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The Derry man who brought GAA to Thailand

'It’s not just about gaelic football, it’s about Irish people and how we fit in around the world.'

GAA

Derry man John Campbell with daughter Shannen on St. Patrick’s Day when Bangkok turned Wat Arun, a famous landmark, green.

When John Campbell left St. Columb’s College back in 1989, he had no idea he was taking his first steps on a path he never could have foreseen, intertwined with a sport he rarely played.

After 25 years in Asia, 20 of which have been in Thailand, John is now nearing 50 years of age and is finally taking a step back from an adulthood that has revolved wholeheartedly around the growth of gaelic football in Bangkok and beyond.

The magnitude of the Asian GAA community cannot be underestimated.  The Asian Games are massive in this part of the world, with over 60 teams involved – men and women, and over 800 people coming together in friendship and competition.  There are 24 clubs in Asia and the popularity of the sport, amongst Irish exiles and locals is growing year on year.

At the heart of this growth was, and is, Derry native John who founded Thailand GAA in 2007. Since then, John has slowly but surely built something lasting, ever since agreeing to a request from the Asian County Board to set up a gaelic football team in Thailand.

That set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in a thriving club – Thai GAA – but also a gaelic community that extends far beyond the limitations of the game itself.

With three South Asia Championships to their name, Thai GAA is not just there to make up the numbers – it has ambition, not just for growth, but for success, and winning the men’s section of the Asian Gaelic Games remains the ultimate goal.

It is a far cry from kicking a ball about with Oxford United back in the late 1980s.

“I would never have thought 25 years ago when I was in Derry that I would end up in Thailand,” John admits.

“I had one of those fork in the road moments. I was working for two years in England and was itching to get back home. I wasn’t that satisfied with my career and wanted to do something different.

It was in July ’95 that my boss rang me and asked ‘How do you fancy going to Thailand next week?’. The very same day I got a job offer back in Derry. I thought if Thailand didn’t happen, I would take the job in Derry. A week later I was in Thailand. That taste in travel, it opens your eyes to the world and I have never looked back.”

John left St. Columb’s in 1989 and was accepted into Loughborough University for a degree in Chemical Engineering. Loughborough’s fine sporting pedigree was a key factor behind his choice but that side of it didn’t work out as he hoped and it wasn’t until his final year that he kicked a ball regularly again.

He started playing gaelic – not his strong suit – in Leicester, before moving to Reading where there was a strong Irish community, and plenty in the way of soccer and gaelic.

His job took him all around the world, but a trip to Taiwan in 2006 ultimately changed his path and his life, completely.

Now married to Jessie, with children Shannen, Cara and Caolan, John remembers when he discovered just how popular gaelic was in Asia.

“I went to Taiwan in 2006 on a project and discovered gaelic football team there,” he recalls. “They were competing in Asian Gaelic Games. It was just amazing to see 500 Irish people playing Gaelic football in China.

“I had the opportunity to meet with Micheal O'Muircheartaigh who was the honorary President of the Asian County Board. He comes over year and commentates on the games pitch-side. I didn’t watch a lot of gaelic growing up but I always watched the All-Ireland final. His voice was legendary and to actually meet the guy and have dinner with him and get to know him, was inspiring.

“I returned to Thailand in 2007, the County Board asked John if he could set up a team in Thailand.

I managed to get a few Irish people and a few non-Irish people together and we got a team together and we played in our first Asian Games in Singapore in 2007. In our first match we were lined up against Singapore Rugby team and I was in midfield and was lined up against a guy called Phil Green, who used to be a hooker for the England rugby team.

“That was our first participation as Thailand GAA. Since then, every year, except 2011, we have entered a team into the Asian Gaelic Games.”

 

Responsibility

For a man who preferred soccer, and even a bit of golf, John was suddenly thrust into a position of responsibility, and, admittedly stubborn, he was not about to give his new role anything other than 100%.

It was not easy however, and a lot of difficult days passed for a club which started out with five showing up for training to a club and city which has now hosted the Asian Games on three occasions, in 2009, 2017 and 2018 as well as hosting the South Asia Games on four occasions.

“It was very difficult to be honest,” he admits.

“The first thing I did was put an ad in the Bangkok Post and I got maybe four or five replies. The first training session had four or five people with a few girlfriends watching on. Because of my background with Oxford United, fitness came first so I told the guys they wouldn’t see a ball until they were fit, and I think because they had a different background from me, they thought this wasn’t for them. I probably scared people away.

