Andy Campbell on playing in a star-studded England Under-21s side

‘I have no regrets… I probably overachieved’: Ex-Middlesbrough and Cardiff striker Andy Campbell on playing in a star-studded England Under-21s side with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand 20 years ago

  • Andy Campbell played in a side full of well-known names for England Under-21s
  • Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand all went on to become stars
  • But Campbell struggled after decent spells at Middlesbrough and Cardiff City
  • He is now a PE teacher in Redcar after finishing his career in the seventh tier 

At first glance, it’s an England team photo like all the others. Six men stood at the back, arms crossed behind them. Five more squatting awkwardly at the front. None of them smiling.

Look a little closer and the names begin to jump out. Hang on, that’s Rio Ferdinand. Is that a young Steven Gerrard? It is as well. Wait, that’s Frank Lampard in front. And Jamie Carragher next to him. There’s Emile Heskey, Kieron Dyer, Gareth Barry…bloody hell!

Some team. Even more so when you consider it’s not the senior team, but the under-21s, the picture taken 20 years ago ahead of their European Championship play-off against Yugoslavia in Barcelona. A game they won 3-0.

England’s Under-21s from 20 years ago had a full array of players who went on to become stars

The picture often finds its way back on to social media, most recently following Barry’s retirement. Carragher posted it a few years ago and claimed it was good enough to beat the current England side.

In a team full of future household names, there’s still one who stands out mainly because he doesn’t. Who’s that skinny ginger kid stuck on the end of the back row?

Andy Campbell, then Middlesbrough striker, scored the opener and set up the third that day as Howard Wilkinson’s team secured their place in the finals. Yet he’s the only player in that starting eleven never to win a full cap.

The rest have 491 combined. Even Seth Johnson got one. For Campbell, though, four appearances for the under-21s was as far as his international career would go. It’s the team photo and cap from this game that hang framed in Campbell’s house.

‘It’s just like it was yesterday,’ Campbell tells Sportsmail. ‘It was a fantastic time in my career to be involved with those kind of players, the Golden Generation, and you knew that those players were on the brink of something special.

‘It was their arrogance and I mean that in the right way. Rio was a real Rolls Royce, you could tell from a young age he was different class. They knew they were good footballers. 

‘Rio went into games knowing he was the best defender, Frankie went into games knowing he would score goals, Steve went in knowing he would zing balls here, there and everywhere and lead from the front. They pushed themselves on and pulled others along with them.’

Something Campbell admits, looking back, that he probably didn’t have. ‘I relied on other people to tell me to build my confidence. That is little bit why I struggled at times in my career when things didn’t go for me. The best are able to rely on themselves as well.’

Campbell scored the extra-time winner for Cardiff in the 2003 Division Two play-off final

Yet we don’t need Baddiel and Skinner to remind us that that generation never accomplished what they promised. Tournament disappointment after tournament disappointment, the baggage dumped on to the shoulders of those who followed, culminating in England’s defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016. Knocked out by a country with the population of Leicester.

Fitting, perhaps, that England defeated the same opponents on Saturday 1-0 in the Nations League, as Gareth Southgate continues to shape the latest crop, the most exciting bunch since the golden one. Many of those, including Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, were also part of Southgate’s under-21s side.

But as Campbell is proof, impressing at that level is no guarantee of making it all the way.

‘It’s even harder for young players now because there is a higher expectation,’ says Campbell. 

‘Look at Foden. He’s in one of the most technically and tactically gifted sides in the world under Pep Guardiola and when he is playing for England he is expected to raise the team’s level to those kind of performances. It doesn’t work like that, it’s putting too much pressure on young shoulders. Because we have a younger group, it’s going to land on everyone.

‘There was no social media when I played. Now, it’s constant. It’s a different pressure that’s aded on to the pressure of being a young England footballer. Some don’t handle it as well as they would want to.’

Campbell came through the ranks at hometown club Middlesbrough, learning off the likes of Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Alen Boksic. But with an ever-growing array of world-class talent, Campbell struggled to enjoy consistent football, finishing with four goals in 49 Premier League appearances across seven seasons, and eventually was sold to Cardiff in 2002 for £1m.

Campbell believes it is harder for young players like Phil Foden to breakthrough nowadays

His last goal for the club came in an FA Cup win against Manchester United at the Riverside. ‘It doesn’t get much better than that,’ he says.

Campbell, though, would seal his name in Cardiff folklore in 2003 when he came off the bench at the Millennium Stadium to score the extra-time winner in the Division Two play-off final against QPR, taking the Welsh club into the second tier for the first time in 18 years. The winner for Cardiff in Cardiff. It doesn’t get much better than that, either.

But as Ferdinand and Lampard awent on to lift trophies and Premier League titles, Campbell’s career moved down the divisions. 

He left Cardiff in sour circumstances in 2006, despite wanting to stay, moving to Dunfermline then to Halifax, Farsley Celtic, Bradford Park Avenue and finishing his career at Whitby Town in the seventh tier of English football when knee and achilles injuries finally took their toll.

‘It’s every boy’s dream to play for the Three Lions. It didn’t happen for me because, well, there were far better footballers than me with a lot more ability and more consistent.’

Campbell, now a PE teacher, did not have the same illustrious career as Lampard or Ferdinand

After managerial spells at Norton & Stockton Ancients and then West Aukland Town, Campbell is now a PE teacher at Dormanstown Primary Academy in Redcar, near his home in Middlesbrough. He’s also a director at Black Diamond sports agency and hosts his own podcast.

That team photo still hangs on his wall. He still looks at it all the time, he says. The feelings it inspires are ones of pride at the achievement more than a sense of what might have been.

‘I have no regrets,’ he says. ‘I probably overachieved with the ability I had. That’s not disrespectful to myself but I wouldn’t say that I was a very good footballer. I had attributes in my game that no one else had, my pace, but technically I wasn’t great.

‘There were 10 players in my youth team at for Middlesbrough. I was probably in the bottom two for ability. But I was the quickest and I wanted it more than all 10. I was desperate to be a footballer and play for my hometown club. You only get one chance to be a footballer and I wasn’t going to give that up.’

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