Soon after 10.30am on a cool and cloudy day in Hertfordshire the man with 73 England caps to his name, and who was once regarded as one of the finest defenders in the world, starts putting the cones out. It is a striking sight, but for Sol Campbell this is the new norm of life as an aspiring coach and, if all goes well, top-level manager.
Campbell is in the formative stages of gaining Uefa's A licence – the second-highest qualification available after the pro licence – which he is pursuing via a course with the Football Association of Wales that involves the former centre-back sharing a classroom with 23 others, including his old Arsenal team-mate Patrick Vieira, and carrying out practical sessions in his own time.
Given the success he enjoyed in the red half of north London it is not a surprise Campbell has chosen to hone his coaching skills at Arsenal's London Colney training base, where he, Vieira and the other Invincibles of 2003-04 grew as individuals and as a team.
Campbell would later speak in bitter and rather sad tones about how he ultimately feels he will have to begin life as a coach overseas as "there are no opportunities" for him in this country due to a combination of racial prejudice and a relationship with the English Football Association that he describes as "broken". But on an autumnal morning, he is at first a picture of focused contentment.
The 39-year-old has coached a mix of the club's Under-18 and Under-21 players more than 30 times already and was back on Monday for another session. Out on pitch four of the Premier League leaders' vast 11-pitch complex, Campbell is abuzz with intensity and concentration as he puts the cones out, plants manikins into the turf and, quite literally, moves the goalposts as a group of 21 youngsters, which includes the 18-year-old defender Isaac Hayden and the Spain youth international Héctor Bellerín – both of whom featured in Arsenal's Capital One Cup victory over West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday – warm up under the watch of the fitness coach, Mark Armitage.
"Coaching is definitely different," says Campbell, who retired from playing in May 2012 following spells with Tottenham, Portsmouth, Notts County, Newcastle and, most gloriously, Arsenal with whom he won two Premier League titles and three FA Cups. "I've got the knowledge but it's about communicating that to others in a manner they can understand. There's an art to that and the more you practise, the better you get."
With Armitage having completed his "speed work" with the group, Campbell takes charge at 10.50am, spreading the boys across a section of one half of the pitch, where the manikins have been placed, and instructing them to pass four balls among themselves in rotation. "Sharper lads, sharper," he shouts, before demanding they "move their feet". Shortly after, Campbell adjusts the routine so that the players now have to pass the ball with a single touch around the manikins.
"The manikins were placed in positions to encourage the lads to play passes from different angles, which was meant to get them looking wide and playing wide," Campbell later says. "That was what the whole session was about; building possession and getting the ball out wide. As a player I was taught the importance of working four or five passes within your team and then stretching the play. That's something I believe in strongly as a coach."
Campbell speaks of his love for "tricky wingers", which catches the attention coming from a man who built his reputation on being a formidable defender. "I've always felt wingers, more than any type of player, can change a game," he says. "I saw that first-hand at Arsenal where Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires did a fantastic job for the team in wide areas, overlapping, putting crosses in. They were crucial to our success. If you also look at Barcelona; they might not play with traditional wingers but they want their full-backs to get up and down and stretch the play. It's a key part of football."
The emphasis on possession and width is even more defined in the second routine Campbell puts on, at 11.05am. The boys are split into two teams, one in blue bibs, the other in white, and again using a section of one half of the pitch their task is to string a minimum of 10 passes together before chipping the ball to a team-mate located in one of the "end zones" at either side of the designated area. With so many players using such a small part of the pitch the ensuing contest is unsurprisingly frantic, yet also fascinating, requiring those involved to think quickly, pass quickly and, most importantly, seek space on the fringes.
"Get the ball out wide," barks Campbell as a congestion of bodies builds in the centre of the section. "Look at the size of the pitch, stretch it, stretch it."