“Near tournaments it’s easy to get people to commit, but during the year and you’re running training once a week – I have a 2-hour commute to get out to training – you’re not sure what numbers you’re going to get. It’s very frustrating and the number of times I questioned myself ‘Why am I doing this?’ It was difficult, but I’m quite stubborn as well, and when I start something, it takes a lot for me to drop it because I want to make it a success. I persevered and I persevered and in 2012 it really started changing.”

The foundations of Thai GAA really started to take hold thanks to a talented group of girls, who came to the club, not just wanting to play, but to compete at the highest level. As defining moments go, this was significant for John and his hopes of what Thai GAA could ultimately be.

“I got a batch of girls in who were all natural athletes,” he explains.

“Only two of them were Irish, one from the North and one from the South and neither of them had played gaelic before. One of them had played soccer for Northern Ireland but had no background in gaelic football. I had this group of girls for six weeks – all teachers from international schools before the 2012 Asian Games in Malaysia, trying to get the basics.

“In the first games they were asking ‘Where do I stand? Where do I go?’ They won six out of six at that tournament and won their division. That was unbelievable success. Their hardest game was actually the semi-final against the Japanese Ladies. We beat them on Sudden Death Golden Goal.

"The same bunch of girls came back the next year in 2014 and they won their title again that year. The following year they lost in the Upper Division, but that set the basis. This group of girls was committed, they loved their sport and we were giving them an opening to play competitively.

“2015 was when we really bedded in as a club and that was on the back of our girls’ team.

In 2015, my girls won the South Asia Championship, so that was a regional tournament involving Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Shanghai. That was quite an achievement.”

 

Sustained success

On the back of the girls’ success, the club got this influx of Irish men in 2015 and that has since helped sustain the club over the last 6 years.

The first men’s trophy soon followed – the Plate at the South Asia Games, and from there the club has gone from strength to strength. Better quality players joined – some with county experience, and fresh ideas and new energy began running through Thai GAA.

“I was trying to remember things I learned playing with Doire Colmcille 20 or 30 years ago, but then these guys come in with fresh ideas and I was happy to let them coach,” John laughs.

“The club is in a really strong place right now. We probably have about 80 members. What’s important is that there is a really good social side to the club as well. Most of the players would be late 20’s, and early to late 30s, but there is room for everyone and it’s just a home away from home for a lot of people. It’s a good social network as well and you’re giving people a chance to play competitive sport as well as keeping fit.

“Something I’ve picked up from the last 15 years of playing gaelic in Asia is what gaelic football means to people as a community. Most major cities in Asia have a gaelic team and it really is a home away from home from Irish and Northern Irish people, and people from both sides of the community in Ireland.”

Only recently, John gave up the Chairmanship at the club, as he finally takes a back step from the day to day running of Thai GAA. It has been a labour of passion for the Carnhill man for 14 years, and he is proud of what it has become. He is not about to drift away into the sunset however. He might be turning 50 but he wants to keep playing, and doing whatever he can to ensure longevity and success for the club in the future.

“I am very proud of what we’ve achieved in Thailand,” he says.

“It’s also helped me stay connected to Ireland to be honest. This connection with gaelic football has given me more of an identity and a connection with Ireland being overseas. I have been able to meet a lot of people through gaelic football. The GAA certainly connects people and you can see the impact it has overseas.

“I’m realizing that Father Time is marching on. I still want to be involved with the club, but I have work and family commitments. I used to be very heavily involved in making all the decisions but I have got a good bunch of people in there now who can share the load.

“The next tournament maybe in Bangkok next year as it will host the South Asia Games and then at the end of 2022 for the Asia Games, so maybe I can have a final swansong at those. There are guys older than me still playing so there’s a level for everyone. I’ll still be involved.”

 

Home away from home

John returns to Derry every summer with his family but for now, and for the past 25 years, his real home has been over 6,000 miles away, where he has helped build not just a team, but a club, a community and a legacy that will last long into the future.

“It makes you realise the world is a small place and that the opportunities are out there,” he reflects. “It wasn’t something I sought out. I am proud of what I have achieved and what the club has achieved, but there has been a lot of good work that other people have done out in Asia around gaelic football.

“It’s not just about gaelic football, it’s about Irish people and how we fit in around the world. We have no real baggage, we are able to adapt and fit into the communities we find ourselves in, and make a positive impact with our culture and with the welcome that we can bring to other people. When you are a teenager you have no idea where the future is going to take you. I had no great expectations or any great career plan. It was all by chance and by opportunity and here I am, sitting in Thailand.”

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