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Winning promotion is something of a rarity in most players’ careers. While some footballers rise through the divisions on a handful of occasions during their playing days, plenty never get promoted in all their years as a professional.
To win two promotions is certainly a commendable achievement then, but for both to be in the same season would generally be a considered a little unusual. For both promotions to be from the same division and with two rival sides though… that really would be remarkable.
But those strange set of circumstances became reality for Jamal Campbell-Ryce in April 2006, when the Jamaican international enjoyed a season to remember with Southend United and Colchester United – Essex’s only two Football League sides.
“It was brilliant… there’s no better feeling than winning and being successful, and getting two promotions with two clubs in a season,” laughs Campbell-Ryce, as he looks back on a memorable 2005/06 campaign with Football Whispers.
The winger, now 36, began that season with a Rotherham United side recently relegated from the Championship. But despite playing 24 second-tier matches for the Millers, the allure of moving back down south was becoming increasingly hard to resist for a player who had spent most of his early years with clubs in London.
“I was terribly homesick, I was up there on my own without my family,” he explains.
“But I knew that my old manager at Leyton Orient, Paul Brush, was the assistant manager at Southend and was really keen on bringing me in there. So once I’d learned that, I kind of wanted to push through a move and ended up being able to go there. Rotherham played a bit of hardball at the beginning, but allowed me to go in the end.”
Joining the Shrimpers on loan proved to be a good decision, as Campbell-Ryce found himself part of one of the most successful eras in Southend United’s modern history. Steve Tilson’s men had won the League Two play-offs the previous year, and were joint-top of the League One table when he arrived at Roots Hall in September 2005.
“It was honestly one of the best dressing rooms I’ve been in. Everything was just so relaxed, there was never any pressure from game to game,” he remembers.
“We had some really good players. Kevin Maher went on to play over 400 league games, Mark Gower was technically very good and Freddy Eastwood – his goal record for Southend was frightening!
“There was fantastic team camaraderie as well, there were no ‘big time Charlies’. It was like a family environment and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, it was fantastic.
“Credit to the management staff, they recruited the right type of player. People were coming in there wanting to work hard first and foremost, and that helped us go on and be successful.”
Unsurprisingly, Tilson is held in high esteem for his successes on the Essex Riviera, and Campbell-Ryce is effusive in his praise for Blues’ former boss.
“It was like playing for your mate, that’s probably the best way to describe him!” he says.
“Over the years I’ve played for some excellent coaches that were rubbish at man management. But he was actually a decent coach, who knew what he needed to do to get the best out of his players on a day-to-day basis.
“If there was tactical work at training then there was always fun and games at the end of it. He just knew how to manage a squad and everyone bought into him.”
But much to his disappointment, Campbell-Ryce’s time at Roots Hall was over sooner than expected. Rotherham United claimed that the Shrimpers had agreed a £100,000 fee to turn the former Charlton man’s half-season loan into a permanent deal, but that was denied by Southend United at the time. The result was that the winger found himself in footballing purgatory during the early months of 2006.
“I actually didn’t go back (to Rotherham United), my loan ran out and I was still training at Southend – that went on for a good few weeks,” he reveals.
“Then I randomly got a phone call from my agent saying that Colchester United were interested. That was my saving grace really, because it was getting to the stage where I was still at Southend training, but [the situation between Southend United and Rotherham United] wasn’t going to get resolved.
“I was lucky because I went into another really good dressing room, with some very good household names and a very, very talented young manager at the time.”
That manager was current Sunderland boss Phil Parkinson, who was enjoying unprecedented success in north Essex with the Us. Colchester were on the cusp of a first promotion to the Championship, and were involved in a fierce battle for second place in League One when Campbell-Ryce arrived on loan in March.
“It was different; they were flying, but Parky had a very different style of playing. He was very direct and very rigid, in terms of the way the team played,” he explains.
“Everybody knows what Phil Parkinson is like, he likes his teams to be solid and not concede many, then trust his forward players to go and score goals. But it was a little different to at Southend, where it was really free-flowing football. Colchester was probably the complete opposite, but they were two contrasting styles that both got results.
“Parky was completely different (to Tilson), very serious and took his job very seriously – not that Steve Tilson didn’t. But they were just two polar opposite characters. Parkinson wasn’t really interested in banter on the training ground, when we were there we were there to work. He was very meticulous in how we trained and he wanted things done properly, and you can’t knock him for that.
Both footballing philosophies yielded success that season, with Southend first to reach the promised land of the Championship after a 2-2 draw against Swansea City on 29 April 2006 – while Campbell-Ryce was still striving for promotion with Blues’ fierce rivals.
“I’d spent the best part of half a season (at Southend) and made friends there, so it was great,” he reminisces.
“Obviously there was an element of wanting to be there to celebrate with them, but at the same time I was being professional and I was on a great run with Colchester, so wanted to help push them over the line.”
A 0-0 draw away at Yeovil Town saw the side from Layer Road claim second place on the final day of the season, completing a remarkable campaign for both Campbell-Ryce and Essex football. Never before had the two professional clubs from the county reached the Championship, and the winger was able to play a part in both team’s successes.
“To be honest it was quite a dull game!” he recalls, reflecting on the promotion-winning encounter with the Glovers.
“I remember it being really hot and a dry pitch, and it was just nerve-racking – you didn’t want to concede. At the end of the game the release and the celebrations with all the boys… I just don’t think there’s a feeling that could match that, it was fantastic.”
It wasn’t the end of Campbell-Ryce’s association with either club though. The two-time promotion winner rejoined Southend United the following season and went on to make 53 more appearances for the Shrimpers, and is now back at Colchester United as a player-coach of their Under 23 side.
“They were two massive learning curves for me… it was brilliant how one week you were playing under one manager and the next week you were somewhere else, thinking ‘wow, this is completely different',” he concludes.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to both of them. It’s so important to get a squad together that buys into what you’re doing and respects you for it, and both managers had that.
“Those two managers, and the other ones that I’ve played under too, I’ll be trying to take a little bit from everyone, to sprinkle into my management skills.”
Campbell-Ryce certainly has the experience to pass onto the next generation, having played in the Premier League, made 550 professional appearances and even played international football at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Despite all those achievements in the game, his most unique campaign must surely be the year he did the ‘Essex double’ and left a permanent mark on the footballing history of both the region’s Football League clubs.