Sol just asking for a white-hot reception

Tottenham supporters can feel aggrieved over their turncoat captain's failure to resolve his future long ago
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Not since Lord Haw-Haw attempted to corrupt the airwaves with his Nazi propaganda have there been such accusations of betrayal. Absurd maybe, yet to judge by the response of some of those in the lilywhite quarters of North London, such was the depth of revulsion for this shameful "act" of treason that hanging would be too good for Sol Campbell.

If the reaction to recent events at Highbury – and we can include the simmering unrest surrounding Patrick Vieira – achieved anything it was to remind us that while fans are driven by a romantic idealism, élite players are motivated for the most part by a hunger for financial reward and for the remainder by international ambition.

When Spurs vice-chairman David Buchler declared a little over a fortnight ago: "Sol is a Spurs fan and there is not a hope in hell of him joining Arsenal", he was merely deluding himself and 30,000 White Hart Lane regulars. Or maybe he was attempting some emotional blackmail.

If so, Buchler was picking the wrong man. The concept of a loyal professional footballer is an oxymoron but, in Campbell's case, you could hardly castigate him for deciding that his ambitions could be fulfilled elsewhere. Now 26 and arguably at the zenith of his powers, this was the club he first joined at 14. Scarcely a fly-by-night. In contemporary football terms, he merited a medal struck for long service, not condemnation of his decision to accept Arsenal's offer of a four-year contract worth £50,000 a week, plus an estimated £8m signing-on fee.

What you could question, however, is the protracted manner of his departure, and his destination a brisk 20- minute walk away, though, according to his new manager Arsène Wenger, Campbell did not have a choice "when you think that he wants to play at the top level, stay in London and play for England".

The second of those qualifications, you would have imagined, is a significant restraint on his ambitions. Many informed observers would submit that his footballing interests would have been better served abroad. As for international considerations, Steve McManaman has given the lie to the popular conception that by playing on the continent, you are out of sight and effectively out of the England coach's mind.

Where Spurs followers can justly feel aggrieved is Campbell's failure to resolve his future long ago when Spurs could still have gained some compensation from his sale. Now, out of contract, he has left the club without a captain and hugely influential central defender and the faithful feeling piqued. How much they will articulate it will be evident on his likely first return to White Hart Lane on 15 August for England's friendly against Holland.

Many will treat Campbell with respect for what he has achieved for Tottenham rather than with contempt because of the direction his elected career path has taken him. Yet, there are always the zealots who will not be convinced. It was suggested to Wenger that his acquisition may require armed guards.

"That's an overreaction," he said. "The player did everything right, and he left when he was out of contract. You can understand how Tottenham fans are feeling, but it is not as though he walked out of a contract to go to Arsenal. What I like about England is the passion that fans have for their club, but if that turns to hate then it becomes war. In 2001 why should we accept that?"

Wenger, you suspect, has gained rather more than a replacement for Tony Adams. In doing so, he has probably ensured that Vieira's immediate future is also at Highbury, despite the player's reported criticisms of the club and its players in a tabloid newspaper.

Ostensibly, this appeared another unpalatable case of a player, with the connivance of his agent, attempting to extricate himself from a contract. Whatever the veracity of that belief, Wenger has remained firm and refused to yield to any pressure, real or implied.

"He is not for sale," Wenger confirmed. "And I am not convinced that he is desperate to leave. Any quotes in the paper didn't come from him. Sometimes a player can be put into situations he doesn't want to be in. Patrick has shown a commitment to the club for the last five years. He's idolised by the fans and not here just for the money. I will try my maximum to keep him here. I'm completely, totally confident he will stay."

Wenger is not so much demanding loyalty from Vieira, as expecting him to "respect his contract like I do mine". The manager, who insists that he will resolve his own situation before the season begins, added: "I've been offered two or three times more, but I don't even talk about that because I respect my contract which doesn't expire until 2002. It's important for clubs to keep the power to maintain stability. If players leave at will, then you can be competing for the championship one season and finish 15th the next."

With the coming of Campbell, the purchases of striker Francis Jeffers, midfielder Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and, on Thursday, goalkeeper Richard Wright, Wenger's squad appears equipped to provide a thorough examination for Sir Alex Ferguson in his valedictory season.

Yet, in the Champions' League, doubts about all three English participants remain as Europe's best players are enticed elsewhere by the lure of virtually unrestricted purchasing and salary power.

Arsenal could afford Campbell only because they acquired him free of charge and instead paid a large signing-on fee, which effectively compensated the player for a more "modest" salary than that he would have earned in Spain or Italy. Even Campbell's deal was but loose change compared with the £50m offered by Real Madrid for Juventus's Zinedine Zidane.

Though the Argentinian Juan Veron is understood to be poised to sign for Manchester United from Lazio for £23.5m, he hardly reflects the sum of expectations on Ferguson's close-season wish-list. Nurturing home-grown talent is fine, but a certain number of players have to be imported. The restrictions of wage structures are a dilemma the major British clubs will have to confront before any one of them again harbours serious intent of emulating United's 1999 triumph.

Comments