Taking over at Macclesfield Town late last year wasn’t Sol Campbell’s first taste of life in League Two. For a man who otherwise spent the entirety of his playing career in the rarefied environment of the Premier League, and picked up plenty of silverware along the way, there was the briefest of detours to England’s basement division.
It came back in 2009, with Campbell at a loose end having left Portsmouth. Just a year after winning the FA Cup, the club had narrowly survived relegation under caretaker manager Paul Hart but was collapsing in on itself. Their best players were leaving in droves as financial uncertainty and fears of a rapid descent set in.
After a summer of speculation about his future, with several top-flight clubs rumoured to be interested, at the end of August the shocking announcement was made that Campbell had signed for Notts County on a five-year contract. He would last just under a month at Meadow Lane as events unravelled rapidly.
Campbell was drawn to Notts County by the promise of working with Sven-Goran Eriksson, who had recently arrived as director of football with a mission of helping the club climb the divisions as quickly as possible.
The shadowy Munto Finance made bold promises, supposedly backed by the wealth of the Bahraini royal family, but it was soon revealed to be little more than a mirage.
Everything was set to change, yet nothing did. Riding a wave of unbridled, and, as it would transpire, unfounded, optimism, Notts County supporters were led to believe that a host of world stars would join the project. Campbell was the first – a clear statement of intent, but one that was never built on.
“I’m looking to the future now,” said the former England defender on his arrival. “Career-wise this sits perfectly for where I am at the moment in my life. I didn't really have to think too much about it. There were offers from the Premier League but that would have been short term. I'm thinking of the future.
“I’ve spoken to all the people concerned with the club and they've guaranteed me of their ambitions to eventually get in the Premier League. From the management to the hierarchy they genuinely think it’s believable.”
That dream was a long way off being realised but Notts County had started the season with serious intent. By the time Campbell joined they were already top of League Two having won three of their first four games, scoring 13 goals in the process. At the other end they had conceded just two, with Kasper Schmeichel, newly recruited from Manchester City for £1.5million, keeping a clean sheet on his debut against Dagenham and Redbridge.
Campbell would have to wait a while for his first appearance as he looked to build up his fitness after a summer spent as a free agent.
His opportunity arrived in the middle of September, as he replaced club stalwart Mike Edwards in the heart of the Notts defence, partnering one-time Republic of Ireland international John Thompson.
Despite a 5-2 win over Northampton Town the previous week their form had faltered somewhat after a promising start. There would be no respite at Christie Park, the ageing and rundown home of Morecambe, where there were terraces on three sides of the pitch, one of which was completely uncovered. The attendance for Notts County’s visit was a little over 3,000.
For a player accustomed to some of the world’s best stadiums, this was an eye-opening experience. So was Campbell’s treatment at the hands of Morecambe defenders when he went forward for corners. Jim Bentley singled him out for some peculiarly close attention, reaching around to hold his chest, in an attempt to make the day as uncomfortable as possible.
And so it proved as Morecambe took the lead from two poorly-defended set-pieces. Bentley, who would go on to manage the club, put them ahead before the break and Paul Mullin doubled their advantage not long after play resumed for the second half.
Notts were on the back foot for much of the game, unable to settle into any rhythm as they struggled to cope with the Shrimps’ direct style of play. They pulled a goal back through Ben Davies, who rattled the post late on along with Craig Westcarr, but couldn’t force an equaliser.
In the final moments Kasper Schmeichel came up for a couple of corners and almost scored with an acrobatic effort that flew narrowly over the bar. Morecambe held on and celebrated their first win of the season at the eighth attempt.
“We did enough to save a point, but their set-plays were a worry for me today,” manager Ian McParland told BBC Radio Nottingham. “It's very disappointing to give two goals away like that. They could've been two up by that stage and we weathered the storm after a shaky start, but then the manner we gave the corner away for the first goal was such a worry.”
It was a demoralising defeat which meant that Notts slipped outside the play-off places to eighth, their lowest position of the season. It was also the first and only time that Campbell would be seen in a Notts County shirt. He left the club three days later complaining of poor facilities and broken promises. He hinted that all was not as it seemed.
At the time it was treated as if Campbell cancelled his contract because he was too impatient, or couldn’t cope with the cut and thrust of a frenetic division, but it didn’t take long for the reality to become clear. Munto Finance was nothing more than an illusion, a confidence trick.
Russell King didn’t have any of the connections or wealth he’d dreamed up, and many, like Campbell, had been misled. Others, Eriksson included, would leave over the coming months as the scale of the deception became clear. Bills mounted up with no means of paying them and a desperate search for an owner resulted in Ray Trew buying the club for £1 in February 2010.
An excellent run of form followed and Notts stormed to the League Two title in this strangest of seasons, finishing ten points clear of Bournemouth in second place. One would continue rising while the other slipped back, with Campbell long gone from the club he’d briefly pledged his future to.