They say all political careers end in failure. Alastair Campbell won’t give away what happens to Charlie Gordon, the hard-drinking Scottish football manager in his new novel about football, Saturday Bloody Saturday.
But he is hard pressed to come up with many managers who buck the politicians’ trend for their reigns ending in anything other than disappointment.
“Fergie obviously,” he says. Campbell interviewed Sir Alex Ferguson for another book he authored, called Winners: And How They Succeed.
Gordon Strachan was permitted to leave at the end of his contract as Scotland manager and the perception is he failed. “There are not many who leave otherwise,” says Campbell.
The 60-year-old is now forging a new life as writer, strategist and celebrity since stepping down as Tony Blair’s spokesman (he believes Blair left the prime minister post in triumph, cheered as he was out of the House of Commons).
Saturday Bloody Saturday is the fourth book Campbell has written, but the first he has co-authored. Football insight, at least of the type required from within the dressing-room walls, has been provided by Paul Fletcher, who played more than 200 times for Burnley and later became chief executive at Turf Moor.
But as a high-profile fan of Burnley, Campbell is eloquent on football as well as politics.
“I am a frustrated football manager basically,” he says. “The manager [in the book] is Scottish. He started at Rangers then Preston North End, Wolves, Arsenal and then he came to Hearts, where his career ended [he breaks his leg in a match against Celtic].
“In my head he is a combination of Jock Stein but with Brian Clough’s face, when drink is really getting to him.”
Campbell is a Scotland fan although he was brought up in England. He attended the World Cup qualifier against England in June and the must-win match at Hampden against Slovakia in October.
His favourite Scottish sides are Kilmarnock, near where his mother comes from, Celtic and Partick Thistle, whom his Tiree-born father supported. Campbell has an interest in the machinations of Scottish football beyond simply being a football fan.
As a former political strategist, he is fascinated by the goings-on on Hampden’s sixth floor, where the SFA seem pitched against the SPFL in a new battle for relevance. It has been suggested the two bodies should merge. Campbell would agree, but he is not about to send in his CV for the vacant post of chief executive of the SFA.
Saturday Bloody Saturday is set in the 1970s, when Scottish football was in its heyday. “There has been a dip in standing,” he says, stating the obvious.
When his own team won the English First Division title in 1959-60 the team included Scots Adam Blacklaw and Bobby Seith.
“There is an immediate situation which has to be sorted, which is the imminent lack of a chief executive,” he says. “There is a gap there. There also needs to be a clear sense of realistic objective and a strategy to meet that.
“It felt at times like this was happening. But now it appears it’s going through a rough patch.
“The days of there being a sense of the national team being the be-all and end-all have gone so that makes it a lot harder for those running the national structure to get what they want.”
The clubs, particularly in England, are so powerful, he notes.
“My own view is that any organisation will not succeed in the long term unless there is a long-term strategy and everyone is signed up for it. You cannot have a strategy unless you have leadership taking it forward.
“One of the reasons England have not done well is because the Premier League is strategic and the FA is not. I think the FA is getting better but the Premier League is still all-powerful.”
In Germany, he adds, there is a sense the success of the national team is directly related to the success of the league and the clubs. Scotland could benefit from such synergy.
“In whose interest is it to try to fix that?” he asks. “Answer, everybody’s – the SFA, the league and the clubs individually and the Government.
“Look at the rugby this weekend,” he adds. “And the buzz Scotland got from the rugby team doing well. The Scottish Rugby Union has been pretty strategic I’d say.
“My point is if the Germans can do it in a much bigger country with much bigger clubs – I am not saying they don’t have fall-outs but you get a feeling of the clubs being aligned with the Federation. That’s how they’ve built success”.
l Alastair Campbell was speaking at The Spartans Community Football Academy to promote the launch of the new novel, Saturday Bloody Saturday, which is published by Orion Books and is out now.