THE rise of Arbroath has been one of the most remarkable stories in Scottish football over the last few years. In the space of four seasons, Dick Campbell has dragged the Angus club from League Two to the Championship, securing two titles in that time.

As a part-time club competing in a predominantly full-time league, Campbell admits that the odds were always going to be against his side this year. But it is a challenge that he and his players have embraced wholeheartedly.

Many tipped the Red Lichties to go straight back down to League One this season and Campbell and his charges have made the naysayers look very foolish indeed. Not only have Arbroath comfortably survived this season, finishing the campaign in fifth, but had the season continued, they could have even ended up in the play-offs and gained a shot at a place in the Premiership. In the end, they finished four points behind Ayr United in fourth with a game in hand – but Campbell is insistent that he had far simpler targets to attain this year.

“We had completed both the goals that we set at the start of the season,” he explained. “First, to stay in the league. And the second one – it’s a personal one really – was to try and become the best part-time team in Scotland.

“That’s no disrespect to Alloa whatsoever but we achieved these goals. It could have went either way to be honest. It didn’t make any difference to us, closing the season when they did, because we were never going to get into relegation trouble in the end.

“It was disappointing not to get the opportunity to get into the play-offs but I don’t get in front of myself. The play-offs had nothing at all to do with Arbroath, we didn’t get too far in front of ourselves. The problem we have now is to achieve that again. I think we’ve equalled the highest-ever position that Arbroath has achieved.

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“Alloa have stayed up the last two seasons. We got an amazing amount of confidence from Alloa and they deserve a huge pat on the back. And that’s while changing their manager. They have done exceptionally well. We finished a wee bit in front of them but they influenced our thought process.”

It has been quite the journey for Campbell. The 66-year-old readily admits that he has always had a soft spot for Angus clubs, having enjoyed considerable success at Brechin and Forfar in recent years. His dismissal from the latter came as a shock, he says, but the opportunity to manage Arbroath was one that was just too tempting to turn down.

“Four years ago I was totally shocked and surprised when I was sacked by Forfar,” Campbell said. “When you look back on it, the chairman there will be the first to admit he made a mistake. It was the exact same as Arbroath – we were bottom of the league, we hadn’t won a game, we got promoted twice, they were in debt, they weren’t in debt… it’s the same as when I went to Arbroath.

“I thought, ‘Ach, can I be bothered going through all this again?’. But I’ve always got that motivation and that ability to want to go to my work.

“I knew Arbroath were good people and I always liked the club. It was always clean and tidy and out of the Angus clubs – I’ve taken Forfar up two leagues, I’ve taken Brechin up two leagues and I’ve now taken Arbroath up two leagues, I’ve got a right fondness with Angus clubs – Arbroath is the biggest club in Angus by a considerable bit in terms of population.

“I thought to myself, ‘Bugger it’. I had turned down a couple of interesting phone calls with different clubs and then I thought, ‘Let’s go and talk to Arbroath’. The rest is history.

“Don’t underestimate the role of everyone else at the club. It’s not just me, I’m very lucky. When I was at Forfar we had the oldest management team in the world. I had my twin brother and John Ritchie, God bless him. John is my best pal and he died. John Young is older than us, then we were lucky that big Rab Douglas came in and took over from John Ritchie.

“You can’t have that backroom staff at your fingertips and not give them anything to do because they are top grade in everything that they do. I think that comes through in everything that we do and how we go about it. We have a great laugh. It’s a really fun place and it’s a great environment to play in. It’s a lovely place to be.

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“I don’t think football is rocket science – don’t bring any players at the end of the season who aren’t better than what you’ve got. That’s where young managers often go wrong. Any player you bring in has got to be better than what you’ve got and that’s the route to improvement for me.”

As a manager with a vast amount of experience in the Scottish game, it is perhaps a surprise that Campbell finds himself working part-time. But the former Dunfermline manager insists that is part of the joy of working at a club like Arbroath; getting the opportunity to go up against full-time sides and leaving them with a bloody nose. And with the prospect of visits to Tynecastle next season, the Arbroath manager has no plans of leaving any time soon.

“The important thing for me is that I’m happy where I am, I’m enthusiastic,” he said. “We’ve got targets to reach all the time. What we achieved last season – out of all the 10 promotions we’ve won – last year is up there amongst them all because there were 10 teams in the league and eight of them are full-time.

“Now is a really big problem because everybody knows in the league what to expect with Hearts coming down. That’s a great game for Arbroath to have. It’s on the east coast so it’s not too far to travel. Nobody will treat us lightly, but I’ve got to get four or five players in that are better than what I’ve got so that’ll be the next thing to do after this pandemic.

“There has always been that situation in Scotland [of part-time teams playing against full-time clubs]. That makes it very interesting for me. I like that challenge; going to new grounds, new teams, new expectation levels. I like competing against the big boys. I hope we can repeat what we did this year – I hope it gets recognised, finishing fifth in a full-time league. It’s a phenomenal season to have.”

A critical factor in Arbroath’s success this season lies in the well-drilled defence that Campbell has worked hard to create. Only runaway league leaders Dundee United conceded fewer goals than the Red Lichties in the 2019/20 season, with Campbell’s side shipping just 26 goals in as many games.

