Dick Campbell: Text messages from Sir Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith, leading Arbroath to summit and a rare admission

Much has been made of the phone call Dick Campbell received from Sir Alex Ferguson earlier this month after his part-time Arbroath side reached the top of the Championship.

Dick Campbell has guided Arbroath to the top of the Championship.
Dick Campbell has guided Arbroath to the top of the Championship.

But perhaps the most useful advice he was ever given from his old pal was delivered in person one midweek night in Aberdeen in August 1983.

Then known as “Ricky” Campbell, at least by newspapers he rarely featured in, the newly installed interim manager of Raith Rovers feared his career in the dugout was over before it had started. The Kirkcaldy side had been beaten 9-0 by the newly crowned European Cup-Winners’ Cup champions in a League Cup tie. Worse, the second leg was still to come that weekend.

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Gordon Wallace had upped sticks and gone to Dundee United. Ricky Campbell, then still only 29 and bunnet-less, felt exposed.

Campbell speaks to the linesman during a match against Raith Rovers at Gayfield.

“As we walked up from the dugout to the dressing room, Alex put his arm around me and he said: ‘now you listen to this, not once did we take the piss. Remember that. Not once. No one tried to nutmeg anyone’. And I have learned from that.”

It was a lesson about respecting the game. Be ruthless, yes, but don’t be brash. Don’t be showy for the sake of it. It’s a team game.

Ferguson, now 80 and a knight of the realm, is still looking out for Campbell, 68. He phones, he texts.

“Dick, I don’t know how you’re doing it but you are achieving miracles, three points clear at the top of the league, but I want to congratulate your staff on the job they’re doing,” he writes. “Your brother Ian, like all good brothers he’s keeping you away from those referees!!!”

Arbroath are currently top of the Championship.

There are further shout outs for John Young, Campbell’s loyal first-team coach, who Ferguson played with at Falkirk and managed at St Mirren, and Rab Douglas, the 49-year-old goalkeeper coach who’s still ready and willing to play a part on the pitch if required.

Ferguson signs off by adding: “If you win the league get ready for a trip to Buckingham Palace, they give out honours to people who achieve one thing in their lives, you have been churning out performances since the end of the War!!!”

Campbell appreciated the message(s) because perhaps the most respected man in football had put into words what he already knew. “Without my staff I am f**k all,” he says in inimitable style. Ferguson also left a voice message when Campbell hadn’t answered the first time he called.

“On my answering service, you might have got it, it says ‘sorry I am unavailable, leave a message and I will get back to you,’” relates Campbell. “'Unavailable?? Who the f**k do you think you are?” It’s Alex Ferguson here.'”

Campbell was very close to the late Walter Smith.

He plans to play the subsequent voice message saluting the players and urging them to keep on going on loudspeaker tomorrow afternoon before Arbroath host Inverness Caledonian Thistle in Scotland’s game of the day. Ferguson, a couple of days after becoming an octogenarian, will resume pre-match talk duties above the din of North Sea breakers crashing against the nearby harbour wall as Arbroath seek to hit this season’s initial target of 40 points.

“I have been keeping a lid on the whole thing,” says Campbell. “No one has ever kept a part-time team up for three seasons in a full-time set up. We are part time, the only part-time team in the league. Everyone in this league has aspirations to be in the play-offs or win the Championship. I have no f**king aspirations! I only want to stay in the league! And … you might be the first reporter I have admitted this to … it looks like we might have achieved that.

“We are very, very, very close to achieving the 40-point mark, which would inevitably keep us in the league. Do you know what that means for my football club? Have you seen what is happening at Arbroath? We have tripled the season tickets … I have never seen so many kids running around with Arbroath strips on. It is phenomenal.

“The place is buzzing. Every week hospitality is jam packed. It is just a lovely, lovely place.”

Sir Alex Ferguson recently sent a series of congratulatory texts to Campbell.

These are high times for Arbroath but amid the unlikely promotion push and the glee surrounding local hero Alan Soutar’s success at the World Darts Championships at the Ally Pally, some sadness lingers over the area.

A Red Lichtie has gone out with the news that Ian Stirling, a club stalwart as centre-half and then later as chairman, passed away earlier this month aged 79. His memorial service was earlier this week. Coincidentally, and unaware he had died, Ferguson had brought Stirling’s name up while in conversation with Campbell.

“Alex mentioned him to me … Alex knew Ian, who I enjoyed meeting in the boardroom. He was a lovely human being. Fergie said to me, ‘Dick I was thinking about Ian Stirling, how is he? He was a big dirty bastard, eh?!’

"That’s a back-handed compliment by the way. It is a term of endearment if a striker says that about a centre-half. He was a very good player. I said: ‘Alex, you won’t believe it, he has just died’. Alex was shocked: ‘Never did!' He was very saddened."

Stirling, who retired from playing in his late 20s to concentrate on his successful farming business, has bequeathed a sum of money to the club. The future looks bright.

It seems appropriate to be meeting Campbell in a cafe next to a cinema. His life could be made into a film – though one unlikely to be given a PG certificate – and he’s already begun the process of writing a book. He grants an exclusive with regards the title. “The Bunnet is Back,” he grins.

Campbell and his brother Ian on the touchline.

If the part-timers can keep up their current pace, Arbroath will be playing top-flight football this time next year. It’s a fantasy to rival Encanto, the latest offering from Walter Disney attracting early-rising cinema goers in dribs and drabs on a foul morning on the outskirts of Dunfermline. Campbell orders a latte and muffin. Despite his wanderings, in Angus predominantly, he remains a proud Fifer. He bought a house with his wife, the heroine Ann-Marie, in Lochgelly.

