Interview: Dick Campbell on why he won’t walk away just yet

Arbroath manager Dick Campbell's long and successful career is now approaching 1,300 games. Picture: Greg Macvean

Arbroath manager Dick Campbell's long and successful career is now approaching 1,300 games. Picture: Greg Macvean

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If you didn’t know he was the Incorrigible Bunnet of 
Scottish Football – the Indefatigable Flat Cap – you might think Dick Campbell had just given up the game, stopping two years short of a half-century of service.

In Dunfermline on a mild winter’s morning he says things which suggest he’s become scunnered with it. “There isn’t another job like this in the world,” he insists, meaning football manager, “and the whole world has an opinion about him. They can phone up his chairman. They can phone up your newspaper. They can go on Twitter and give it full blast. These people could be paedophiles or have a prison record and no one will ever know. And the chairman, he could listen to them. I’ve had chairmen say to me: ‘I cannae walk down the street, Dick, without folk 
telling me how poorly the team are doing.’ I’ve told them: ‘Here’s what to do: dinnae walk down the street.’”

We’re in the offices of the recruitment firm run by Campbell’s twin brother Ian where our man works Monday to Friday. “From a recruitment point of view,” he continues, “football management is a strange one. It’s the only profession in the world that gets rid of experience, just ditches it.”

And then, endearingly, the boss of Manchester City causes some confusion and Pep Guardiola becomes Pep Gladioli. “I heard him on TV the other day saying he doesn’t coach his defenders in tackling. How does that even work?” Some would argue that thus far for Manchester City it doesn’t. Challenging for the ball like a gladioli, or like gladioli-loving Morrissey, won’t win you anything.

Is football moving too fast for the 63-year-old Fifer? Are the names getting more befuddling, the philosophies more baffling? Not a bit of it. “I’m a better manager now than I’ve ever been,” he affirms, which is good news for Arbroath, the current posting in a career which, phantasmagorically, is homing in on 1,300 matches. That’s a lot of dugout duty, a lot of bunnet action. Beats me why Marks & Sparks, suppliers of his headgear, didn’t seize this golden endorsement opportunity.

There have been a few moments recently when, if you weren’t familiar with Campbell, you might have thought he’d be tempted to hang up his hat, not least in the wake of dismissal by Forfar Athletic. After his longest stint anywhere – seven and a half years - that was a shock. “I didn’t see it coming. I thought I’d be there for ever.”

And of course there was the moment he found out he was suffering from cancer, and every three-monthly check-up there’s been since that day. Surely one of those made him go: ach, you know what? I’ve had enough of chairmen, sackings, defeats, rain, sodden bunnets.

“I could have had two months left,” he says, “or I could have had two years. Next March it’ll be seven years since I was diagnosed. I was lucky: the cancer was on the outside of my kidneys so on one of them it was sliced off like a piece of cake while on the other was sorted with keyhole surgery. If it had been on the inside I wouldn’t be here today. So I go for my check-ups where life expectancy isn’t mentioned – the doctors don’t want to put themselves in that position. I don’t take anything for granted. You live with cancer, it never really goes away.”

But then a funny thing happens. I mention the winds of change blowing through Scottish football, the new regime at Hearts featuring the so-called hipsters, Ian Cathro and Austin McPhee. Campbell’s shoulders twitch and he starts talking faster and louder. “I don’t know the boys and the best of luck to them, by the way, but it’s not as if they’re in total charge – Craig Levein’s there, a Cowdenbeath boy. Young managers when I was one of them had to do everything, including ordering the pies.

“Football has to change, nothing wrong with that, but you can’t take someone straight from apprentice welder and make him the boss. I’m not saying that’s what’s happened here, these boys obviously have a track record. But I reckon they’d be quite happy to achieve half of 1,300 games in management. To all young coaches I say I’ll give them a run for their 
money. Maybe some of them cannae put six eggs in a box.”

Maybe some of them haven’t got Campbell’s way with a quirky quote, although that may come with experience. Last Saturday after a hard-fought Arbroath victory at Forfar, he quipped: “That’s the weans got their snakes and ladders for Christmas.” Some quotes he’ll polish for repeat use. “I’d get sent off in the warm-up now” is a favourite, illustrating the intolerance of referees. Others are unintentional gems, such as “There’s no mystique about Brechin City” and “Peterheid’s Peterheid – you know what like they are.”

That win over his old club got the couthie Campbell’s juices flowing, as will Arbroath’s New Year derby against Montrose and his sons Iain and Ross. The Red Lichties currently occupy one of the play-off places in League Two and he’d love to get them promoted. “I’m not in football to stabilise clubs; it’s championships that excite me. When I lose a game I’m worse than ever. The taste of defeat I hate more than ever.

“And okay I’ve had cancer but what else apart from football am I going to do? I’m not a shopper. The garden? I like lying in it, don’t much fancy 
digging it. I like golf but there’s only so many games you can play. I love looking after my six grandchildren but I also like giving them back. So am I going to spend my Saturdays wandering round Dobbie’s? Sorry but I don’t think so.

“I can’t see me retiring. I can’t see me ever walking away from football. Football will leave me. But the only way it will do that is if it takes my life.”

Campbell says he isn’t thinking about the magic 1,300 or the amazing half-century; the most important anniversary recently has been the 40 years he and Ann-Marie have been married. It was his wife’s birthday the day before our chat, they were treated to dinner by their youngest Ross, and he says with genuine sympathy: “She doesn’t much care for football.”

