Ivan Campo didn’t look like your average Premier League footballer. He had crazy hair and always looked like he was carrying a pound or two too much, to some – Rodney Marsh (former Sky pundit) – “he was a clown”. To others, he was little more than a thug given his disciplinary record in the Premier League but to most Bolton Wanderers fans, he was simply a legend and remains so to this day.
A quick search on the internet reveals how revered he was with many a glowing tribute penned by Bolton fans, reminiscing of better times. There is even an indie band from Preston named after him as well as, no doubt, many Bolton teenagers will have some reference to his name in their own somewhere.
Ivan Campo Ramos, to give him his full name, was born in San Sebastian, part of the Basque Country in northern Spain, on 21st February 1974. He started his football career at Segunda Division B side Alaves in 1993 but within five years had earned himself a move to Real Madrid with whom he was a key player as they won the Champions League two years later. Another two years on from that though the dream had turned sour with Campo becoming the scapegoat for problems at the club during that time. It would see him loaned out to a lower light of the Premier League in what was assumed to be the beginning of the end for the centre-half, how wrong that proved to be.
The move was literally supposed to just be temporary, until the end of that season, but just as the fans fell for him, he fell in love too – with Bolton, the place. Hard as it is to believe for some, he preferred Bolton to Madrid. He was reported to have said that as a cultural centre the Lancashire town beat the Spanish capital hands down, seeing Bolton as modern yet intimate, so he stayed. What also helped was Sam Allardyce. For the one-time England manager, his spell as Bolton manager was arguably the highlight of his managerial career, guiding them to consecutive top-eight finishes between 2003 and 2007 and to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup in 2005. This was achieved with the help of Campo and the other surprising signings who made their way to BL6 around that time – 1998 World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff, Nigerian international Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka to name a few. Allardyce’s man management – something particularly praised by Campo – saw him able to blend their quality with the grit of the likes of Kevin Davies and Kevin Nolan to bring a level of success that must seem a lifetime away now to their fans.
With Allardyce, Campo saw someone akin to an adoptive father who converted the Spaniard from the centre-half he had been all his career to that point. Allardyce saw attributes that could be better served in a defensive midfield role, one in which he wowed the fans if not the officials. In his 172 Premier League appearances Campo would pick up 46 bookings and two sending-offs, meaning on average he was booked around once every four appearances! To the Bolton fans this no doubt just added to the legend, embodied the commitment to the cause. For them, he was the perfect combination of silk and steel, no-nonsense English style tackling contrasting with vision and flair in his passing. In one of those many online articles on the man a 12-year-old fan who met the Spaniard after Bolton’s League Cup Final defeat to Middlesbrough in 2004 was quoted. He was not downhearted as he knew he would still get to watch Campo the following week, stating ‘the thrill of watching you play, that’s what makes fans happy’. It was love and the feeling was mutual.
Campo loved his adopted home and it was with true sadness that he wrote an open letter on his departure from the club in 2008, released by Gary Megson, Allardyce having left for Newcastle United 12 months earlier having not been backed by the board in his push for a Champions League spot. Campo wrote the letter as he didn’t get the chance to say goodbye properly to the fans at the stadium. He thanked them for the support and love they showed, remarking on the bond between them, also thanking Allardyce for saving him – he had been depressed and hadn’t played for a year prior to his arrival at Bolton.
Campo stayed a little longer in England, signing for Ipswich Town following his departure from the Lancashire club prior to eventually ending his career in the Cypriot second division two years later at AEK Larnaca, helping them back to the first division in the process.
From the outside looking in it seemed a strange move that a Champions League winning centre-half would swap the bright lights of the Bernabeu for the grime and grit of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, but it was the perfect move for both. Campo’s career was re-ignited and his passing play and ruggedness in the tackle brought the team together and with it an unparalleled success to that corner of Lancashire. Campo’s Wikipedia entry states ‘he played for Real Madrid but is also remembered for his spell in England at Bolton Wanderers’; given he played far more for Bolton than any other club in his career, and more importantly the bond he had with the fans, I think he will forever be Bolton’s Basque hero.