‘Close to Eternity’: Part-time Arbroath chasing Premier League dream | Arbroath

meIn a quiet corner of the east coast of Scotland, a football fairy tale is being written. Arbroath FC, the only part-time club in the Scottish Championship, is in the promotion qualifiers after finishing second in the second division. “We are very close to immortality,” their manager, Dick Campbell, told me. “No one else will ever do this.”

Campbell is a seasoned veteran of Scotland’s lower leagues, having coached more than 1,000 games over three decades. Now, only four games stand between his side and the League One, starting with the first leg of the semi-finals at Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Tuesday night. Win that showdown, and wait for the 11th-placed League One – most likely St Johnston – for the final, home and away.

The 68-year-old’s colorful manager, a whirlwind of one-player spirit, has become the face of Arbroth’s extraordinary rise – but if he’s feeling any pressure on his shoulders, he’s not showing it. Campbell insists, “I can’t scream a monkey if we go up or not — honestly I couldn’t.” “But now we’re in this situation… You have to try, right?”

When Campbell arrived at Arbroath six years ago, the picture could hardly have been different. Lichties Red—named after the city’s harbor lights that guide boats ashore—was operating on level four, playing to meager crowds of less than 500 in Gayfield Park. The grounds of the club’s stadium are located directly on the North Sea, and its open terraces expose to fog, freezing winds and even at times rogue wave.

Campbell was eager to return to management after being sent off by another Angus, Forfar Athletic. “The guy who kicked me out has since apologized and said he was an idiot,” he chuckles. Campbell kept Arbroath afloat, but there was no sense of what was to come. “It was my first match in Berwick, and we beat 4-1,” he recalls. I said to myself: ‘What the hell have I done? “

From the brink of oblivion, Arbroath has climbed the lower leagues in just six years. Campbell has led promotion fees before, particularly with Brechin – but where other part-time clubs have faltered at that level, Arbroath has thrived. “We’ve been in the top three since September,” Campbell points out. “We only lost five games all season. The statistics show that we deserve to be where we are.”

Arbroth's manager Dick Campbell (left) with his assistant - and brother - Ian.
Arbroth’s manager Dick Campbell (left) with his assistant – and twin brother – Ian. Photography: Rob Casey / SNS Group

Arbroath has already come painfully close to winning the First Division. In their decisive match with rising rival Kilmarnock, they were 12 minutes away from a victory that would have put the fate of the title in their hands on the final day. Instead, Kelly found two late goals and rose as champion. Campbell and the chestnut-clad fans could only watch 2,300 as the festivities began.

“It was heartbreaking,” Campbell admits. “I made balls out of that… I should have shot five balls in the back.” It was then that an old friend called for some advice. “Alex Ferguson called. He told me, ‘Don’t let one game spoil your season.’ Alex still talks to a lot of managers and it’s always nice to get a phone call from him – especially a free call!”

Campbell has devoted his career to playing and coaching in Scotland’s lower leagues, but he’s not even a full-time employee at Arbroath – and he has no intention of becoming one, even if they win the Premier League. “I don’t rely on football” for both areas of his career, says Campbell, who works with his twin brother Ian. Away from football, the duo run a successful recruitment company.

“I work for my brother during the day, and he works with me at night,” Campbell explains. Ian, nicknamed “Pink,” is the club’s assistant manager, and the pair make for an attractive double-decker. “I’ve never been in the locker room laughing before a match,” loaned striker Joel Noble He told the local newspaper Courier in November. “Their relationship is crazy. Their team conversations are incredible.”

Michael McKenna, Championship Player of the Year and Creative Arbroath, works as an electrician off the field. He believes that a sense of camaraderie is the key. “We are all working class and help each other,” the midfielder He said. “We’re all in it together.” As for Campbell, he is clearly proud and protective of his players, many of whom work on match days and travel an hour to Perth for training.

“Every year we keep getting better because every player I sign is better than I have,” Campbell told me. “That’s my philosophy – I’m not a rocket scientist.” Recruitment played a key role in reaching a collective goal of being “Scotland’s best part-time team”, based on a core group of players that Campbell inherited, and who he feels have been unfairly written off.

Prior to 2016, Arbroath’s main claim to fame was the score: 36-0, an 1885 Scottish Cup win over Bon Accord who still holds the record books. The fans huddled behind the goals at Giffield could be forgiven for thinking that was as good as ever. But their team won their second league title in Campbell’s first full season, adding their first league title in 2018-19 – and now, another promotion.

Dick Campbell led the Arbroath of the fourth class.
Dick Campbell led the Arbroath of the fourth class. Photography: Craig Brown/SNS Group

“Arbroath has been really good to me,” Campbell says. “It’s a neat place, they are very good people. Every director has a job to do – they don’t stand around drinking gin and tonics.” Crowds of more than 3,000 watch the team regularly these days, with new hospitality suites on sale throughout the season – perhaps because their beloved manager appears regularly to chat with the guests before the game.

“It’s absolutely incredible how the club’s fortunes have changed,” Campbell says. “There are very few buses going to Celtic and Rangers matches from Arbroath now. They are all coming to watch us.” I remind him that Scotland’s two biggest can visit the Angus Coast for league games next season, and he allows himself for a while to dream.

“The whole nation is behind us,” he says with a smile. “If we go up, it will be historic and timeless, all of that. And we will go! We will probably beat every week. But then again, they said that when we joined this league.” The story of Arbroath’s remarkable rise from obscurity may have a few more chapters to come.