That might lead some to suggest that Arbroath are a defensive team – they are also the lowest scorers in the Championship – but Campbell is adamant that his side give as good as they get.

“Our defence was a big bonus the year before,” he said. “We won the league because of that statistic and I’ve always been well-known for being defensive. I wouldn’t say I’m a defensive coach but I do work hard on the defensive side of the game.

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“The players I’ve got for next year, they’re at the right age. Jason Thomson, Ricky Little, Colin Hamilton and Tam O’Brien are at the right age and they are very, very gifted players in terms of the abilities they have. They’ve got good balance, they’ve got good strengths. They’re a team. We work hard at that side of it. We’re of the opinion that if you start a game at 0-0 you’ve got a point before the game.

“I don’t know what defensive coaching means. I’ve no idea! When you look at our training, there’s enthusiasm and a natural happiness about the place and that comes through in how you play.

“Look at how the players have signed contracts – if there’s a better player than Tam O’Brien in the league then I’ve not seen him. The back five including the goalkeeper have been absolutely magnificent. It’s not because we coach defensive football, they’re just good players. And I think more importantly, they want to be there. You’ve got journeymen like McKenna, Goldie, Kader and boys like that. You’ve got flair players like Hilson, big Luke Donnelly, Swankie, Wighton, James Craigen, Bobby Linn. Those boys in the forward area will compete for anybody.”

Linn, in particular, is emblematic of the revolution that Campbell brought to Gayfield Park. The veteran forward has been with Arbroath since 2013, racking up more than 200 appearances in that time. But it was perhaps last season, at the age of 32, where Linn was at the peak of his powers, scoring 23 goals as Arbroath won the league and he was a worthy recipient of League One’s player of the year and player’s player of the year awards.

When asked about the influence of the club servant, Campbell was effusive in his praise of the forward.

“Bobby Linn has just been awarded a testimonial,” he said. “He’s fantastic and enthusiastic. He’s got a two-year contract now. He’s a bin man every day, he empties people’s bins. He’s 33 years old but Bobby wants to play.

“We had six or seven clubs after him in the summer but he’s decided to stay. Age will be no burden to him. It’s the same with Swankie. He’s been there 12 years now, off and on. He’s been back at the club three times. Bobby Linn is an example to everybody, everyone loves him at the club. He’s carried this club up until November or December last year, and he is by far the most inspirational player at the club. He’s great to have around the club.”

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Another player to have caught the eye for Arbroath this season is Finnish midfielder Miko Virtanen, on loan at Gayfield from Aberdeen. Campbell says that he is a big believer in the loan system in Scotland and thinks that Virtanen’s progression this season demonstrates its value. He expects the 21-year-old to be involved for Derek McInnes’ side in the top flight next season, and revealed that the loanee had even passed up the opportunity to play international football in order to turn out for the Red Lichties.

“He was a great player for us,” Campbell said. “He did really well and he’s a good lad. I believe in the loan system. I don’t believe in Premiership teams putting players out to get money for them. I’ve got a good rapport with Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hearts and Hibs. I want them to go back as better players than they were before they came.

“I’m hoping that Miko gets an opportunity. Young boys are not going to get a chance in the Premiership unless they are really, really talented players. They have got to come to me and get as much experience of playing first-team football and hopefully they will develop.

“I think Miko has got a chance this year and I know Aberdeen are very happy with him. He was very happy to stay with us. A few times last year he could have went and played international football but stayed and played with Arbroath.

“We had Craig Wighton as well. Of course, we paid a few bob for Hilson but we’ve sold a lot too. You’ve just got to get better than what you’ve got, whatever it takes to do that. Our season tickets are up, we’re getting around 1200 every week now, we’ve sold more season tickets last year than ever before. It’s all positive stuff.”

A crucial weapon in Arbroath’s arsenal is, of course, their home stadium. Situated right on the coast of the North Sea, Gayfield is a somewhat unique venue for a professional football match. Using the elements to his side’s advantage is something that Campbell understood the importance of very early on in his tenure. The Arbroath manager was typically forthcoming when describing the advantage that it brings.

“You have to adapt to it and I think we have,” he said. “It’s always a windy day at Gayfield – Jesus Christ, it’s been like that forever! We’re the closest club to the sea in Britain. You can see the waves splashing up the back of the f*****g goals!

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“But we’ve adapted to playing with that. There is a way of playing with the wind and against it. My players know exactly how to use it. Arbroath don’t play a defensive game though – we go and have a go at people.”

As for what the next season will bring, Campbell says that staying up must be the club's primary target. But he stresses that he wants to see Arbroath continue to grow rather than simply striving for survival.

"We won’t get too far ahead of ourselves, the goal will just be to stay up," he said. "Because of where we finished, the only improvement is to get into the play-offs. I’m not interested in that, I’m not going to go down that road.

"What I’m interested in is developing the football club. You’ve got to test yourself, the players and the fans. You’ve got to be in this game to win something or to do well. I’m past the stage of stabilising a football club. I’ve done that all my life and I’m not doing that anymore. What we’re doing is developing the football club and we’re enjoying every bit of it."