But his longevity astonishes him. More than that he reckons it will flabbergast his peers during a determinedly unspectacular spell as a player. “Never ever would anyone around at that time have thought I would reach this echelon and the most astonished would be my brother. I was a smoker, I was a drinker and I probably didn’t treat the game with proper respect. Ian was as a PE teacher and a fitness fanatic. Still is. He cycles every day. What a pain in the arse!”

He’s joking. He knows his brother is right to be encouraging him, in his recovery, to do more to keep the old heart beating. Ian is managing director of Avenue Scotland while Dick is general manager. At Gayfield the roles are reversed. The pair have worked side-by-side in football for most of what will next year be 30 years on the touchline for Campbell. If Ian wasn’t there still he would almost certainly have quit.

He considers what it’s like to be a twin, pointing out – and I’d guess not for the first time – that he’s the older of the two by 25 minutes. “We’re telepathic, you know. As a boy growing up in Cowdenbeath I broke the ulna bone in my arm in the wee woods by the local colliery, swinging on a trapeze, and on the same day Ian broke his ulna. When we were older at the dancing in the Garrison in Kirkcaldy I had a premonition Ian was in trouble. Sure enough, down the other end of the hall, he was. I sorted that out. I’ve always been the more aggressive of the two of us, you see. Then much later when Airdrie United’s players were on a lap of honour thinking they’d won promotion, and Chris Templeman scored for Brechin in the 94th minute meaning it was us who went up, I was thinking about our dad who’d died the week before and so was Ian. There’s not a day when we don’t speak to each other.

“I like to joke that I left school to serve my time as a shipwright so Ian could be put through college but the truth is we were miner’s boys, part of a family of seven, who were only rich in one thing: love. We got hand-me-down bikes, shoes and football boots. Dad learned us the hard way. For Christmas we got an apple and an orange and there might have been a ball to be shared between the four boys. Dad couldn’t afford anything else so we came to appreciate everything. We never had a front-door key. Why would anyone have broken into our house? Someone did in 1962 and left us a shilling!”

That’s another line he’s almost certainly used before – possibly as he tours the Kingdom of Fife and beyond, passing his old pal Jim Leishman on the after-dinner circuit – but I’ll let him off. As a youth Campbell played in the same Townhill team as Leish and Ian Dair when, as he puts it: “I scored 103 goals in a year; I was the rage then.” At 15 he had a try-out at Liverpool, then Dundee United, before slipping down the divisions. “I was a dirty b*****d,” he says, summing up his abilities, while pointing out he’s been 
“indicted” into Brechin’s hall of fame. Possibly he means “inducted”; then again maybe not.

Management has made him a Jag, a Staggie, a Par, a Loon and a Blue Brazilian as well as returning him to Glebe Park. What was it like managing his sons at Forfar? “Hard. I remember Fergie [Alex Ferguson] telling me how difficult it would be. The easiest thing would have been to not play my boys but because I didn’t want anyone accusing me of nepotism I don’t think I was fair to them. They had it tough.”

Football runs deep in this clan. 
Eldest son Paul was at Dunfermline and all three have Scottish representative honours, with Paul and Iain now working for their dad and his brother at Avenue. Campbell’s late older 
brother Peter played for the Army while his uncle was a Cowdenbeath legend – Alex “Big Ming” Menzies.

Campbell has suffered the promotions and relegations of outrageous fortune, the snakes and ladders if you like. At the end of the longest tumble from a ladder he found himself on the front page of the now-defunct News of the World after being filmed singing The Sash with Rangers fans in Seville. “It was a corporate do. I’d had too much to drink. The biggest regret of my life.” More entertaining was his cameo on TV prank show Beadle’s About. “When I was at Dunfermline Hamish French, Andy Tod and myself had to pretend to be council workers called to the house of this mad Raith Rovers fan. We were removing his Raith garden gnomes and his Raith plant-holder wheelbarrows when he arrived home from his work, none too chuffed!”

Campbell’s toughest day, though, was the discovery of his cancer. “I was a smoker all my life until that point. If I’ve got any retribution in my life it’s this: I can’t understand how I ever took a cigarette, how I could do what I did to the people who love me. I’ve never wanted another fag since the day my brother and my three sons got to see on the consultant’s screens what the cancer had done to me. They got very upset. But as I say I’ve been one of the lucky guys.”

Among the messages he received from well-wishers was a letter from friends of a cancer sufferer in 
Glasgow who asked if he could write a letter of support to their pal. “This bloke wasn’t supposed to have long to live. I told him what I’d be doing: not letting the cancer beat me, attacking it right back. Two years passed and I got invited through to Glasgow to speak at what I was told was a dinner for a cancer charity. It turned out to be a big party for the guy with a massive banner on the wall: ‘There’s only one Dick Campbell.’ That was really humbling.”

Campbell is in no doubt that a positive outlook helps and he’s also convinced that football management is the well from which he should still be supping. “It’s the greatest thing in the world to be able to stand in front of a group of men – all walks of life, some intelligent, some waccy-baccy – and mould them into a team,” he says.

He repeats: what else is he going to do with his Saturday afternoons? He jumps in the car with his coaching staff – brother Ian and the two Johns, Young and “Mabawsa” Ritchie. “If we win we go for a pint. If we lose we go for a pint. I don’t worry about how long I’ve got left. If they come and take me away, that’ll be that. There won’t be an awful lot more I wished I’d done.”

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