Macclesfield had gained only 10 points from 19 games and were seven points adrift at the foot of League Two when they surprised perhaps even themselves by appointing Sol Campbell as manager.
As the former England star and Arsenal ‘Invincible’ put it at his first press conference at the Silkmen’s ramshackle Moss Rose home, “I know Macclesfield fans will probably think: ‘What’s going on here?'”.
And who could blame them?
After all, they had just seen their team secure one of the least likely returns to the English Football League in recent seasons, only for inspirational manager John Askey and several of their best players to leave over the summer, new boss Mark Yates get sacked after losing the first 12 games and the one bright note in what had been a dismal campaign, a run to the Carabao Cup’s third round, end with an 8-0 defeat to West Ham.
So yes, there were a few questions about why the 44-year-old Londoner, who described himself that day in October as “one of the best players in the world”, had come to this club, in this mess, at this time.
One of the more persistent mysteries, in Macclesfield anyway, has been how the club could afford a manager as famous as Campbell, but not be able to pay the players’ wages on time during their promotion season, find pitches to train on this summer or often afford luxuries like enough lids for half-time cups of tea or put soap in the stadium’s toilets.
This has led to the local theory that Campbell, whose wife is the granddaughter of the founder of Barratt Homes, was working for nothing but his expenses and a chance to prove what he has been saying for the last five years: he is the smartest guy in the golden generation.
Press Association Sport went to meet Campbell this week at the training ground the club rents from a youth club in Knutsford and, ignoring the usual niceties, we asked him if he was getting paid.
“Yeah, I’m being paid but it really is for the love of the game – it’s definitely not (about money),” said Campbell, after he had finished laughing.
The two-time Premier League and three-time FA Cup winner has already spoken about how hard it is for black players to get a break in coaching or management and the numbers have spoken for themselves on that front for at least 20 years now.
Campbell explained that he had been through eight unsuccessful interviews here and abroad before he got the chance at Macclesfield, a chance that many pundits filed somewhere between ‘no’ and ‘slim’.
When he was announced as Macclesfield’s new boss, his former England team-mate Paul Ince expressed disappointment that a man with a UEFA Pro Licence – who had worked unpaid with QPR’s academy, Trinidad and Tobago and England’s Under-21s to gain experience – was having to start at rock bottom when Joey Barton, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and countless other white ex-players before them had got their starts higher up the ladder.
Ince, of course, also started his managerial career at Macclesfield in 2006. They were 92nd then, too.
“This is where I want to be – it is what it is,” said Campbell.
“The owner, the guys around the club who brought me in, that was the deal. I took the opportunity because there was a fantastic opportunity here. Macclesfield could have been mid-table. You just never know.
“We were bottom and people said things about the budget and how you’re going to have to really pull your finger out and I said, ‘That’s me, I don’t mind, working hard, looking at details, stripping things back and going again’.
“It’s really going back to football, going back to basics and teaching guys how to defend, how to attack, how to approach games, how to look after yourself on and off the field.
“I’ve got a wealth of experience from about 14 at Lilleshall and then finishing my career at the highest level. So I’ve brought all that to Macclesfield and that’s what it’s all about, being true to football and passing it on to the players.”
And it is working. Macclesfield have won five games and 17 points in the 11 games since his appointment.
They are now off the bottom and two points from safety. They would have been two places above the drop if they could have held on to a 2-0 lead at Cheltenham on Saturday, but a 20th-minute red card for captain Nathan Cameron changed the game and the hosts came back to win 3-2.
“We just stopped playing football,” was Campbell’s verdict and you get the impression they will be better prepared for it next time.
But mistakes change games, just as mistakes change careers, and recent history suggests very few black managers bounce back from an early setback and relegation, whether it was once nailed on or not, would be a setback.
“There are always doubts, that’s life,” Campbell admitted.
“You’re going to have that, ‘Did he make it?’ or whatever. But the main thing is how I perform and how I conduct myself in these environments.
“It’s a difficult environment to perform in, we haven’t got a budget like most clubs, but I’m making a fist of it. I just get on with it.”
Campbell’s ability to work without Premier League resources was another of the questions that was raised at the time of his appointment, as was his apparent ignorance of the lower divisions and lack of contacts in the north west.
One of the myths that attached itself to him was that he once went to an interview for a managerial job but did not know any of the clubs players.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know too much about the individual players – who would?” he asked, laughing again.
“(But) I’m clever enough to work out the player I’m watching. I’m a football person. I know movement.
“It’s not like I’ve just dropped from the sky and I’m suddenly a football manager.”
He has also proved himself to be more than able to muck in and make do.
Noticing how short of fitness his players were, he did a deal with Sonda Sports, a Polish company that makes wearable GPS devices, so he would have the data he needed to put in “mini pre-seasons” between the games by upping the intensity of training.
That deal involves him doing some PR work for the company, while Macclesfield get a training tool they could not otherwise afford.
Likewise another of Campbell’s called-in favours, getting two days a week of former England and Manchester United striker Andy Cole’s time.
“Years ago, I think Coley has forgotten the conversation, I said if I get a job, I’d bring him in,” he explained.
“So I reminded him. But he’s also local, so it’s perfect. That’s tapping in to what is happening around south Manchester, he’s 20 minutes from here.
“He’s one of the best goal-scorers England has produced and he’s passing his knowledge on to the guys here. Perfect.”
You get the distinct impression that Campbell is not finished on this front, either, but is Cole working for free?
“No, he’s getting paid for it! But I don’t know if he’d be here if I wasn’t,” he admitted.
Ince’s year in charge at Macclesfield ended with his mission accomplished: the club avoided the drop on the season’s last day, although they were helped by Boston’s 10-point penalty for entering insolvency protection.
“I want to get out before that – way out of it,” said Campbell.
“No target but I don’t want to be waiting for the last two or three games to be out of it.”
Ince left for the other end of the table and MK Dons that summer, and he took them up as champions the following year, but Campbell knows where he wants to be next season.
“Here! I love south Manchester, I love Macclesfield,” he said.
“I don’t want to be bouncing around. I want to get a proper pre-season under my belt and go for it.
“That’s what it’s all about. Build.”