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Exclusive interview: Sue Campbell on life as England’s mentor, inspiration and chief hugger

Watching an England match with Sue Campbell is an intense affair. The Football Association’s head of women’s football witnessed England triumph over Scotland last Sunday from the very back of the stands at the Allianz Riviera, alternately gripping onto the railing and pacing the concrete. 

There was a brief hiatus in the second half when the 70-year-old sat down for a nanosecond alongside Kelly Simmons, before tapping the head of the professional game on the shoulder to apologise that she could not stay sitting any longer and promptly returned to her watch.

It is fair to say that Campbell cares passionately about the England team; they seem to feel the same way about her, too. 

“The players and Phil like me around,” she nods. “I come in a couple of days before the game and then I leave them a bit, so they can breathe. I don’t have a particular role except that I’m there, they like me being around, and I like being around them.”

Spending an afternoon in the baroness’s company at the House of Lords, it is easy to see why the players have warmed to her. She is funny, irreverent, kind and refreshingly down to earth – mopping up our tea when I spill it; the sort of person who, when she pays for our drinks, first checks with the staff to make sure they will get the tip.

England’s players seem to trust her. “They’ll come and talk to me if they’ve got things they like to talk about. I’m a safe place to come because I don’t select them. I’m not deciding the tactics. But I’m there and they know I care for them. If there’s something they’re worried about they know they can say, ‘Hey can I have 10 minutes?’ ”

They are not the only ones who harbour an affection. A few weeks back Campbell recalls sitting in a meeting at the FA’s Wembley offices “having a really serious discussion about the professionalisation of the women’s game” – when Neville spotted her through the glass. “He walked in the door – came straight over to me, and said, ‘I need a Campbell hug’. I stood up, gave him a hug, he walked out again, and at the door he said, ‘There’s nothing like a Campbell hug’. And off he went! All my colleagues went, ‘What was that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know you’d have to ask him’.

“He’s emotionally intelligent, decent, caring, one of the most respectful people I’ve ever worked with. He’s an absolute delight.”

Around the team hotel in Nice, England’s is a happy camp. Steph Houghton chats to guests in the lift, Karen Bardsley practises her French with the bellman, while Neville and his staff casually occupy the tables in the lobby, drawing up plans. Campbell is right there, in the thick of it. Is she part of the famous Neville WhatsApp groups? She throws back her head and laughs. “This,” she says, gesturing to her phone, “is a mystery still. 

“It rings, and I answer it. I’ve got my emails on here. I’ve got texts. That’s me done I’m afraid.” She pauses. “And actually I’m quite grateful, I’m glad I wasn’t able to read what people thought of me – on the Super League decisions for example – because I don’t think I’d have carried on. So sometimes it’s a blessing.”

Since joining the governing body in 2016, Campbell has overseen some controversy. Neville’s appointment received plenty of criticism, then there were the pink whistles in the Sussex FA’s girls’ football strategy, the Disney princess campaign, the collapse of Notts County and Yeovil Town, and the changing back to a winter season for the Women’s Super League. 

“When you want to be an agent of change you’re not always popular,” Campbell says quietly. “But integrity is doing what is right, not what is popular. I always check in with myself. You know if you do that and live by that occasionally you’ll upset people, but you’ve got to work by the betterment of the game as a whole – not any individual interests within it.”

Whatever the criticisms, Campbell has overseen a phenomenal amount of positive change – the record FA Cup final attendance of 45,423, the launch of more than 800 SSE Wildcats clubs, a national strategy to get girls aged five-to-11 playing football, a mega haul of sponsorship investment coming into the game, including £10 million from Barclays, and most recently a #WhatIf pledge to ensure every schoolgirl is able to access the national game. 

The cherry on the top is the record-breaking 6.1 million viewers who tuned in to watch England’s first game.

Amazingly, Campbell initially turned down the job when she was first approached. Off the back of 10 years at UK Sport, she says, she was ready for semi-retirement. What changed her mind? “I’ll be honest with you, I took it because football is such a powerful brand, it has the ability to affect real social change. Girls’ and women’s sport has always been a passion of mine, and I thought, ‘Crikey this is a big mountain, but maybe I’ve got one more mountain in me’.”

We talk about The Daily Telegraph’s “Girls, Inspired” campaign, and she instantly warms to the subject. A former Physical Education teacher who spent eight years as CEO of the Youth Sports Trust, she initiated an intervention geared around improving school sport for ever. The initial results were encouraging, with academic performance improving where schools increased PE provision. 

Tony Blair got wind of the scheme and asked her to scale it up nationally. “I’ve still got the paper I sketched it out on!” she laughs. “He said, ‘What shall we call it?’ I said School Sports Partnerships. We launched officially in 2002 and, by 2008, we had every school in the country in one of the 450 families of schools. In 2003 Ofsted reported 23 per cent of our kids were getting two hours of PE a week. By 2009, 95 per cent of kids were getting two hours. People came from all over the world and copied it from Brazil to Australia. 

“And then in 2010 …” Campbell trails off. It was Michael Gove who pulled the plug, and sport went into mourning.

Campbell was left devastated. “The way I describe it to people is that between 1995 and 2010 I was slowly building a house, brick by brick … we were just about ready to put the roof on when I watched the house burn down. With my hands tied behind my back. 

“The worst bit for me was the people ringing me saying, ‘Do something’. Headteachers from all over the country. I said, ‘I’ve tried everything I know, and I can’t do it’.

“To some degree, going to the FA was a relief from that pain to be honest. I don’t think I realised that for a little while. But thanks to Martin [Glenn], I’ve been allowed to have my vision and put it on the ground. And that’s cathartic.

“I sat at home the other night with a glass of wine, late getting home from London, dogs slobbering all over me and thinking, ‘I’m really proud’. We’re nowhere near the end of the journey, but we haven’t half made this a good journey.”

When Campbell joined the FA she was given three goals. 

“I thought just three? Oh that’s nice. Martin said, ‘Double the fan base, double the participation and win the World Cup’. I went, ‘Oh right, they’re quite big goals, Martin’. I thought this was a hill in Scotland and now I realise it’s Everest,” she laughs.

She cannot promise a trophy from the tournament, “because you never know in sport”, but she is adamant that the team have gone through a transformational process that has left them in a winning state of mind. 

“I saw the team through a very difficult period a year ago. Phil brought in a lot of youngsters, and you can imagine some of the older players initially feeling threatened. But the group is fantastic now, there’s a real sense of one team, one mission. 

“That’s when you get a sense that maybe we can. Because you only win these things when everybody’s on the same page. I can’t say they’ll go and win the World Cup, but that’s the ambition.

“Technically and tactically they’re the best prepared team ever. They’re the most coherent group we’ve ever sent anywhere.”

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