ARBROATH, Scotland — Dick Campbell doesn’t actually know how many league games he has taken charge of as a manager. “It’s nearly a thousand, isn’t it?” the 69-year-old Arbroath boss tells ESPN. “But it’s over 1,500 if you count all my games as an assistant, too.”
For the record, Campbell has officially registered 993 league games as a manager in Scotland, dating back to his first job at Cowdenbeath in 1987. Friday’s visit to Scottish Championship leaders Dundee United will be 994 and he is on course to hit the 1,000-mark at home to Dunfermline Athletic in December.
There have also been cup ties and games as a caretaker manager, including a 9-0 defeat against Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen while holding the fort at Raith Rovers in 1983. “I was left in charge after the manager went to Dundee United and we played Aberdeen, who had just beaten Real Madrid to win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup a couple of months earlier,” Campbell said. “They beat us 9-nothing. Alex walked me back to the dressing-room with his arm around and said, ‘Learn one thing, son: not once did your players take the p—.’
“What he meant was that there is a time to work and a time to play, and I live and die by that as a manager just as he did — and my boys kept working. Over my years as a manager, I have earned that respect from my players when I walk into the dressing-room. They play for me.”
Ferguson is one of the few managers who can match Campbell for longevity and the former Manchester United boss remains in contact with the man who is now attempting to guide Arbroath, a team of part-time players, into the Scottish Premiership this season.
“We kept in touch over the years and he still calls me ‘son,'” Campbell said. “Even though I’ll be 70 next month!”
But while Ferguson, who retired as Manchester United manager at the age of 71 in 2013 after 2,155 games in all competitions, worked at the highest echelons of the game, Campbell has carved out a career away from the glamour and riches of the top divisions and European football. Of his near-thousand games, just 14 have come in the top division, during a spell as caretaker boss at Dunfermline in 1999.
Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline, Brechin City, Partick Thistle, Ross County, Forfar Athletic and Arbroath, over a period of 36 years, is an array of clubs that would test the dedication and motivation of most. He also overcame a kidney cancer diagnosis in 2011.
“They gave me a couple of months [to live],” Campbell said. “But I was very fortunate. I had an operation, they got most of it out, so I am still here.
“But I was a smoker when I was younger and that’s what caused it. I was a drinker, too. I never treated the game with respect. I treat it with respect now, I just wish that I had done so when I played. But never in my wildest dreams would I think that I would be sitting here now, talking about 36 years as a manager. Never.”
It’s a Monday evening in Perth. The players are training at the Letham Sports Club, an artificial pitch next to a children’s playground in the middle of a housing estate just up the road from McDiarmid Park, the home ground of Scottish Premiership side St Johnstone.
Campbell and his assistant, his twin brother Ian, and 71-year-old first-team coach John Young — “We’re the oldest coaching team in the world,” Campbell says — are preparing for the training session inside the cabin, which doubles up as a clubhouse selling jumbo hot dogs for £2 and ice poles (fruit-flavoured frozen ice) for 20p to the youngsters who also use the pitch.
Perth is halfway between Glasgow and Arbroath, a town of 23,000 people on the North Sea coast. Gayfield, the club’s own stadium in the town, is reputedly the coldest in Britain, with the wind whipping off the sea and crashing against the walls of the ground during the winter. The club’s nickname “Red Lichties” refers to the lights that guided fishing boats back to the harbour, which sits next to the stadium.
Perth is a sleepy town, enlivened only by the Pleasureland funfair which buttresses up against one stand at Gayfield and De Vitó’s nightclub, which bears the image of American actor and comedian Danny De Vito, although it’s unlikely that the Golden Globe winner would ever have found his way to this part of the world. You may have heard of Arbroath, however, if only for the team being famous as the answer to a football trivia question.
In 1885, Arbroath recorded a 36-0 Scottish Cup win against Bon Accord, which remains the biggest-ever scoreline recorded in a competitive fixture anywhere in the world. The Dundee Courier newspaper reported at the time that Arbroath goalkeeper Jim Milne did not touch the ball in the entire game, even spending the second-half sheltering from the rain under a spectator’s umbrella.
Yet Arbroath have done little to trouble the record books since. They are a team that have spent the majority of their existence in Scotland’s lower leagues, and have not played in the top division since their last relegation … in 1974. Beyond that, their semi-professional/part-time status means that they train just two nights per week. They chose to train in Perth because of its central location between Glasgow, Edinburgh and Arbroath, making it easier for his squad to get together after work.