“I am a Hill of Beath boy, I was born on the same street as Baxter,” he says. “All my family come from Hill of Beath. All the family live in Crossgates now, which is next door. I bought a house in Lochgelly because my wife is from Lochgelly.” Six extensions later, they are still in the same house though he is presently fretting about it being washed away.

The weather will account for Dunfermline's clash against Inverness, scheduled for later that night, being called off.

Arbroath’s own game at home against Hamilton Accies has already been postponed. A combination of Covid and injury means Campbell’s return to the dugout after a period of self-isolation has been delayed until tomorrow. Arbroath begin the year three points clear at the top of the league.

They cemented their place at the summit with a 3-0 win at Dunfermline last Sunday. Perhaps demonstrating the secret of the club's success is the fact Campbell was sitting at home a few miles away with a G & T in his hand as his side made it ten league games unbeaten.

He entrusted his backroom team with the preparations. He claims not to have phoned them once as he enjoyed the novel experience of a Boxing Day at home rather than at a football stadium. One of his sons, Ross, the assistant manager at Montrose, set up a stream of the game for him.

“Listen, you don’t get to top of the league unless you are a well organised outfit on the pitch and off it,” he says.

“I have missed the last two games and they have won them. I have not even said to my brother or John what team to pick. They just know.”

It’s one of the many advantages of having a twin as an assistant. “Telepathy”, he says. As if to prove the point, his phone buzzes on the table. Ian, or “Pink” as he is known, is calling from the cemetery where their parents are buried. “It’s that time of year,” says Campbell. “I’ll head up later.”

His twin is the boss on weekdays but underling at weekends. Pink still employs Dick despite some awkwardness on a recent birthday; he bought Dick a Merc, Dick gifted his brother a “scarf and tammy”. Their success away from football means there’s little pressure on them. They are in football because they adore it.

“I am lucky in that I work for my brother during the day in one of the companies,” says Campbell. “We own, both of us, another two companies. The care company Ian owns. The recruitment company, I am the general manager, Ian owns that. But the curtain walling company, there are four directors, we own that. I am no’ dependent on football, I am no' dependent on chairmen telling me where my life is going, that is never going to happen.”

So what now? There’s a suspicion that clubs like Arbroath might not, in the final analysis, want to go up. Hassles such as segregation fences, stadium improvements – or if not that, securing a ground- sharing agreement elsewhere – might be more trouble than it’s worth.

“I have an issue now,” acknowledges Campbell. “Once we reach that mathematical situation where we are not going down, what am I going to do? It’s human nature. I’ve got Arbroath fans, directors, players even, thinking we have a chance here. And I do not want this season to be disappointing because we did not get into the play-offs. We are going to have to have a right go.”

And then what? He is operating without a contract but just seems suited to Arbroath. There’s “unfinished business” at Dunfermline, his local club, though he was not even contacted about their recent managerial vacancy.

“My stock is now higher than it has ever been. I don’t know about (a return to) full-time. My brother thinks there is one more big job for me …”

***************

The last time I sat down with Campbell was in May 2011. He was emerging from a stressful period where he had risked being cancelled before that was even a thing.

Some mobile phone film surfaced of him singing Derry’s Walls on the eve of a Rangers game in Seville. He was there on a works jaunt, one thing led to another, and …

“Stupid … I am not a Celtic man, I am not a Rangers man, I am a Wattie man,” he says, with reference to then Rangers manager Walter Smith, who was one of his closest friends in football. The so-called controversy – debate raged over whether the song could be regarded as sectarian – knocked Tiger Woods’ infidelities off the front page of the News of the World.

He was cancelled in one respect – he lost his position as a senior SFA coach at Largs. “I maybe didn’t lose it,” he says. “I just wasnae asked back!” He wrote a letter to the SFA wondering if this situation was going to continue in perpetuity. He is still waiting for a reply.

More seriously, he had also endured a worrying brush with cancer. He told me he would be happy if he could count on another ten years. Then 57, he meant ten years on god's green earth rather than another decade in management, which he’s had – apart from a few months out of the game after a baffling sacking by Forfar Athletic. Mercifully, he’s been blessed with recent good health.

It has made the recent loss of Smith to the same disease even harder to bear. The pair first became close as young players at Dundee United, occupying shared digs on Seafield Road in Broughty Ferry. Even then, the future Rangers manager was showing signs of leadership qualities.

“If you were not on that minibus at quarter past nine you were left,” Campbell recalls.

“I tell you something, and I said this to Alex Ferguson, see when we went top of the league, he would have been the first guy on the phone to me. He would have been. Archie Knox said that to me. And I know what he would have said: ‘get yerself settled down, you’ve won f**k all.’ That is what he would have said to me.”

Before hundreds of Scottish football’s great and good gathered at Glasgow Cathedral for the memorial service, Campbell was one of a very select band invited to Smith’s funeral. Ferguson on one side of him, Knox on the other.

“Coisty told me, ‘you were the only guy who could talk to Wattie the way you talked to him …’

“Here’s a sad story for you," continues Campbell, eyes watering slightly. "On the Friday, I was on the phone to him. ‘For f*ck’s sake, what’s wrong with you now?’ … ‘Ah Dick, dinnae make me laugh … it hurts.’

‘Big yin, fight it. Mind what you told me, fight it.’

‘Aye, Ok son …’

“Saturday morning, Knox phones me. ‘Dick, you’ve to phone Wattie back … he says he was a wee bit quick with you yesterday, he’s feeling a lot better the day … can you give him a ring?’

“We had a game. I said I will give him a ring next week … And, ach, well, it was too late by then …

“That’s the truth Alan, you are getting the whole truth from me.”

That is never in doubt, Dick. That is never in doubt.

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