GAA Football

Passionate Stefan Campbell hoping to realise Division One dream with Armagh

Armagh's Stefan Campbell is hoping to be playing Division One football next season

BACK in the halcyon days of pre-lockdown when the Armagh footballers were scorching a path towards Division One, the biggest dilemma in Stefan ‘Soupy’ Campbell’s life was how he could attend his daughter’s Holy Communion Day and play against Derry in the Ulster Championship on the same day.

Then came the rolling thunder of Covid and such dilemmas tumbled down the ladder of importance. Lives were turned upside down. Job security. Paying the bills. Making ends meet...

For ‘Soupy’ Campbell, football was always his stress-buster. Even more so when Covid started to bite hard and sport was paused.

Through everything, Gaelic football never felt more important.

Nobody escaped the first lockdown without some scars - and just as the inter-county season was about to resume earlier this month there was a push to call a halt to sport.

In truth, it wouldn’t have taken much for the Irish Government, the GAA and GPA to pull the shutters down before an inter-county ball had been kicked.

Never one to court publicity, Campbell posted an impassioned appeal on Twitter, under the heading ‘Solely my opinion’, articulating the importance of playing sport.

The Lurgan man wrote: ‘I have avoided a Covid outbreak in work, the infamous house party cluster prior to our club championship semi-final and again with Armagh because I acted responsibly, made sacrifices and chose to drive alone...

‘The NFL and Ulster Championship is the one thing that has kept most of us going, the emotional stress I have felt over the last six months is something I’ve never experienced and now with some light at the end of the tunnel we have an opportunity to give some joy to a nation that is at breaking point. To take that away would a catastrophe.’

So, no better place to start than his October 15 tweet that went viral in GAA circles.

“I just said: ‘I’m going to tweet this because I’m losing the plot.’

“I just thought it would have got the audience it needed because there were many people that weren’t backing the return of Gaelic football. I just needed to get it off my chest. Even if it influenced one mind…

“Now, I was maybe blind to other counties and what facilities they have,” Campbell noted.

“In the Athletic Grounds we’ve four changing rooms and we’ve a big stand to do our analysis. Maybe some counties don’t have that and we maybe benefited a bit more. I can only speak on how well our county board conducted things. But the tweet was from the heart.”

Today’s game against Clare in Ennis is the most important in the recent history of Armagh football as they bid to end their eight-year absence from Division One.

It was back in 2012 Campbell cut his senior teeth under Paddy O’Rourke. He remembers being introduced as a first-half substitute against Mayo in a Division One encounter at The Athletic Grounds and being hooked in the second half.

“As a kid at the time you were thinking: ‘Maybe I’m not ready for Division One yet. We’ll get back up next year.’

“But, fast-forward eight years and this is the first opportunity we’ve got because we’ve been bouncing between Division Two and Three,” he said.

During the intervening years Campbell has evolved into one of the most flamboyant and effective footballers in Ulster.

“I’m always one for bigg-ing the game up. This is probably the biggest game we’ve had in quite a number of years and it will tell us where we’re at. If we get over the line, it’ll give this group the chance to grow and develop. I’d just love the chance to showcase our ability on a regular basis in Division One.”

On the face of it, last week’s Division Two tie with Roscommon was another classic case of Armagh snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and while acknowledging they left too many gaps for the Rossies to exploit in the second half, the extent of the role Covid played went slightly under the radar.

“Obviously we lost 17 players due to either positive Covid cases or close contacts,” Campbell said. “We didn’t want that figure released prior to the Roscommon game to make those excuses.

“But, in hindsight, it probably did affect us. People said we got the Covid cases at a good time because we still had 10 days to prepare for the game whereas Fermanagh had no time to prepare for their game against Clare.

“As a result, Roscommon finished a bit stronger and maybe some of our players that had tested positive previously did pull up slightly, and it’s absolutely not their fault. Who knows?

“In terms of the game I thought we managed it well… but they sucked us too far up the field and we left too many gaps for them but it’s something we’ll learn from and hopefully take into the Clare game.”

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