By Jason McKeown
Bobby Campbell was the very definition of a cult hero. The stories and the exploits of the Northern Irishman are woven into the fabric and culture of Bradford City. I, like thousands of other current season ticket holders, never saw Bobby play, but we all knew who he was and what he meant to the generations of fans who did.
Over nearly eight seasons, Bobby wrote himself into the City history books by becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer. 121 goals in 274 league appearances, or 143 from 320 in league and cup. No City striker before or since has come anywhere near to such figures. A one-in-two goal striker the like of which we have rarely seen. Bobby was a true goalscorer.
He joined City in January 1980 after Halifax Town had sacked him for ‘persistent misconduct’ a few months earlier, and he temporarily uprooted to Australia. His career up to that point had not lived up to the initial promise. He failed to make the grade at Aston Villa (not helped by breaking his leg at 19), delivered modest returns over two seasons for Huddersfield Town, and quickly had spells at Sheffield United, Vancouver Whitecaps and Huddersfield again.
It was the end of the 1978/79 when Halifax sacked him after one season – his record of just three goals from 22 appearances said much. “I didn’t make the most of it. I realised I’d lost my way. I just needed guidance.”
But it clicked at Valley Parade. Aided by a stern warning to behave from the off by City boss George Mulhall, Campbell flourished and over the next four seasons netted 76 goals from 148 games. “As a forward I could shoot with both feet, I could control the ball with both feet. I was the best header of a ball in the team.”
The Bantams were promoted from the old Fourth Division in that time, and famously beat the mighty Liverpool 1-0 at Valley Parade in the League Cup – Campbell scoring the only goal. They were heady times for a club whose future had looked bleak in the mid-70s.
But there were still difficult moments, like going into receivership in 1983. Campbell reluctantly moved to Derby County to rise vital transfer funds that kept City afloat. He didn’t settle in the midlands, and was back at Valley Parade less than a year later. His second spell saw another healthy goal return, and another promotion (the third division championship of 1984/85). Campbell was there on that fateful day of 11 May 1985.
It would prove to be his last appearance at Valley Parade, as he was sold during the second season of City playing at Odsal. His last goal, memorably, was part of a 2-0 victory over local rivals Leeds United. “They got rid of me and they brought in Mark Leonard. I was a better player with my left foot than he was with two feet!”
Campbell moved to Wigan and also did well, before retiring slightly prematurely. His overall career record reads 509 appearances, 198 goals. He also played twice for Northern Ireland and was part of their 1982 World Cup Finals squad.
Yet that is only half the Bobby Campbell story. His drinking exploits are the stuff of legend, and they have been retold and passed down by generations of supporters ever since. As Michael Wood of Boyfrombrazil once wrote, “For those who never saw him play, Bobby Campbell is more legend than fact.” The tales of his boozing have been long celebrated and are a part of his aura.
Campbell was known for his larger-than-life persona and his fearless approach. His hard man outlook is arguably best summed up well by this gem of a comment: “What makes it worse is when you get sent off and you haven’t caught the bastard! It’s a waste of a two-match ban!”
In the modern era of robot footballers who have tow the line, say the right things in interviews and never get into mischief, Bobby Campbell would have stuck out like a sore thumb. But it is the fact he was such a rebel, a non-marketable footballer, which provided such lasting appeal to supporters. Those of us who treat matchday as a chance to go out for some pints, let off steam, swear loudly at the referee – we could identify a little bit of ourselves in Bobby’s character and his legend. He lived the dream, and appeared to have a bloody good time whilst he was at it.
It is incredibly sad to hear of Bobby’s passing today. At only 60-years-old, he should surely have been able to enjoy many more years of life. The thoughts of every City fan go to his family, and next Tuesday’s home game with Northampton is sure to be an emotionally charged occasion. Hopefully some form of lasting tribute can be arranged too.
It’s almost exactly 30 years since Bobby last played for Bradford City. His wonderful contribution and legend has lived on at Valley Parade over the last three decades, and he will never be forgotten.
Quotes used in this piece taken from Paul Firth’s excellent book on Bobby Campbell “They don’t make them like him anymore”.