“I’ve got half-a-dozen teachers, one of the lads is a coach, I’ve got painters, welders. Just general jobs,” Campbell said. “We train two nights a week and they come from all over Scotland — what we are doing right now is probably my greatest achievement.”
Despite their limitations in terms of budget and lack of professional status, Campbell has lifted Arbroath from the bottom division since his appointment in 2016 and they now sit in the playoff positions in the Scottish Championship. Another promotion this season would see Arbroath elevated to the same level as Celtic and Rangers.
But their part-time status can sometimes cause problems beyond Arbroath and Campbell’s control, notably the re-arrangement of their fixture against league leaders Dundee United later this month from a Saturday to a Friday night: shifting the game up 24 hours enables United to accurately celebrate the centenary of their name being changed from Dundee Hibernian to Dundee United.
“I think it’s embarrassing, a ridiculous decision,” Campbell said. “They are moving the date of the game because Dundee United changed their name a hundred years ago? You must be kidding me. My boys are either going to lose a day’s pay or they’re going to have to go work at 6 o’clock in the morning and then travel to play the best team in the league.
“I’m very angry, but there’s no point moaning: we just have to get on with it.”
Campbell also has a job outside of football, running a recruitment agency for the past 25 years, having combined his playing days with an 18-year career in the Rosyth shipyard just outside Edinburgh.
“I was a shipwright by trade, so I have never sat around thinking that football has given me a living,” Campbell said. “But I love the game and I’m still here because you need a natural enthusiasm to do anything in life in being around my players and my staff gives me a buzz.
“I’m not here to make money. I’ve been very lucky not to have to rely on football for my livelihood.”
Being able to earn a living outside the game has helped shape Campbell’s managerial career. He has had longevity at Brechin (five years), Forfar (seven years) and Arbroath (seven years and counting), but his financial independence has also given him the ability to be his own man.
He delivers success, but only on his terms.
“You’ve got to be able to make decisions, whether you are a manager or anything else in life,” he said. “If you’re sat on the fencepost and you don’t get off, you’ll still be there the next morning and somebody will shoot you down. So make a decision and get off your a—.”
“If a chairman ever comes to me and says there’s no money left in the budget for a player, I would walk out of the door. If you want to get a player in, but the budget is tight, the easiest way to get a player out is to get one in! That’s how it works. If you see a player coming in that plays in your position, then you want to move on.
“I give total commitment to every chairman I work for, but I won’t talk to them or directors after the game. I’ll speak to them at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning when the emotions have died down, but it’s because I’m experienced. I’ve been doing this a long time, you know.”
Campbell has won six promotions as a manager and four more as an assistant, but he doesn’t want another one this season. Arbroath would be a football fairy tale to end all fairy tales if they were promoted to Scotland’s Premiership, but Campbell places realism ahead of romance.
“This is about our growth,” Campbell said. “Two years ago we were 12 minutes away from immortality (a 2-1 defeat at Kilmarnock after leading until the 78th minute denied Arbroath promotion), but the objective on day one since we came into this division was to stay here.
“When I arrived at the club, we were in the bottom division and sold 300-400 season tickets. We’ve won two promotions since and we now sell 1,500, and our average crowd has grown from 400 to 2,000. We have new facilities, new hospitality areas, all of the seats have been cleaned — and that’s only down to being able to stay in this league.
“We are a part-time club in a full-time environment, let’s not kid ourselves, but by saying that, some stupid supporters might come out and say ‘it’s time for Dick to go.’
“But I’m not interested in going to the Premiership. The club might be, and I’ll do all I can to achieve that, but all I am concerned about is staying in this league.
“I’m a wily old fox and I know we’d be playing every week against full-time teams. Two years ago, I had Sir Alex onto me saying, ‘you can do it, miracles are made by men,’ and all that kind of thing, but no, staying in this division is the priority.”
While the prospect of Arbroath taking on Scotland’s top teams in the Premiership next season doesn’t appeal, there is a sense that Campbell’s enthusiasm for the game would see him happily drop down the leagues again to start another adventure. He also admits that the time is approaching for him to make a decision on his future and where it will lie.
“I’m 70 next month and I’ve got some major decisions to make,” he said. “The club want me to stay on, which I’m not surprised about, but I might look at succession and identify somebody who I think might take my place, although that decision will be with the chairman.
“I’m not actually thinking about calling it a day: I’m quite happy to continue until I’m 80!
“But I’m not stupid. At the end of the day, we need to move on and bring some aspiring some young coaches into the setup because we’re the oldest coaching team in football. John Young has been with me for 40 years!
“So we’ll see what happens, but where do I go from Arbroath? I think there’s still a bit of life left in me yet.”