbell missed out on working with such an individual when he left Arsenal shortly before the advent of Arsène Wenger. "Bruce Rioch saw me as a wide-right player and I wanted to play as a striker. To be fair to him, Ian Wright was the main forward and Dennis Bergkamp had just joined - two pretty decent players! - so where did Kevin Campbell fit in?

"When Wenger first came, the Arsenal lads told me about the difference in his mentality and methods, how wonderful he was. It's only natural that I've wondered what might have happened if I'd stayed at the club and worked under him. But it wasn't to be and I don't dwell on the past."

At Forest, he formed a "lethal combination" with Pierre van Hooijdonk and sampled relegation, promotion and a Uefa Cup run. Then came an offer from Trabzonspor, from Turkey's Black Sea coast near Georgia. "I had to look it up on a map," he admits, "but I always wanted to play abroad, and no one ever said foreign football just meant Spain or Italy." He learnt a lot - about everything from primitive prejudice to peculiarly reclusive preparations for each match - but he was gratified when Everton brought him home two and a half years ago.

His eight goals in nine matches did most to keep them up, a feat he repeated at Albion through leadership rather than plundering goals. Nevertheless, Robson has been linked with sundry strikers this summer, from Frédi Kanouté to Nathan Ellington via a Norway-based Icelander, and Campbell knows sentiment will not guarantee his place.

That realisation makes him determined to soldier on - "I'm contracted here until I'm 36 and that's young in my book" - starting in Manchester. Albion's revival started there last Christmas when Richard Dunne gifted them an own-goal equaliser. "Dunny's a big mate from Everton so I should thank him for that, even though I hadn't signed by then.

"It's a terrific opening game, with Portsmouth at home to follow. They are two sides we beat last season and could take points off. A couple of decent results and we'd go to Chelsea for our third match with heads high and saying: 'Let's have a go at the champions.' I got a real buzz when I saw the fixtures and when I reported back for training. It's a great time to be in football. I don't want it to end."