KENYA BROWN - Wednesday, December 25, 2019
Jonny Campbell's gamble to forge a professional soccer career in Asia has finally paid off as he helped Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng FC win Cambodia's C-League title this season.
It's been two years since the Johnson City, Tennessee native decided to make the move to the southeast Asian country, where he first signed with fellow top-flight team Phnom Penh Crown for the 2018 season, and now all of his hard work has finally seen him earn his first piece of silverware.
Speaking with Yanks Abroad after the team wrapped up the season, Campbell was ecstatic about the success both for Svay Rieng and himself personally.
"I'm extremely happy to get my first piece of silverware as a pro. It's been a very exciting season and I've enjoyed almost every moment of it. Also, this season helped bring more attention to my football career which I believe could help me in the future," he said. "Hopefully, it can help other American footballers make the move who want to play in Asia."
On top of winning the league title, this season was much more special for the center-back and Svay Rieng as they had a chance to make history. The team was on a run to finish the season unbeaten to make them the first team in Cambodia to accomplish the challenging feat and put them in the company of legendary teams such as Arsenal (2003-2004), AC Milan (1991-1992), and Juventus (2011-2012).
This milestone did not escape Campbell's attention as the season progressed towards its final stage. Going unbeaten for an entire season may not be what a team thinks about early in the campaign, but that grew much more as the player and his teammates racked up the points game after game.
And as Svay Rieng got closer to reaching invincibility, the 28-year-old had thoughts of achieving the same feat as his favorite English Premier League team.
"I've been a massive Arsenal fan throughout my life, so it was always in the back of my head. I wanted to finish a full season unbeaten, but it wasn't until around 10 games left that I really started to think, we could potentially do it," said Campbell as he added that the team maintained their composure by focusing on each game coming up instead of thinking too far ahead.
Of course, Campbell could not do all of this on his own. Svay Rieng built a solid core of domestic and foreign players to push for their achievement. There was Cameroonian forward Befolo Mbarga putting away the goals, Soeuy Visal who led the team as the captain, and Campbell providing steady coverage at the back. All of it just seemed to click well whenever these groups of players came out to play.
"We have a lot of talented Cambodian players, and mostly every player in our squad contributed massively towards our success. We had a great balance within our team from our defense to our attacking players," said Campbell.
And as much of the success is credited with the performances of the players on the field, Svay Rieng could not have done it without the guidance of their head coach Conor Nestor. In his first-ever professional coaching job, the man from Ireland was able to find the right setup that saw them go on a record-setting 25-game unbeaten run.
Campbell is in high praise of Nestor as he was able to witness first-hand how much the coach lives for soccer.
"Coach Conor was integral for our success because he is obsessed with football and studied each and every opponent. The formations we would play in games, then switching during the game based on how the game was developing was a key to our success. A lot of teams just didn't have an answer to it, because they weren't as tactically aware as our head coach is," said the East Tennesse State University alum.
"Also, he's a great motivator and can bring out the best in players. Once I met with him, back in November 2018, I knew that I wanted to play for him. He told me everything you want to hear as a player. He knew exactly how I like to play and knew everything about my game. Although that information might seem irrelevant, it shows exactly how much he studies the game and his opponents, because I played for an opposing club in 2018."
With everything working out well for Svay Rieng, as they secured the league title with two games to spare, all the attention in the country was on whether they could finish the season unbeaten.
After smashing Asia Euro United by a 6-1 scoreline at the end of October, all eyes were on the team's final game of the season, an away fixture against NagaWorld. With the way Svay Rieng had been playing throughout the campaign, a favorable result should have come for them.
However, their dreams of ending the season unbeaten was thwarted in a controversial 2-1 defeat. Speak to any Svay Rieng supporter who was there that day and they will point the finger at the referee as from viewing the highlights he had a horror day officiating. And if Campbell were to take this case to a court of law, he would most certainly win.
"The last game was definitely not the happiest game for me. We had three claims for handballs that could've been given as penalties in our favor and they had one which was against me and you can only guess which one was given," Campbell explained.
"I ended the match with a yellow card in the 87th minute for dissent after a tackle that was never a foul, then another yellow in the 92nd for a late tackle. It was a deserved second yellow, so I can't complain about getting sent off, but I was very unhappy with what went on in the game. I wanted to win that match, and because of that, I let my emotions get the better of me towards the end."
However, despite the questionable officiating, nothing could take away from Campbell's joy of winning the C-League with his teammates in convincing fashion. And no one could be more proud of him than his father and grandmother back in Tennessee.
"They were both so happy for me. My father is always proud of me for following my dreams and doing what I love. My grandmother is proud too, but she just wants me to be home. Those two are everything to me, so it makes being on the other side of the world very difficult. Especially, whenever I know that they both just want me to be home with them," he said.
It is certainly a Merry Christmas for the Campbell household as the No. 99 takes some time off to be with his loved ones. But he'll be back at work come the new year as he recently signed a new contract with Svay Rieng.
Campbell and Svay Rieng will be locked in on trying to retain their league crown in the upcoming season as it will be a busy one, with them also scheduled to play in the AFC Cup, the continent's version of the Europa League, the AFF ASEAN Club Championship, Mekong Cup, and Hu Sen Cup.