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SOL CAMPBELL EXCLUSIVE DAY 2: SURVIVING THE HATE MOB: NO REGRETS; When I left Spurs I put my whole life on the line..facing the abuse was quite a spiritual experience which made me stronger.

Byline: BRIAN READE

WHEN Sol Campbell transferred from Spurs to bitter North London rivals Arsenal for nothing in July last year, serious commentators likened it to Kim Philby's infamous Soviet Union defection.

Spurs fans, though, found the historical comparison inadequate. They thought his betrayal of their religion made him a cross between Judas Iscariot and Satan. And they set about making his life hell.

In their eyes, when a man takes tens of thousands of pounds out of their pockets on a weekly basis, kisses their beloved badge and says he is one of them, certain moral obligations are assumed. Treachery is not one of them.

Campbell wasn't the first England international to move on a Bosman free transfer when his contract expired. Steve McManaman had left Liverpool for Real Madrid the previous year.

When news broke that he had crossed the tribal divide and joined Arsenal, the feeling among many was that he may have been a Judas, but he was a Judas with balls the size of Space-hoppers.

"People were saying in private that what I did took tremendous courage, that I was making things happen and doing something with my life," says Campbell, 28, at his pounds 2million Hertfordshire home. "But they didn't like to admit it in public, even though they probably thought: 'This guy is something special.'"

It is the first time the shy England defender has spoken publicly about the controversial move that shook the world of football. The repercussions still haunt Campbell, and at Saturday's North London derby his every touch was greeted with loud, venomous abuse from Spurs fans.

"My critics say I did it the wrong way, but they are so wrong because I did everything by the book," says the proud East Ender, who yesterday revealed how he was standing up to "bitter, jealous, liars" trying to ruin his life by labelling him gay.

"I cost Tottenham nothing, I gave them everything for 10 years of my life, and I left only when my contract was up and I thought it was time for me to move on."

THE rewards are already there to be seen. Last season was fantastic, winning the Premiership and FA Cup double. And that's just the beginning.

"When I finish my career I can look back with no regrets in my heart and say I really did something with my life. It wasn't easy, but then life isn't easy. You have to take the stick and make the sacrifices.

"Footballers have a short shelf life. I have to do what I think is right for me professionally. I'm happy where I am and what I'm doing, and so long as the fans know I'm giving everything I have, and they are happy with me, life's cool."

Campbell could have joined any club in the world. Liverpool and Manchester United chased him, along with most of the Italian giants.

Spanish side Barcelona offered him pounds 250,000 a week, (pounds 13million a year), plus a top-of-the-range sports car and a villa in Majorca. Not bad for the son of Jamaican immigrants brought up in a terraced home in Stratford, East London.

Spurs fans were especially angry with Campbell for not coming clean earlier. But Campbell says he didn't make his mind up until the last minute.

The final straw came when the club leaked a story claiming he was demanding pounds 130,000 a week to stay. To Campbell, the club he signed with for nothing at 16 was trying to cover its own lack of ambition by casting him as a mercenary out to bankrupt it. It was time to go.

He decided to stay in London, close to his friends and family, and move to Arsenal for pounds 100,000 a week.

The abuse that came his way was phenomenal. There were death threats, Judas effigies were burned, websites labelled him "a despicable excuse for a human being" and sections of the Spurs fans set about annihilating his character.

But he insists: "I don't regret that move for a second. The reaction I got is common practice these days wherever you go. The fans I was leaving wouldn't have liked me whatever club I'd moved to. Looking back, it was quite a spiritual experience for me. It made me a stronger, better person. It was such a blur that when I first got to Arsenal I thought: 'Where am I? What have I done? Now what do I do?'

"My back was against the wall. It was like being in the trenches and I had to make it work. I had to get out of the trench and keep on running. I'd put my whole life on the line. My career, everything. I was so exposed.

I WAS there for people to whip, throw stones at and mock, and the majority did. Even when I was playing well they wouldn't admit it.

"But I just kept on going. When it all came together, it was like a coming-of-age for me. But it didn't happen overnight. It wasn't easy at all."

His lowest point came when he was injured before a crucial Champions League game. He was living in a hotel while his home was being renovated.

"I thought: 'Oh, my word, what have I done? Is it ever going to come together?' Everywhere I looked, my life just wasn't working. I was stuck in a hotel, staring at the walls, with no privacy. I was very low." Meanwhile, the abuse was increasing in volume and nastiness: "I couldn't believe how jealous, bitter and vindictive those people were. They tried to drag me into the gutter with their lies, and some people with decent minds actually believed them.

"After a while, I thought: 'Sol, you play for England and one of the best clubs in the world. People know you.' I decided to relax, be myself and not care what people think.

"I like people to appreciate what I do, but I don't need the fame bit. My nourishment is to be true to myself and my family. I actually like going to Tesco and the dry cleaners and I don't want to lose my God-given right to be normal."

Campbell wants to stay at the top of his game for as long as he can. And he is prepared to make personal sacrifices, such as postponing a lasting relationship, to achieve his goal.

His big-money move enabled him to help his family financially and taught him who his real friends were.

"Everyone should go through what I went through just to learn who really counts," he says. I ask him if he ever wakes up with a warm glow, knowing that, at 28, he will never have to work again.

"No - I'm working-class and you never lose the will to work. If I had to, I could go back to East London and work on the trains, as a postman or whatever. If that ever happens, so be it."

But the chances of it happening are as remote as a round of applause the next time he runs out in front of Spurs fans in a red shirt. Besides, he has other plans.

"When I finish I'll probably move abroad for a while and just chill out," he says. "Then I will probably combine my two loves, food and music, and perhaps open a small, intimate restaurant. Nothing big - just something that gives me an interest and helps me meet new people.

"After my life as a footballer I'll need a buzz to keep me going."

As long as he doesn't call it The Last Supper and open it near White Hart Lane you sense he'll be fine.

b.reade@mirror.co.uk

Sol Campbell has asked the Daily Mirror to make a donation to charity for his co- operation in this interview.

CAPTION(S):

HATRED: Spurs fans held up placards and hurled abuse at their former idol; REWARDS: With Premiership trophy
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 19, 2002
Words:1328
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