By Michael McMullan
A SUNDAY night, revelling in a Spanish pub, kicked off John Campbell’s return to the world of GAA.
Málaga is far, far away from Kingscourt, on the Cavan Meath border, where he played u-12 football back in the day.
Studies at UCD and the University of Pisa eventually took him to Sicily before moving to Málaga in 2019 where he specialises in art and writing under the moniker John P Brady.
“When I was sitting in a pub and saw an advert for Gaelic football in Málaga,” he begins, of the draw to come along to something that has hooked him since.
Around six people at the first session tells of the beginning of Celta Málaga GAA club that began in 2016 under the watch of Cork native Liam O’Riordan with the visit of Tyrone champions Killyclogher for a mixture of craic and football. But mostly the former.
“There were girls there and one guy who was English,” John recalls of his first training session. “His girlfriend was from Belfast and the only reason why he was there was to keep her happy.”
Training began with a handful of players most weeks. The come and go nature of Málaga didn’t lend itself to the long haul. Erasmus students and others in the region on short-term work was the order of the day.
“You’d struggle to find Irish people who’d be there long term,” Campbell points out.
It was a case of attracting those with a rugby or soccer background with transferrable skills…or any Irish person in sight.
The ladies team blossomed under Marlie Bartlelink, a Dutch girl now rooted in the world of European GAA.
A group made up of Australian and Canadians, mixed with Tyrone and Kerry girls made up a team capable of winning the league until Covid pulled the club apart.
Everybody left and the handful of lads shrunk to three tipping away on the beach once a week with a few pints after.
Then, earlier this year, things changed. John was contacted by Westmeath man James Campbell who had set up the Belgium based Earls of Leuven GAA club from scratch. Within six years they were winning games,
“We put our heads together and went on a bit of a drive on social media,” Campbell explains of the Málaga expansion. “We managed to connect with people from as far away as Fuengirola and Torremolinos.
“We got them roped into coming up to Málaga once a week for training and next thing we had 27 there,”
Men and women trained together on the skills before breaking off separately for small sided games to continue their progress. It gave them an identity.
“All they know out here about Ireland is leprechauns and pints of Guinness,” Campbell jokes.
“Now we can show them the sport and something else the Irish have to offer.”
After training, the crew would pour into a local pub for the social side of the game. An aspect that has helped grow their community.
“You literally fill the bar, creating a great atmosphere and people start wondering who are these people,” Campbell explains.
“It sounds like a great thing and when you put the photos on social media people want to get involved. They see sport and the social side and that’s the attraction.”
Celta Málaga are the most recent team in the Andalusian League, joining the previously formed Costa Gaels Marbella, Éire Óg Sevilla and Gibraltar Gaels.
“When we went to Gibraltar to play the British Army base had the only pitch,” Campbell explains.
“You have to submit your passport details in advance to get the all clear and walk past a guy with a machine gun and a British Army uniform to play a game of Gaelic Football…that was an experience.”
Inside is a soccer pitch with piping tied on for uprights and, hey presto, it’s time to play ball.
“Our first major goal was achieved two weeks ago and that was to send a men’s team out to compete in the league,” Campbell said.
The overall goal is to expand the competition with teams from Lisbon, Córdoba and the Algarve. The original 11-a-side was brought down to seven to help new teams get off the ground.
For Málaga, improvement will be transforming their winless season into picking up a few victories.
“In the second year, we want to double the size of the men’s team and keep the ladies team,” he continued.
“We want to be competing to win it next year and there is no reason why we couldn’t. From that, if you win in Andalusia it opens the door to games against teams from across Spain.
That’s for another day. For now, it’s about growing the squad, polishing up the skills and having a ball – off the pitch – along the way.
Anyone interest in joining Celta Málaga contact them via Facebook. All newcomers are welcome.