Alastair Campbell: 'I do know what it's like to be scared of losing'

The media manager of the Lions' New Zealand tour reflects on his 'remember Kosovo' speech, the Gavin Henson affair and his part in a fiasco. Brian Viner continues our series of interviews with key sporting figures of 2005
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It is the season of goodwill to all men, not a sentiment with which many people associate Alastair Campbell.

On the other hand, what better time for a little end-of-year revisionism? There were those who practically cast Campbell as Wormtail to Sir Clive Woodward's Lord Voldemort during the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer, viewing the tour's media manager as a malign, skulking presence, spinning the truth and weaving half-truths, scarcely less responsible than the Dark Lord himself, Woodward, for the humiliating 3-0 defeat to the All Blacks. Frankly, I thought that was pitching it a bit strong.

But then hyperbole was on the cards from the moment Campbell was hired. Woodward wanted a big hitter as his media manager, and they don't hit bigger than the man who had stalked the corridors of power as the Prime Minister's head of communications. Maybe the appointment flattered the coach's ego; maybe he thought Campbell was the best man for the job; in all likelihood a little of both. Whatever, Campbell has agreed to rake it all up on condition that I give some publicity to Leukaemia Research, the charity for which he is fund-raising chairman. He does a damned good job, too, by all accounts, yet his reputation precedes him even up the stairs of the Leukaemia Research offices near High Holborn in London.

"Come," says the jolly receptionist to The Independent's photographer, Robert Hallam, and me, "and meet the beast in his lair."

In fact, I have met the beast before, at a dinner party given by mutual friends. Socially, he is excellent company, so garrulous on mineral water that one wonders what he was like when he was a drunk. Of course, there was a time when a non-drinker, even one with a hard-drinking past, would have fitted into a Lions tour about as comfortably as a pink tutu. But times have changed. And Campbell insists that, despite everything, he really enjoyed himself.

"There were two sides to it," he says. "Almost without exception my dealings with the players and the management went really well and I have stayed in touch with quite a few of them, like Clive, obviously, and Gareth Thomas, who's an absolutely belting character, and Josh Lewsey, who came to my kids' school the other week. I didn't deal with the media particularly well on a personal level, but I think that was because a lot of them didn't want me to."

One journalist admitted to him that the press pack went on tour with the pugnacious collective view that he might have regularly browbeaten political hacks in his Downing Street role, but he bloody well wasn't going to push them around. At any rate, it was never likely to be the easiest of relationships, and indeed Campbell warned Woodward beforehand that he had "baggage". But Woodward wanted him, and Woodward tends to get what he wants, series wins against the All Blacks excepted.

Their liaison began on Hampstead Heath. "I have this favourite bit of the Heath where I like to go," Campbell says. There are, I tell him, quite a number of chaps who say the same. He obliges me with a sharp laugh that, if it were anyone else, might be tinged with embarrassment. "Not that bit," he says.

Anyway, there he was running with his phone in his pocket, for even though he is no longer at the Prime Minister's beck and call he has not lost the habit of carrying it at all times. When it rang that day on the Heath, the caller was a man he had never met. "Alastair, it's Clive Woodward. I got your number from Tessa Jowell."

Campbell listened to Woodward's proposal, and said he'd think about it. Then, in the time-honoured fashion of two men hatching a sporting plan, they met at a motorway service station, where they were slightly thrown by an employee who guilelessly came over to ask if he could take a photograph of them.

"I thought, 'Better not'," recalls Campbell. "It will find its way straight to the Daily Mail or some other wretched organ of our national media. So I suggested that I would take a photograph of him with Clive, and then Clive would take a picture of him with me." Masterful! Keeping the guy happy while denying him what he had asked for! Woodward knew he was sharing an Eccles cake with the right man.

Campbell, however, wasn't sure. "My sporting interests, in order, are football, athletics, cricket, rugby and golf. But he said, 'Don't want you for your rugby knowledge, I want you for your experience in crisis management, and dealing with the media'. Tessa had told me he would wear me down, and he did."

Neither Campbell nor Woodward, principal and vice-principal of the Edith Piaf school of regrets, will admit to getting much wrong in New Zealand. But hiring Campbell for his skill in crisis management might just have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. After the first Test, in which the captain, Brian O'Driscoll, was spear-tackled out of the series, the media manager was accused of orchestrating the indignation so that the playing inadequacies of the Lions were overlooked. Later, the press howled that his fingerprints were all over the "spontaneous" photograph of Woodward ambling along amiably with the supposedly disaffected Gavin Henson.

Even if he was guilty as charged, the truth is that, six months later, both crimes seem a sight less heinous then they did at the time. In any case, Campbell denies them. He says that he got on well with Henson and that the Welshman in his controversial book stuck the boot in only because his agent was dealing with the Daily Mail, the newspaper Campbell abhors, a feeling that is entirely mutual.

"I think they thought they could get a few bob more with some barbs at me. As for the O'Driscoll tackle, we said and did nothing, looking back, that we weren't absolutely entitled to do and say. The press themselves couldn't resist making it about me and spin, but I thought that was ridiculous. We played badly in that first Test and nobody pretended otherwise."

