Arbroath: Can Dick Campbell’s high-flying part-time side really reach the top flight?

Arbroath lift League 2 trophy
Dick Campbell has led part-time Arbroath from Scotland’s League 2 to the top of the Championship in under six years in charge
Venue: East End Park, Dunfermline Date: Sunday, 26 December Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Live updates on BBC Sportsound and text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

When Dick Campbell took charge at Arbroath in March 2016, the Gayfield side were second-bottom of Scotland’s fourth tier.

Almost six years and two promotions later, the Scottish Championship’s only part-time club will sit top of the tree this Christmas.

Keeping the Angus outfit in the second tier for back-to-back campaigns is a remarkable achievement in itself, but last Saturday’s win over Morton – with Campbell stuck at home with Covid – saw Arbroath top the division at the halfway point.

Campbell was, at least, treated to a congratulatory phone call from long-time pal Sir Alex Ferguson.

“Alex’s changed his number, so I thought I was talking to someone else,” Campbell explained in a wonderfully unlikely appearance on BBC Radio 5 live’s Monday Night Club.

“He said: ‘Listen, son, I phoned you nearly 15 years ago when you got sacked [at Partick Thistle]. I’m phoning you now to tell you there’s nobody prouder of you than me. You keep it going, you can do it this year.’

“He told me to ‘just go for it’. So if we get beat on Sunday, it’s his fault. If we win, I’ll take all the credit. I’m going to go for it.”

‘I just want to stay in the league’

Campbell has overcome his personal battles to reach this career high, having been diagnosed with kidney cancer a decade ago – “the sorest thing” he has ever had to endure in his 68-year life.

“There are no words to describe how you and your family deal with it,” he says. “I was a big smoker at that time and I’ve never had a cigarette since. I’ve fought every day of my life against it.”

That fighting spirit is evidenced, too, in his football life, where he is assisted by twin brother Ian.

Coupled with a laidback approach in terms of what he defines as success for Arbroath, Campbell believes this is the remedy to his side’s unprecedented rise.

“Every other club in this league is full-time,” he says. “Their fans, all they want to do is see their team win the league. I can’t believe that – I just want to stay in the league! I think it’s because of that attitude that I’ve got a right good team.

“The players I’ve got, I love them dearly. I’ve got a fascinating chairman and working-class people. I’m having the time of my life. That’s reflected in the way we’re going about it.”

What’s it like to play under ‘unique’ Campbell?

Having listened to Campbell on Monday, former Manchester City defender Micah Richards said he had found a “new team” in Arbroath, while ex-Manchester United striker Dion Dublin added that he would “play for him no problem at all”.

East Fife winger Danny Denholm is someone who has experienced life working under the “unique” man at both Arbroath and Forfar Athletic and recalls the day he first signed for him.

“Since I’ve left Arbroath, I’ve realised how unique he is,” Denholm tells BBC Scotland. “But I should’ve known from the start.

“When I signed with Forfar, I was a student and was looking to get more money. I was delighted with the offer, but my dad told me to never take the first one.

“I asked Dick if there was any chance he could get me £25 a week more. He asked me how many games and goals I’d scored in professional football… I hadn’t played any games. You can imagine the response. He finished the call by saying: ‘And it’s gaffer to you, son!’

“Some people take you to a cafe or wine and dine you, but I ended up signing the contract in the back of his car with his brother. I didn’t even read what was on it, I just signed it.”

Top at Christmas – curse or champions-elect?

Campbell talks about needing another seven points to solidify his side’s place in the second tier for a third successive season, but January reinforcements at full-time clubs could pose a threat to Arbroath’s scarcely believable title push.

However, the omens look good. In just one of the last 10 seasons, the side top of the Championship at the halfway point has failed to go on and win the title.

The Gayfield side go into the second half the season having lost just two of their 18 league games and boast the division’s top scorer in Michael McKenna, with 11 goals to his name.

“It’s absolutely mad,” Denholm says. “To even get to the Championship and stay up is incredible for a part-time side. But to be top, beggars belief. If they go up on a part-time budget, I can’t think of anything that would come close to matching that.

“Everyone is willing them on. It’s a huge ask, but I think they can do it now. It’s not one-off games, they are stringing performances together.

“Looking at their squad, it isn’t far off one of the best in the league. They have the best centre-back in Tam O’Brien, the best keeper in Derek Gaston and potentially the best forwards in McKenna and Joel Nouble. You would be mad to write them off.”

‘Arbroath are blowing theories out the water’ – analysis

Former Scotland international & BBC Scotland pundit Leanne Crichton

Their form has been really consistent. That’s the most important thing in getting out the Championship. They’ve made Gayfield a real tough venue to go.

Campbell knows how to have players playing for him. It’s a small group, but he has everyone singing off the same hymn sheet. The players are fearless. They’ll embrace the challenge and it won’t faze them.

It blows every theory out the water about full-time training, resources and sports science. They don’t have that at their disposal. It’s incredible.