History-maker Liam reflects on Tyrone’s first minor All-Ireland

By Conor Dorman

Almost 80 years ago Tyrone took their first steps onto the home of Gaelic Games, Croke Park, for the All-Ireland Minor final.

It was 1947 and standing in their way of the title was Connacht champions Mayo. Among the Tyrone ranks was Liam Campbell, now 94 years old and the last surviving member of this historic side.

Campbell, who played his club football with Coalisland, lined out that day and was a key reason why the teenagers became part of Tyrone folklore, as they staged one of the all-time comebacks and in doing so became the county’s first ever All Ireland Champions.

The Red Hands had won the Ulster Minor football title a year previously but missed out on a first trip to Croke Park losing to Dublin in the semi- final.

Liam, like many others from the All-Ireland winning team was not part of that 1946 side, as he recalls:

“My first year of minors was 1947, It was a totally different team Tyrone should have won the All Ireland in 1946, they lost to Dublin, they had a good team.”

In his debut season as a county minor Liam played at right full back as the Red Hands beat Monaghan and Donegal to reach their second consecutive Ulster final, where they would defeat rivals Armagh by a single point in a classic encounter.

The Red Hands next game was in Drogheda against what Liam deems a “great” Offaly side who had defeated Dublin in the Leinster final. Tyronewould prove too strong on the day and set up a historic meeting with Mayo.

The Coalisland man was one of the few players who went into the contest with experience of playing in Croke Park due to his schools success with St Patrick’s Grammar school Armagh.

Amazingly, Liam won three Macrory Cup medals from 1945 to 1947 and he also played a key role helping the Armagh school win the inaugural Hogan cup in 1946 at the GAA headquarters.

Looking back on their Hogan Cup triumph, he said: “I had played earlier in Croke Park so it was nothing new to me but most of the boys had never played in Croke park.”

The All-Ireland Minor final unfolded in almost miraculous fashion. Tyrone’s lack of experience seemed to be showing as they trailed Mayo by 12 points on a score line of 4-2 0-2 at half time.

No- one could have blamed the young Ulster side had they accepted that it wasn’t their day but what transpired over the next 30 minutes would write Liam and his teammates into history.

Liam believes a tactical switch during the half was a catalyst for the crazy comeback.

“At half time I went into centre-half back, Edward (Devlin) went into midfield and it changed the whole complexion of the game.”

Centre half-forward Peter Solan,who would go on to star for Mayo seniors in their 1950 and 1951 All Ireland wins, had a brilliant first-half at centre half-forward.

However, his fortunes certainly changed when Liam was assigned to mark him, and he was held to a mere point by Campbell in the second-half.

“In the last minute he almost won a ball but I just got there in front of him, if he had gotten that ball he would have scored and it would have been a draw.”

Tyrone had done it. They had come from 12 points down to win a historic All-Ireland and the question is, how exactly did they celebrate their unbelievable win:

Liam joked “We went for an ice cream later that day to celebrate and listened to the All Ireland final between Cavan and Kerry which was played in New York” (for the record, it was the first and only time the All Ireland final was played outside of Ireland, in commemoration of the 1847 Irish famine.)

The team returned home the following day and received an outstanding reception: “We came on the train the next day, they put us on a lorry, we were in Ballygawley, Omagh, Pomeroy and then down to Coalisland.”

Liam was one of three Fianna players on the team. Notably, the Tyrone trailblazers included clubmate and captain Eddie Devlin, who became the first player to captain a team to two All-Ireland titles as Tyrone would go on to defend their title.

Liam’s Red Hand career wouldn’t end there as only two weeks later he would go on to make his senior debut for Tyrone against Donegal.

“I was told in October of that year I might be playing on Sunday against Donegal in Omagh, I was a sub, I got put on in the second half I caught a few balls, but we lost the match by a few points.”

Liam would go on to play for the Tyrone senior squad for a decade, and he learnt in later years that he actually, unbeknown to him at the time, played for some time with a broken back sustained during gymnastics.

He also enjoyed success at club level, remarkably making his club debut when he was only 14. The undoubted highlight of his club career came in 1955, when he won the Tyrone Senior Championship with Coalisland with victory over Dungannon in Pomeroy before his eventual retirement in 1956.

An extremely intelligent man, in his personal life Liam was School Principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Galbally for many decades, helping to inspire generations of local school children.

But it’s his GAA achievements that will be recorded for posterity.

His achievements with the Tyrone minors and St Patrick’s Armagh are simply outstanding, and his name will be etched forevermore in Tyrone GAA history.

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