Alastair Campbell is famous or infamous – according to taste – for having been Tony Blair’s blunt, media-savvy communications director. Beyond the many scrapes that role got him into, he is also an accomplished Scottish piper, a novelist, a New Labour chronicler … and a passionate supporter of our next opponents, Burnley. Salut! Sunderland is delighted that he agreed to answer our questions ahead of Saturday’s match, which he will miss because of charity commitments. Here is part one …
Salut! Sunderland: Loads of football fans, especially of clubs like Sunderland, were chuffed to see Burnley go up, but nearly everyone expected you to go straight down. Did the early home form give you unrealistic hope or can you still claw a way out of the bottom zone?
It was always going to be tough. We have the smallest squad, the lowest wage bill, and we are the smallest town ever to have a Premier League club. The start was fantastic, especially beating Manchester United in our first home game, but we always knew it would be about beating clubs at the other end of the pile and we have lost too many of those. But I am a great believer in the power of hope and commitment and even if it means winning against clubs like Liverpool and Spurs, we have to keep believing.
Many had written off Burnley even before Owen Coyle’s departure, How influential in your season’s course do you think his loss was?
It was a bad blow. It is true we were on a bit of a poor run and maybe that would have continued anyway, but it was the worst possible time, for the worst possible reasons, especially after all his talk of loyalty and seeing the job through. What people found depressing I think was the feeling that he had decided Bolton had a better chance of staying up.
You’ve managed to get to most games if not every one, I think, so far. How much of the promotion season did you also see? Whatever happens, these two years must have been an extraordinary experience but will your enthusiasm survive intact if you are relegated?
Yes, it will. I have followed Burnley for almost half a century and always will. I managed to get to loads of games last season, and have just missed a couple this year. It has been a fantastic period to be a Burnley fan. My favourite match last year was the second leg of the play-off semis at Reading when we knew we were through to the Final. The atmosphere in the last few minutes was out of this world. Wembley was great but it was in some ways too nervy and too big to take in. I was also lucky enough to be asked to compere the celebrations the next day on the Town Hall balcony, when Owen Coyle dodged a question about whether he would go to Celtic! The buzz in the town after promotion was fantastic, and even though we have had a tough season, I have still enjoyed it.
What are the origjns of your Burnley passion, do you always/sometimes wear colours/sing the songs at games? And do any other events in your history as a fan, ie before promotion, stick out?
I was born in Keighley, Yorkshire, and when I was growing up Burnley were one of the biggest clubs in the country. My Dad used to take me to Burnley, Leeds and Bradford, but Burnley was the place I loved instantly – the colours, the noise, everything about it. I sit in the directors’ box at home games, which is one of the least stuffy directors’ boxes in football, and at away games I go in the away end. I do sing and I wish we had had a few new songs for the Premier League. I also prefer to stand at away games but sometimes that doesn’t go down too well.
And how did you manage to keep in touch when you had matters of state to worry about?
I just did. I got to a fair few games even then and the Number 10 switchboard knew not to bother me when we were playing. I only missed one game because I was called out and couldn’t go back in – we had some sort of mini-crise on and I had to go on a conference call. It was Bristol Rovers I think and it was really annoying, being there but not able to see the game. I almost missed the promotion game at Scunthorpe when we got up to the Championship because I was stuck in Northern Ireland, but thankfully things wrapped up just in time.
To be continued: tomorrow, Alastair tells of the moment a player of impeccable Burnley and Sunderland credentials shocked him, and explains why he’ll be absent from the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
* Alastair Campbell on Alastair Campbell: I am currently involved in Labour’s election campaign, so the week of May 6/May 9 could be one of the best or one of the worst of my life, what with election and end of the season. I have recently published my second novel, Maya, and as I say I am also chairman of fundraising for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research.
** Salut! Sunderland note: I have known Alastair professionally since we both worked in the West Country, me as The Daily Telegraph’s regional correspondent, he on local papers in Cornwall. His career quickly overtook mine and he became political editor of the Daily Mirror before joining Tony Blair. Among far too many memorable quotes to produce here: “”The media are obsessed with spin doctors and with portraying them as a bad thing, yet seem addicted to our medicine.”