Northern Ireland

Muhammad Ali letter proves knock-out as Armagh clinch Gaelic football's big prize

Armagh captain, Kieran McGeeney, presenting Ali with an Armagh jersey in 2005. Image copyright Kieran McGeeney
Image caption Armagh captain, Kieran McGeeney, presenting Ali with an Armagh jersey in 2005.

Muhammad Ali inspired thousands to achieve greatness and even played a part in helping Armagh claim the most prestigious prize in Gaelic football.

Signed letters from the world champion boxer were slipped under the door of the players' hotel rooms, the morning of the 2002 championship final.

Hugh Campbell had been recruited as part of the Armagh coaching staff in 2002 by manager, Joe Kernan.

Despite no prior background in Gaelic games, Hugh specialised in sports psychology.

After reading "The Fight", by Norman Mailer, a book which documented the build up to the famous Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight in 1974, Hugh began using Ali's quotes and stories throughout the season to inspire the players.

Image copyright Armagh GAA
Image caption The letters were slipped under the door of the players hotel room, the morning of the All-Ireland final against Kerry.

He said: "At the time Ali was a huge underdog and most thought that Foreman would be too strong for him.

"So much so, that they actually feared for his safety.

"Ali, however, had a contrasting attitude and was even dancing in the changing room moments before the fight.

"Like Ali, Armagh at the time were huge underdogs and were seen to always fall at the final hurdle having lost a few semi-finals in the previous years.

'Massive boost'

"I wanted to get it through to them that it was just a label and often used Ali as an example of overcoming it."

Hugh, however, didn't want to 'sicken' the players about Muhammad Ali and chose his moments carefully when to refer to him.

When Armagh made it to the final, he thought it would be a 'massive boost' if he could get Ali to somehow deliver them a message.

Image caption Steven McDonnell said Muhammad Ali's letter "instilled belief" in the players

"My next door neighbour is a TV producer and she got me the number of Ali's organisation", he said.

"I didn't have much hope in him actually replying but figured it was worth a shot and gave them a ring.


"They were incredibly warm and helpful, so I put together a portfolio about Armagh, sending them newspaper clippings, photos and a jersey to try to give them an idea of how big an event it is, as I know they wouldn't hear anything about it over there.

"When they rang to tell me that they would send letters to each player with Muhammad Ali's signature, I was electrified.

"The evening before the match I didn't tell the players about the letter as I wanted to surprise them in the morning, but in my presentation I did ask say 'If Ali was here in his prime right now, what do you think he would say to you?'

"Amazingly one of the players thought the letter was a joke and threw it in the bin, before realising it was real and had to go rummaging for it."

Image copyright Inpho
Image caption Extra care was took to do everything discreetly and that's why the Armagh backroom staff got in touch again in 2003

The coaching staff didn't want the letter to become a sideshow and distract the players, but simply give them the boost they needed.

They took extra care to do everything discreetly and that's why the Armagh backroom staff got in touch again in 2003.

Image copyright Hugh Campbell
Image caption The signature of Muhammad Ali on an Armagh gaelic football jersey

"Ali sent another letter the following year", Hugh added.

"Once again, we made it to the final and he sent us another letter saying that we defied the critics by being the defending champs.

"When we lost, Ali's wife rang me to tell me that he wanted to know what happened and to deliver a personal message to me.

Image copyright Irish photo archive
Image caption Muhammad Ali arriving at Dublin airport during his visit to Ireland in 1972

"That message was 'keep going' and they later sent me back the jersey I had sent them, this time with Ali's signature and I have it proudly hung up and framed."

Steven McDonnell, who kicked the winning score in 2002, said: "Ali is the greatest sports person of all time, you just have to look at boxing then compared to now to see the difference he made.

"As a sports fan, I always have been interested in the man, but when the coaches, Hugh Campbell and Des Jennings, started using his quotes and stories to motivate us throughout the 2002 season, I really started to get inspired by him.

Image copyright Hugh Campbell
Image caption Hugh Campbell (left) with Armagh forward Diarmuid Marsden at the celebration dinner following the All-Ireland final

'The greatest'

"Joe Kernan identified our weaknesses as well as our strengths and a big weakness he saw was a lack of belief in ourselves.

"Ali always believed that he was the greatest and we wanted to be the greatest.

"His letter helped us believe that we were.

Image copyright Inpho
Image caption Armagh claimed the most prestigious prize in Gaelic football

"I have a lot of jerseys, medals and memorabilia collected over my career but that letter certainly has the most sentimental value."

The 'Greatest' had experienced GAA sports first hand in 1972, during his visit to Dublin.

He received lessons from Kilkenny hurling legend, Eddie Keher, but said: "They look pretty rough these football and hurling players - I think I'll just stick to boxing."

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