Allan Campbell: I want to be Scotland's next English Premier League star
If you were to ask Motherwell fans who their most important player was going into the new Scottish Premiership season, the results may surprise you.
Rival fans would suggest David Turnbull was the odds-on favourite for that vote, followed by other attacking stars like Chris Long or Jermaine Hylton. Perhaps Declan Gallagher may get an honorary mention as the club’s captain. However, there’s another player that would most likely pip them all to top spot.
I’m of course talking about Allan Campbell. The 22-year-old midfielder may not often score the winning goal for Motherwell or keep them out at the other end, but for the last three seasons the young box-to-box talent has been doing just about everything else in Stephen Robinson’s side.
While Turnbull may be the sharp end of the Motherwell spear, Campbell is unquestionably the thrust that forces opposing teams to their knees. Last season he featured in every single Premiership match as his team overcame expectations to finish third. Over the course of Robinson’s remarkably successful 144 games to date at the Fir Park side Campbell has featured in all but 26.
Indeed, the rise of these two Scottish football success stories are undoubtedly intertwined due to the simple fact that each relies upon the other entirely. And so far it seems to be working fantastically well for the club.
“He’s been brilliant for me,” Campbell tells TheTwoPointOne, when asked about the impact his manager has had on his career to date. “Robinson and his coaching staff are really hands on. The way they look into analysing all of our games, then transferring that on to the training pitch and getting their points across and making sure it comes across on the Saturday. We’ve taken on the tactics the manager has given us and tried to do it right. And we’ve seen a lot of success there.”
Robinson’s talents as a tactician and Campbell’s ability to enact them on the pitch are undoubtedly at the heart of what makes Motherwell tick. Each season the Fir Park side see a huge turnover of players come and go, yet central to any system or formation the Northern Irish manager has used - and they have varied wildly from tenacious and defensive to fast-paced and gung ho - is Campbell in the middle of the park.
For example, in Campbell’s first full campaign in the first team (2017/18) he played primarily as a defensive midfielder in Robinson’s robust and dogged side and finished the season 11th in the division for defensive duels per game. In the next season, as Motherwell transitioned into a more attacking side, Campbell’s role also shifted and he finished the season with more key passes (a pass that leads to a shot) than Tom Rogic, Scott Arfield and Niall McGinn. Last season, without the talismanic Turnbull in the team, he finished third in the club’s goalscoring charts across all competitions.
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When I, rather bluntly, ask Campbell to define his position he suggests he’s “probably” a box-to-box midfielder. “I like to be in the thick of things and right in the middle of the park, defending and attacking,” notes the midfielder. “I try to break up play, keep it simple and pass it forward and then last season my aim was to get a couple more goals and break forward and get into the box. I’ve been trying to add to my game each year and just keep improving myself.”
It’s that last point - the one about constantly improving - that comes up time and time again throughout our conversation. It hangs on the end of every answer like a useful bookend. Yet with Campbell it seems to be something that resides at the forefront of his mind rather than some quirky PR trick he’s been taught.
And why shouldn’t it? Despite his young age, Campbell marauds across the pitch with a confidence that illustrates his talents but doesn’t go so far as to betray him as an arrogant youngster that has earned his wings all too easily. Hard work is not only how Campbell has got to where he is but it also seems to be the thing he craves most because it means he still has something to overcome.
Indeed, that next test may be just around the corner. Motherwell pride themselves on selling their best players to fund the next generation of young stars and like Louis Moult, Cedric Kipre, James Scott and perhaps even Turnbull, Campbell will undoubtedly be attracting the attention of richer clubs in bigger leagues.
“Definitely,” says Campbell when asked if he has intentions of playing at a higher level one day. “I think as a football player you should always strive to get better and better. So I strive to get to the highest league that I can but I need to make sure I perform at Motherwell first before I can even do that. Obviously I’ve got goals and ambitions but I’m just taking them one step at a time and just focusing on the now.”
Intriguingly, Campbell is well placed to gauge how his talents would fair down south. Not only has he gone toe-to-toe with some of the best young players in Europe over the last two years while playing for the Scotland U21s - Donyell Malen, Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to name just a few - but he’s also watched from afar as his Premiership contemporaries have, one by one, took the plunge and proved that the step up isn’t nearly as big as many would suggest.
“They’re not just playing, they’re putting their stamp on games” notes Campbell with glee when asked about the success of John McGinn, Billy Gilmour and Andy Robertson in the English Premier League over the last 12 months. “They're players that I look up to and I strive to get to that level and do well at that level. I believe in myself that I can get to that level. It's just about doing the hard work.”
Hard work followed by fame and glory seem to be on the horizon for Campbell yet before all of that can come to fruition he has a new Premiership campaign before him. When asked if another remarkable third-place finish is what he and his teammates will be aiming for this season I get the same, tired slogan that everyone at Motherwell has been reciting since Robinson began performing miracles at Fir Park: “The main focus is to stay in the league.”
Yet you’ll struggle to find a season ticket holder in the Phil O'Donnell stand that thinks Motherwell will be fighting relegation this season. Or one that isn’t giddy with excitement at the thought of another season watching the “Lanarkshire Kante” do his thing in the middle of the pitch. One day Campbell may move on to bigger and brighter leagues, but for now he remains pivotal to one of the most impressive teams in Scottish football.