Losing one of your best players is bad enough for any football fan, but seeing him join your biggest and most hated rivals is almost unthinkable. Well that’s just what happened Sol Campbell left Tottenham to sign for Arsenal in one of the most shocking transfers in English football.
Campbell was the first player to cross the North London divide since Kevin Stead in 1978, and one of only nine players to move from Spurs to the Gunners in their history at the time; but it was the nature in which he made the move which still sticks in many Tottenham fans’ throats to this day.
Journalists had been summoned to Arsenal’s London Colney training ground on July 3, 2001, on the assumption that the Gunners would be announcing Richard Wright as their new goalkeeper; but what would be making the headlines that evening was a transfer of epic proportions that few could have predicted several months before.
Players moving between Tottenham and Arsenal hadn’t always been such a big deal with the likes of Jimmy Robertson, Willie Young and Pat Jennings playing for both sides with the big Irish ‘keeper still a legend with both sets of supporters. The problem was the way that Campbell went about it.
Beginning his career at West Ham he continued his progression in the youth ranks at White Hart Lane before breaking into the first team and making his Spurs debut in December 1992, scoring on his first appearance and quickly endearing himself to the fans despite struggling to hold down a first-team place in those early days.
Campbell eventually became a regular in the Spurs back-four but found himself playing in a side which was struggling to make an impact in the league, although he was made captain and had the honour of lifting the League Cup at Wembley in 1999.
He was seen as the rock that held the side together and quickly became adored by the home faithful while being widely regarded as a key figure in a Tottenham team which often failed to impress; but such prominence quickly brought him to the attention of other teams across Europe and in England – in particular Arsenal.
Despite speculation about his future Campbell gave little away as he approached the final 12 months of his contract in 2001 without putting pen to paper on a new deal as the first signs of a possible move became apparent even though the player continued to deny transfer talk on an almost daily basis.
However, the biggest turning point in the saga came in May of 2001 when the defender rejected a new contract offer from the Tottenham claiming they didn’t meet his requirements which was reported to be £20 million over three seasons; Tottenham Executive Vice-Chairman, David Buchler, described his demands as: “ridiculous and unacceptable.”
Already resigned to losing their favourite son Spurs fans would be delivered another hammer-blow when, despite interest from Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Liverpool it would be bitter rivals Arsenal who would offer him what he wanted and he signed for the Gunners on a free-transfer that summer.
The inevitable backlash quickly followed from Spurs fans who believed they had been betrayed by a mercenary who held little regard for the club and was simply looking to move elsewhere for more money in a post-Bosman era which had given players more power than ever before.
And to make matters worse his move to Tottenham’s most bitter rivals would coincide with a gloriously successful period for the Gunners and their new recruit who went on to win two Premier League titles, three FA Cups and appear in the Champions League final of 2005 in the red and white of Arsenal.
Despite the immense hostility and abuse which was shown towards the player , particularly in the seasons immediately after the move Sol Campbell appeared unfazed and very matter-of-fact about the whole ordeal.
“It was a move that I needed to make,” he would later claim. “Going to Arsenal was a big progression for me. Everything about Arsenal was better than Spurs at the time from the players, management to the mentality of the club and the facilities.
“I wanted to improve myself as both a person and a footballer. It was a highly controversial move and Spurs fans have not forgotten it, but it was the best thing that I could have done for myself.”