An impressive snapshot. It’s the mid-1970s. Flanked by two of Germany’s greatest ever players, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller, Noel Campbell strides towards the dressing rooms.
There’s a laser-beam focus, the eyes not giving anything away despite the pinch-yourself moment. For a kid from Kimmage on Dublin’s southside, it had been quite a journey.
“I played against that great Bayern team in the league and, previous to that, we had played against them in a two-legged cup game. In Germany at the time, most of the teams had big names, but Bayern were the big stars with Beckenbauer, Muller, Maier, Hoeness.
“Of course you would’ve been in awe of them but you still had to play the game.”
Campbell had been a stand-out performer in the League of Ireland for years.
At St Patrick’s Athletic, he was an impish, eager shining light in what was an otherwise dull and barren spell for the club.
As a teenager in 1967, he scored twice in a Uefa Cup (then called the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) tie at Bordeaux. In 1971, he received his first Republic of Ireland cap in a European Championship qualifier against Austria (there would be 10 more throughout the decade). Campbell liked the taste of elite-level football.
Just a few months later, Ben Hannigan, who had won a litany of domestic trophies with Shelbourne, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers in the 60s, headed for some trials around Europe.
He landed in Cologne and briefly stayed at the second-tier side Fortuna. Before he headed back home, the club asked him if he could recommend any other Irish players. Campbell’s name cropped up instantly.
“Hannigan came back to Dublin and had a man from Fortuna with him called Oscar Scheidel. I met them and chatted. They invited me over so I went to the club, trained for a few days and immediately they asked me to sign. For me, it was an opportunity. I was playing for Pat’s, knocking around doing something work-wise but it was a chance to play professional football, so I dived at it.”
He joined at the perfect time. Within two years, Fortuna were promoted to the top-flight, their newly-acquired, flame-haired midfielder popping up with some vital goals. There was little apprehension in moving to a new country. At 14, Campbell had travelled to London by himself and spent three years at Arsenal.
“I was very young. But I was an old man before I ever grew up. I lived in England for a while. I was on my own and I went to school there. So, I was an old hand as far as living somewhere else — that didn’t bother me. In Germany, the language was a bit of a barrier but I got over that fairly quickly.”
In Cologne, Campbell was instantly embraced on the terraces and in the dressing room. Sure, there was the red hair and high-octane performances that ear-marked him for special attention but there was also his natural talent that made him many friends.
“I was always well-known there. But it was down to how you played and your ability, not anything else. I still have loads of friends over there and head over periodically. I’ve been back 20 times since I finished playing. An old friend of mine is Wolfgang Fahrian, an ex-German international and he was our goalkeeper. We were at the top table at all the social gatherings! I was first there all the time! But a lot of the players were close. We’d do a lot together.”
In the 1970s, German football was in its pomp. The national team were crowned European champions in 1972 and were world champions two years later.
At club level, Bayern won three successive European Cups between ’74 and ’76. Between ’73 and ’79, Borussia Monchengladbach qualified for three Uefa Cup finals, winning two. The standard was incredibly high and Campbell gleefully took it all in.
Even at some less-glamorous teams, there were gifted, iconic players to ogle.
“You were always aware of who you were playing against because the players were so famous. And it wasn’t only Bayern. There was the great Monchengladbach team with Gunter Netzer. There were great players playing for Frankfurt at the time like Jurgen Grabowski. And there were two players for FC Koln, which was the bigger team in the city: Wolfgang Overath and Heinz Flohe — he was a brilliant player and probably my favourite at Koln.”
Though Fortuna only lasted a season in the Bundesliga, Campbell remained with the team until the end of the decade. In 1977, he enjoyed his best ever season and scored eight league goals. Hamburg wanted to bring him back to the top flight. But a persistent knee injury ruined a switch elsewhere. After three operations, he finally surrendered and succumbed to retirement at 28.
Campbell has retained a huge affection for Fortuna, the memories as vivid as ever.
“There are only two clubs that I have ever followed. Still to this day, I support St Pat’s. But my other club is Fortuna. I follow them on the internet now.
“They’ll always be a part of me.”
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