The Journey | Chem Campbell

Chem Campbell’s name will be forever etched in the history of Wolves.

The 19-year-old is only second behind club legend Jimmy Mullen as the youngest ever player to feature in the famous old gold. On 30th October 2019, Campbell, then 16, was handed his senior debut in a fourth round League Cup tie away to Aston Villa and although his professional journey began on the Villa Park turf, Campbell’s path to becoming a Premier League footballer has its own unique route, as with every academy graduate.

“He had a little bit of something that the other kids in the age group didn’t have,” said Bob Brown, who was previously head of academy recruitment at Wolves and integral to bringing Campbell to Molineux.

Brown first spotted Campbell as a seven-year-old playing Sunday league in the Black Country and attempted to recruit him in the pre-academy phase in his role at Birmingham City. At that time, Campbell and his family opted for West Bromwich Albion who had also detected his technical ability and soon penned his first contract at foundation phase.

There are deeper connections to Campbell’s Wolves roots, though, as current academy manager for football, Jon Hunter-Barrett, first encountered Chem when he was just six. Hunter-Barrett was running a Soccer School and explains the attributes that straight away caught his eye.

“The first thing I saw was how agile he was and how much he loved to be on the ball and play football,” Hunter-Barrett said.

In his scouting capacity, Brown kept close tabs on Campbell at West Bromwich Albion and maintained his contact with the family before the opportunity arose to eventually sign him for the Blues, seeing him as a progressive attacking midfielder or striker whose attitude was unquestionable. He joined a talented bunch of under-11s at Wast Hills who, despite still being very young, were dominating at their level and impressing in matches up and down the country.

Jude Bellingham, Amari Miller, Jordan James, Josh Williams and Alfie Chang all shared the pitch with Campbell during his time at Blues and between them, were under the watchful eye of Wes Hughes who had taken on a lead coach role after working as a part-time coach within the academy at Wolves.

“My first encounter with Chem was in the foundation phase at under-11s and I saw that young journey start to take place,” Hughes said. “Like all young players at that age, they’re finding their feet. It was a good space for Chem to experiment at the time and he quietly went about his business. He wasn’t the loudest one in the bunch, but he was well-respected amongst the group. I think he managed to gain his respect through what he did on the pitch – his actions spoke louder than words. He was very coachable, always wanted to do better and placed high standards on himself.”

Hughes has been fortunate enough to see Campbell’s development from a young age at Blues, right up to the more recent years at Wolves, where he now works as an under-15/16 lead coach in the youth development phase at Compton Park. Back at Blues, Hughes could see the potential within Campbell’s particular age group, as the players shone not only individually, but as a team as well.

“They were a good outfit when all of those boys came together – you’d go out and compete with the best of the best in the country and the boys relished that challenge. You could definitely see one or two were destined for good things if they kept their feet on the ground and had the right support around them. Different boys would show moments of high quality, with Chem being one.

“Chem and Jude were in the same group, and there were some good players in that group. I was fortunate to work with them all and some others who’ve gone on to play in the Championship and other different levels.”

Wolves always kept a keen eye on Campbell’s progress and when the opportunity presented itself, Brown wasted no time in bringing a 13-year-old Chem over to Wolverhampton in a move Hunter-Barrett has described as a “no brainer”.

“Over the years we played against him at West Brom and Birmingham City and were always impressed with his performances and how much he was able to impact the game with his individuality and quality that he poses on the ball,” Hunter-Barrett said. “We’re always succession planning and having a look outside for what might be needed in terms of top talent and what’s needed to strengthen some of the groups in key positions.”

And strengthen the group is certainly what Campbell did. It’s the reason why many hours are spent tracking players and noting down every last detail just on the off-chance that, one day, that player becomes available to be your own. It’s the reason why Hunter-Barrett and Brown were both sold on the idea of Campbell moving across the Midlands.

“It’s testament to the fact that it’s not only me that had seen him play at that level,” Brown said. “Other people had as well and they recognised that and supported me in my endeavours to recruit him and successfully sign him.

“The opportunities that were presented to him for his development and his educational provision meant he had a good opportunity to develop himself as a player. Knowing the sort of kid that Chem is, he really took that on board and his family bought into that – particularly the educational provision that Wolves provided for him.

“I knew that Chem would add a significant improvement to the group and probably end up playing up the age groups. He had that ability to be quick without looking quick, that languidness. He’s a bit deceptive but you don’t actually realise how mobile he is. It looks a little bit lazy, but it’s not – it’s just the way that he runs and he used it to his advantage.”

Campbell’s development began to accelerate as he progressed through the age groups at Wolves and although his attacking prowess from a wide or central position is evident now, it wasn’t always as straightforward. Indeed, as with a large percentage of players coming through an academy, Campbell gained a variety of positional experiences throughout his journey on the pitch as Hunter-Barrett describes.

“With his individual quality that he poses, Chem has actually played a number of positions for us. He’s played as a centre midfielder, central of a back three, a winger, false nine and attacking midfielder.

“It sometimes makes players more employable being able to play multiple positions and having that appreciation of what a centre back or midfielder is thinking or feeling in the game. With Chem’s position playing as dominantly as a seven or 11, it helps him understand the types of runs and movements he needs to make for players that will be playing in deeper positions.

“The time where we found that he needed to home in on a position was as a really young person getting into the 18s and 21s. We wanted to give him an opportunity where everyone else was physically ahead and in terms of experience and age.”

It was an opportunity Campbell grasped with open arms. Fast forward three years after his senior debut, he is now a fully integrated member of the first team squad after moving up from the under-21s with teammates Hugo Bueno and Jackson Smith this summer. With an eye for the spectacular, Campbell topped the goalscoring charts for the 21s last season and was once again a key member of James Collins’ side who gained promotion back to Premier League 2 Division One.

Having proved his worth, Campbell recently signed a new four-year contract at Molineux and is into his sixth year on the club’s books. He made his Premier League debut at the end of last season, and the winger has since gone on to make five further appearances in the competition this campaign.

“It’s not been linear for him, he’s had his setbacks but we’re delighted to see his progression and where he’s at now,” Hunter-Barrett added. “We’ve seen how much he’s developed as a person and how much that helps his football. It’s just understanding and appreciating where he’s actually at – he’s come on leaps and bounds and he’s now a man.

“Seeing him develop right the way through the youth development phase into our first team squad has been a delightful journey for me to watch.”

Former technical director Scott Sellars has highlighted Campbell’s passage through the ranks as a prime example of the club locally recruiting the area’s best young talent, before patiently allowing players time to grow and develop at their own pace within the academy.

“Over the last two years he’s really kicked on and developed as a footballer, but also as a person,” Sellars said. “He’s shown his quality where he can go from first team to 23s, play the games and really focus. Chem always had a lot of technical ability and the ability to beat people. We could see that he had physical potential as well, so we knew he’d be good physically when he grew up.

“He’s become really focused, really hard-working and he’s got his rewards. Each opportunity he gets, he takes. He shows his personality, shows his confidence and also his ability.”

And for Hughes, there’s no better joy than seeing a player he’s worked closely with flourish at the top level after being there from day dot.

“I came back to the club as a 15s coach and Chem was kicking on at the time. He was a first year scholar and was already around the 23s and comfortable in that environment. I’ve seen that kid ride over the hurdles, get over what he needed to and he’s getting his rewards now.”

Nine years on from when Brown first recognised his ability on those muddy Sunday league pitches, the favour was in some way returned when he was delivered the special news of Campbell’s senior debut at Villa Park three years ago – a moment to cherish and perhaps written in the stars for the man who believed.