Prior to the second Test, Campbell was invited by Woodward to give a rousing talk to the players. In it, he invoked images of Kosovo, and was later lambasted for equating rugby with war. It's worth remembering that Woodward brought in the Marines to help prepare his England players for the 2003 World Cup, and was praised for his ingenuity, so maybe the only thing wrong with Campbell's talk was that the Lions subsequently lost. That said, several players, among them the eloquent Ben Kay giving an interview to the Sunday Times, felt strongly that Campbell had no right to say what he did.

"One or two of them had an issue with it and raised it to my face," Campbell recalls, "and I have a lot more respect for people like that." Was Kay among them? "No."

A sigh. "Look, it's been described as a pre-match team talk. It was days before the match. I was talking to Clive and Ian McGeechan in a hotel bar in Christchurch. I said I'd been through a lot of campaigns and crises, so-called and real, and that there always comes a point - whether it's the fuel protest, or foot and mouth - at which the people dealing with it wake up with a feeling in the pit of their stomach that if they don't get their act together they're in trouble. It happened in relation to Kosovo, to Northern Ireland, and all I was saying was that I didn't feel like I was in that sort of atmosphere. I didn't feel like there was psychological pressure being put up on people to dig deep.

"Later, Clive came back to me. He said, 'I've been thinking about this. The players hear me, Ian, Andy [Robinson], talking all the time. Why don't you say to them what you've been saying to me, and don't hold back?' So I didn't. I was conscious that some wouldn't like it, but the idea was to provoke a reaction. I said, 'I know nothing about rugby compared with you guys. You put your bodies on the line, I know that. But I've been in situation where a feeling gathers within a team, and I don't feel it here.'

"I referred to the fact that during an election campaign, there's a day when the polls come in and you're way behind. That during a military campaign, there's the moment when the Prime Minister gets a phone call saying X number of soldiers have been killed. I'm not saying that's comparable with rugby, I was giving examples of the feeling that things are not going right, so you either dig really deep and come out fighting, or think, 'Ah well, there you go'.

"Several players came up to me afterwards and said, 'That needed saying'. I knew that others were unhappy. Ben seemed to think that I was questioning his commitment, but that was to misunderstand the point, which was to make them think in a different way. Some of them asked, 'When has he ever put his head on the ground with the boots flying in?' The answer was never, but I do know what it's like to be scared of losing."

Campbell also knows what it's like to feel the gale force of the media's disdain, and warned Woodward to expect no quarter.

"I was impressed with the way he handled it. He's a very clever, driven guy, and I'm sure he'll be successful in football. I think it's fantastic that he's giving it a go. There are these Alan Hansen types, like trade unionists, saying, 'The way we've always done it is best'. Well, let's see."

And what of the managerial future of another driven guy Campbell counts as a good friend, Sir Alex Ferguson?

"I don't know how it will end. All I know is that he's a fantastic football manager and a fantastic bloke, one of the top 10 people I know in terms of strength of character. During some of my difficulties he was always phoning up. A true friend, he told me, is the person who walks through the door when everyone else is walking out."

Disappointingly, Campbell says that he is not about to walk through the door at Old Trafford, to do a bit of crisis management for Fergie. After all, if the Manchester United manager needs anyone to stoke his paranoia towards the press, Campbell is just the man.

"I watched the BBC Sports Personality of the Year," he says, "and it occurred to me that all the top people there, with the possible exception of Pele, had had the British media into them at one time or another. During Euro 2004, I heard Peter Schmeichel saying that England could win but the media would hold them back. I didn't know what he meant, but then Phil Neville said that with 20 minutes to go against Portugal the players started to think about the hammering they were going to get in the media. Eventually, you reach a point where you realise it doesn't matter. Whether you're Clive Woodward, Alex Ferguson or Tony Blair, you just do your job."

With, in Blair's case if not Ferguson's or Woodward's, the odd interruption to watch a spot of foreign football on the telly. Campbell volunteers this information after I have sought clarification, as they say in political circles, on the authenticity of the Prime Minister's affection for the national game.

"Let me tell you about Tony. He watches a lot of football, not just British, but Italian and Spanish. He would go to more matches if it weren't such a fag for other people. He doesn't pretend that sport is the first thing that drives him when he wakes up in the morning, but Seb Coe, a great bloke, has said to me that the Olympic bid wouldn't have been won without Tony. And he phoned all the time while we were in New Zealand. He phoned before the first Test to speak to Clive, before the second to speak to Gareth, before and after the third, but if I'd briefed that, it would just have been interpreted as Tony Blair trying to get in on the act."

Why he might have wanted to is the bit that's tough to comprehend.

Good runs for your money

To run the following events in 2006 in aid of Leukaemia Research, contact 020-7405 0101 or

2 April Asics Breakfast Run

23 April Flora London Marathon

7 May BUPA Great Edinburgh Run

20-21 May The Great Blenheim Triathlon

21 May BUPA Great Manchester Run

11 June Edinburgh Marathon; Royal Windsor Triathlon

25 June Chiquita Bananaman Chase

16 July Leukaemia Research Bananaman Triathlon

5-6 August Michelob ULTRA London Triathlon

1 October BUPA Great North Run

22 October BUPA Great South Run