With the youngsters struggling to follow orders, Campbell takes it upon himself to stretch the pitch by, well – stretching it. A larger space is accompanied by the instruction that the two teams now only have to string seven passes together before playing the ball to the end zone. Improvement follows, with the end zones now being reached with some regularity, but still Campbell is not happy. "Stretch it, stretch it," he shouts again.
It is intriguing to see Campbell being so vocal. This, after all, is a man who along with his talents on the pitch became notable for his understated and considered manner off it. Campbell can on occasion even seem detached, leading to a perception that of all the traits required to be a successful coach, man-management may be the one he lacks the most. He disagrees: "I love managing characters. Characters make teams and I believe I can deal with all sorts. The most important thing is being able to pass my knowledge on to others and allowing them to flourish as individuals and as part of a team with a specific strategy.
"Personally, I'm a big fan of the way Brazil have traditionally played – two centre-halves, one protective midfielder and two full-backs bombing on. That's a style of play that is all about winning and that's what I'm about – I'm in it to win it, not mucking about and going for the draw."
Observed by members of Arsenal's academy coaching staff, including the head of development Terry Burton, Campbell wraps up the second routine at 11.36am and takes the group over to the other half of pitch four, where two full-sized goals have been set up and the three goalkeepers who have been preparing at the far side are also in attendance. It is now time for an actual match, although there remains a specific emphasis on wide play. Four wingers are told by Campbell to position themselves on the touchlines – two on each side – and for a goal to be scored the ball must first be played to them, after a minimum of five consecutive passes, with a cross then required to be delivered into the area.
This is the part of the morning that the group enjoy the most, so much so that when Campbell blows the full-time whistle they plead with him to continue. He adds on three more minutes before offering an apologetic wave to the coaches at the far end.
It is all over at 12.30pm and, as the youngsters depart, Campbell walks over to Osian Roberts, the FAW's technical director who runs the Newport course and is acting as the former England international's mentor. "Sol definitely has the desire to learn and be progressive," he says. "It's important we keep people with his experience and calibre in the game and coaching is the ideal way for that to happen."
Campbell will attend four more meetings at the Dragon Park national football development centre in Newport over the next nine months, as well as continuing to coach at Arsenal and, he hopes, observing sessions at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Milan. Once he has achieved his A licence, he plans to go for the pro licence and ultimately gain all the qualifications required to coach at the highest level across Europe. Start to finish, the process is expected to last for three years.
Asked what his long-term plans are, Campbell's mood darkens. "I want to start abroad," he says. "There are no opportunities for me here, not until attitudes change anyway. Everyone has to ask themselves why there are not more black managers in this country and why the likes of Brian Deane have to go abroad [to Sarpsborg 08 in Norway] to get a chance. I've spoken to other black players who want to coach and they feel the same, that attitudes here are archaic. I hope and pray the environment changes."
Given there are only four black managers working in England's top four divisions – Chris Hughton (Norwich), Chris Powell (Charlton), Paul Ince (Blackpool) and Chris Kiwomya (Notts County) – Campbell perhaps has a point, although there may well be vast improvements should the PFA and Football League's plans to introduce an equivalent of the "Rooney Rule" – that requires NFL teams in America to interview ethic-minority candidates for head-coach roles – go ahead. Campbell may be long gone by then, however, with his anger also directed at the very top of the domestic game.
"I gave my heart and soul for the national team but the FA were not there for me when I had problems," he says with only a vague reference to what those problems were. "They tried to help me afterwards but they were never proactive. Even after that, I still wanted to do something with the England setup, and they said they were interested, but the interest went cold. Suddenly, Gary Neville pops up as assistant manager. It's obvious they want nice people who won't cause them any problems. I put out an olive branch and it got broken, but whatever, I'm ready to move on."
Given the surroundings, there is an obvious question: what about a coaching role with Arsenal? "You never know," Campbell replies, his voice notably perkier. "This is a fantastic club and it would be a great place to work. That is something I would definitely consider once I have my badges, and provided they were willing to have me."