Ina quiet corner of Scotland’s east coast, a modern football fairytale is being written. Arbroath FC, the Scottish Championship’s only part-time club, are in the promotion play-offs after finishing as runners-up in the second tier. “We’re so close to immortality,” their manager, Dick Campbell, tells me. “Nobody else will ever do this.”
Campbell is a hardened veteran of Scotland’s lower leagues, having coached more than 1,000 games across three decades. Now, just four matches stand between his side and the Premiership, starting with the first leg of their semi-final at Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Tuesday night. Win that tie, and the 11th-placed side in the top flight – probably St Johnstone – await in the two-legged final.
The colorful 68-year-old manager, an excitable whirlwind of one-liners, has become the face of Arbroath’s extraordinary rise – but if he is feeling any pressure on his shoulders, he doesn’t show it. “I couldn’t give a monkey’s hoot if we go up or not – I honestly couldn’t,” Campbell insists. “But now we’re in this position… you have to have a go, don’t you?”
When Campbell arrived at Arbroath six years ago, the picture could scarcely have been more different. The Red Lichties – named after the town’s harbor lights that guide boats back to shore – were laboring in the fourth tier, playing to meagre crowds of fewer than 500 people at Gayfield Park. The club’s home ground backs directly on to the North Sea, its open terraces exposed to fog, freezing winds and even the occasional rogue wave.
Campbell had been keen to get back into management after being dismissed by another Angus side, Forfar Athletic. “The guy who sacked me has apologized since, and said he was an idiot,” he chuckles. Campbell kept Arbroath afloat, but there was little sense of what was to come. “My first game was down at Berwick, we got beat 4-1,” he recalls. “I thought to myself: ‘What the fuck have I done?'”
From the edge of oblivion, Arbroath have scaled the lower leagues in just six years. Campbell has led promotion charges before, notably with Brechin City – but where other part-time clubs have faltered at this level, Arbroath have thrived. “We’ve been in the top three since September,” Campbell points out. “We’ve only lost five games all season. The statistics show we deserve to be where we are. ”
Arbroath have already come agonizingly close to winning the outright division. In their crunch game at promotion rivals Kilmarnock, they were 12 minutes from a win that would have put the title’s destiny in their own hands on the final day. Instead, Killie found two late goals, and went up as champions. Campbell and the 2,300 maroon-clad away fans could only watch on as the celebrations began.
“That was a heartbreaker,” Campbell admits. “I made a ball of that… I should have gone five at the back.” It was then that an old friend got in touch with some advice. “Alex Ferguson called. He told me: ‘Don’t let one game muck your season up’. Alex still talks to a lot of managers, and it’s always nice to get a phone call from him – particularly a complimentary one! ”
Campbell has devoted his career to playing and coaching in Scotland’s lower leagues, but even he is not a full-time employee at Arbroath – and has no intention of becoming one, even if they gatecrash the Premiership. “I’m not dependent on football,” says Campbell, who works with his twin brother, Ian, in both spheres of his professional life. Away from football, the pair run a successful recruitment business.
“I work for my brother during the day, and he works for me at night,” Campbell explains. Ian, nicknamed “Pink,” is the club’s assistant manager, and the pair make for an engaging double act. “I’ve never been in a changing room when I’m laughing before the game,” Joel Nouble told local paper The Courier in November. “The relationship they have is crazy. Their team talks are unbelievable. ”
Michael McKenna, the Championship player of the year and Arbroath’s creative spark, is an electrician off the pitch. He believes the sense of camaraderie is key. “We’re all working class and helping each other out,” the midfielder has said. “We are all in it together.” As for Campbell, he is clearly proud and protective of his players, many of whom work on match days and travel an hour to Perth for training.
“We keep progressing every year because every player I sign is better than what I’ve got,” Campbell tells me. “That’s my philosophy – I’m not a rocket scientist.” Recruitment has played a key part in reaching a collective goal to be “the best part-time team in Scotland,” building on a core group of players who Campbell inherited, that he feels were unfairly written off.
Before 2016, Arbroath’s main claim to fame was a scoreline: 36-0, an 1885 Scottish Cup win over Bon Accord that still graces the record books. Fans huddled behind the goals at Gayfield could be forgiven for thinking that was as good as it would ever get. But their team won the League 2 title in Campbell’s first full season in charge, adding the League 1 crown in 2018-19 – and now, another promotion beckons.
“Arbroath has been good to me,” says Campbell. “It’s a classy place, they’re very nice people. Every single director has a job to do – they don’t stand around drinking gin and tonics. ” Crowds of more than 3,000 regularly watch the team these days, with new hospitality suites sold out for the entire season – perhaps because their much-loved manager regularly shows up for a pre-game chat with guests.
“It’s absolutely incredible how the club’s fortunes have changed,” Campbell says. “There are very few buses going to Celtic and Rangers games from Arbroath now. They’re all coming to watch us. ” I remind him that Scotland’s big two could visit the Angus coast for league games next season, and he briefly allows himself to dream.
“The whole nation is behind us,” he says with a smile. “If we do go up, it’ll be historic, immortal, all of that. And we’ll have a go! We’ll probably get beat every single week. But then again, they said that when we came into this league. ” The story of Arbroath’s remarkable rise from obscurity may have a few more chapters to come.