Wenger backs Campbell to defy hate

Defender faces a venomous response as he returns to White Hart Lane for the final time
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The Independent Football

For what will surely be the last time in an Arsenal shirt tonight, Sol Campbell will enter the tunnel at White Hart Lane, reacquaint himself with the familiar surroundings and stride forward towards the light, the noise and the inevitable, unremitting abuse.

Since he walked out of Tottenham almost nine years ago to join Arsenal, Campbell has been back on six occasions and never once been on the winning side, although none of those games have been as important as tonight's. If Arsenal are to overtake Manchester United in second place and keep the pressure up on Chelsea in the title race then they simply have to beat their old north London rivals.

It was November 2001 that Campbell first ran out at White Hart Lane as an Arsenal player and he does so tonight because Arsène Wenger has precious few other options. William Gallas is out until probably the end of the season and Alex Song who deputised at centre-back this season is sidelined for the next two games leaving the Arsenal manager with his 35-year-old veteran.

It is also a game of huge significance for Tottenham for whom only victory will prop up their faltering bid for fourth place and the Champions League – crucial now that they missed out on the FA Cup final. It will only serve to make for an even more pressurised atmosphere. Arsenal, without Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin, Gallas, Song and Aaron Ramsey, are also fighting to keep their season alive.

To judge by Wenger's mood yesterday, he did not hold out much hope that things had changed in the minds of Tottenham fans since that first time in November 2001 when Campbell was part of an Arsenal team that would have won at the Lane were it not for Gus Poyet's injury-time equaliser. Arsenal went on to win the title that season, but the memory of that afternoon also burns strong.

"The first time was terrible, but he did well," said Wenger yesterday, recalling an occasion on which the windows of the Arsenal team bus were bricked. "I believe he [Campbell] knows how to handle it and focuses on the game. Look, it is simple, he is an Arsenal player now. When he was looking to regain his fitness he came back here so he considers himself an Arsenal player. That's how I look at it."

The Arsenal team that Campbell played in on his first return to Spurs included battle-hardened types such as Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Ray Parlour and Lauren; a very different kind of team to the one that Wenger will trust in to deliver him three points tonight. As for Campbell he is hardly the 26-year-old, man-in-his-prime that he was almost nine years ago.

Having first agreed to Campbell's request to train at Arsenal to regain his fitness when he left Notts County, Wenger re-signed the player in January although the chances of a contract next season look slim. Wenger does, however, find himself asking the most controversial signing of his 13 years at Arsenal to play a key part in what would be a remarkable third title for Campbell if Arsenal could overhaul Chelsea.

"[In 2001] Sol made a choice," Wenger said. "At the time we had a winning side, he wanted to play for titles and you cannot stop him doing that. You have the right to go wherever you want when you're out of contract. Jamie O'Hara was a youngster here. At the end of the day he went to Tottenham and is making a good career there, so good luck to him.

"[The unforgiving is] the culture of England. You have the example of Pat Jennings who played for Arsenal and Tottenham. It was not only Sol who has played for the two teams and maybe Jennings is more Tottenham than Arsenal in people's memories. The bitterness had not come from what is happening now, it has come from the fact Sol left them on a free for Arsenal."

There is no doubt that for all his experience, Campbell can at times be a vulnerable link in Arsenal's defence and tonight he will be under intense scrutiny in what will surely be his final visit to White Hart Lane. Wenger said that the player had been "in no-man's land" towards the end of his first spell at Arsenal in 2006: "He [Campbell] wondered: 'Where do I go from here?' He went to Portsmouth, where he realised life at the top is life at the top," Wenger said. "Sol is a guy who wants to live with challenges. He gave himself a challenge to come back to the top and I give him a lot of credit for that. If you can convince Sol of a target, he will go for it without any weakness."

He hinted that Campbell might even call time on his career this summer – "Maybe he will not want to play, I don't know what he will want to do" – and if he does it will be the end of one of the more unusual careers in modern English football.

A very private man, Campbell's worst moments have nevertheless always been very public. He should really have been the next England captain when David Beckham got the job in 2000 and, recent history suggests he left Arsenal too early.

Wenger recalled a moment that convinced him of Campbell's heart. "I remember Sol's big challenge after 10 minutes of his first game back at White Hart Lane," he said. "That's when he showed he was a man. You always wondered how much impact the pressure would have on him but he showed straight away, 'I am ready for the challenge'."