Alastair Campbell: Sing When You're Winning

He spun the Tories out of office and Britain towards war with Iraq. But there’s one piece of history not even Alastair Campbell’s fiercest critics – the ones who’ve branded him “Bill Sykes’ bulldog”, an “obvious psychopath” and a “big c**t” – could accuse him of sexing up.

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It’s March 1994. Tony Blair is five months away from becoming Labour leader, three years from power. And he’s freezing his arse off in the Rink End of Hartlepool’s Victoria Ground. “That was the only time I got Tony to watch Burnley,” says his former director of communications and strategy.

“It was bloody cold. We were playing in revolting green and black halves. Adrian Heath and Keith Pinder got sent off. We got stuffed 4-1. And across the stadium, we couldn’t miss Peter Mandelson {the well-known football fan and MP for Hartlepool] cavorting around in his Harry Potter club scarf. Horrendous.”

Campbell’s devotion to Burnley is unimpeachable. “My first game was in 1961, when I was four. Burnley were defending league champions and one of the Big Three: us, Man United and Spurs.

“We moved to Leicester when I was 10, then I went to Cambridge University, and the further away a game was, the bigger the challenge. After one night match at Carlisle I could get a lift back to Burnley but no further. I ended up sleeping in a boat in someone’s garden.”

In 1998, with Labour in power, the stakes got a little higher. “I got stuck at an EU summit in Brussels and missed us staying up by beating Plymouth in the last game. So two years later, when we had to win at Scunthorpe on the last day to go up, I was determined to go. But we were in Belfast, bogged down in the peace talks.

“In the end I made my excuses and I felt so guilty about it. I could see Tony staring through me from the other end of the table. We went up, so it was worth it, but I found out later that the talks would have broken up in time anyway – Bertie Aherne had tickets to Man United.”

Despite recent struggles, culminating in the sacking of Steve Cotterill, Campbell puts a positive spin on his 46 years as a fan. “The steady decline from the First to the Fourth was dreadful, but we had no divine right to be up there. And I’ve seen us win in the FA Cup quarter-final, beat Liverpool, go to Leeds and win 4-1 to end Don Revie’s record unbeaten run, win 4-1 at Spurs in the League Cup, go up through the play-offs and play in front of 88,000 at Wembley in the Sherpa Van Trophy.

“But we don’t have money, so for us the parachute payments are a disaster. We seem to have formalised an arrangement where there’s 14 permanent members of the Premier League and then another six or eight teams who go up and down. It’s hard to imagine us ever stabilising as a Premier League club.”

Of course, Campbell would love a season in the sun and a trip to Old Trafford, where the Labour-supporting manager is, he says, “a mate” who turned Campbell’s eldest son Rory into a Red Devil through “sustained psychological pressure”.

He’d fancy a trip to Blackburn, too. “The hatred is extraordinary. When we lost in the 1991 play-offs they flew a plane over Turf Moor with a banner reading ‘Staying Down 4-Ever’. A few years later they lost to a Swedish team in the UEFA Cup and the next morning, someone had changed the signs on the way into town to read ‘Welcome To Burnley, Twinned With Trelleborg’.”

Despite his own credentials, Campbell won’t be drawn into a discussion of which politicians are ‘real’ fans, though he does roll his eyes at the mention of David Cameron’s supposed love of Villa.

“It’s all bollocks,” he says. “People believe what they want to believe. They’ll say Tony can’t be a Newcastle fan because you never see him at St James’, but security becomes such a pain in the arse for everyone that it’s just not worth it. You still hear this myth that Tony said he used to watch Jackie Mi�lburn from the Gallowgate, even though when Tony went on Football Focus they played a clip of the interview which proved he’d said nothing of the sort. You can’t win.

“Gordon Brown got abuse for saying Gazza’s goal against Scotland in Euro 96 was one of the best he’d ever seen. He must have known Scots would attack him for being pro-English and the English would say he was trying to pander to them – but he still said it. No one seems to believe him and think, ‘what if it was one of the best goals he’d ever seen?’”

Some might find it hard to believe too that despite his enemies on both the right and anti-war left, Campbell’s match days are surprisingly quiet. “I don’t get much abuse... to my face. Apart from during the fuel protests when we ran into some Birmingham fans on a train. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I can tell you it wasn’t a policy discussion.

“I’m not exactly scared of confrontation and it started to get a bit heavy. Then one of their mates piled in and said ‘Fuckin’ pack it in lads – this bloke helped get rid of Thatcher’. So they did.”
And with that memory, New Labour’s semi-retired attack dog finally bares his teeth. And laughs.

From the January 2008 issue of FFT