I thought when I took the job I’d stay for a few years. That was 37 years ago...” - Tommy Campbell. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
One wonders if Tommy Campbell was wasted as a scrum-half, during his playing career with Dundalk RFC. Perhaps he would have been a better full-back, covering the last line of defence? After all, nothing rugby club-related seems to get past him.
The Kilcurry man may as well be a celebrity on Mill Road. Not only is he the rugby club’s most distinguishable figure, but he’s also its face, front and embodiment. As a player, Campbell represented the black-and-whites for over a decade, while he has been club manager for almost 40 years, over which time he coached subsequent generations, including his three sons, David, Peter and Thomas.
Some going for a fella who stumbled across the game by accident. Bred in a Fatima home where angling was the chief sport of interest, Campbell took up soccer in his late teens, playing for Shamrocks and Demense Celtic, before spending a short spell training with Dundalk FC’s B team, when Derek Stokes and Alan Fox were around.
But it was on his way from soccer training at Mill Road, the base Don McDonagh purchased for Dundalk RFC in 1967, that ‘Jakes’ Malone and Vinny McGee, who had captained the Mill Road men to Towns’ Cup success in 1969, coerced Campbell into putting his speed to good use on a rugby field.
Tommy takes up the story, in his own inimitable way…
“They talked me into playing,” he says, glancing at the ceiling of the clubrooms’ lounge.
“I played my first game for the first-team in Larne in 1970, but I hadn’t a bull’s notion and they found that out the hard way… I was speedy, but defensively I hadn’t a clue, just a greenhorn.”
Yet he persevered and while continuing to sample other sports, Owenie Rogers getting him on board as “a place-kicker” in Dowdallshill’s forward line in 1972, rugby became his obsession, with a move from the wing into giddy territory, No.9, allowing him to settle.
And so he found his “home from home”, the rugby club, across from where he grew up, before marrying his wife, Jean, and relocating across the Faughart Parish to Roskeagh, where he lives to this day.
“I used to come over when old Paddy McGee, a great committee member here, used to be out marking the pitch, himself and Paddy Boland, for the match on a Saturday afternoon,” Campbell adds, “he’d be marking it with cresol.
“I would give him a hand - you had a brush and you brushed the line - but you’d be covered in the stuff. You’d go in to tog-out in the afternoon and there’d be a smell of you still. That cresol stuff isn’t allowed any more. Toxins and the lot…
“That was the day of good rugby where eight guys (forwards) were buried in the scrum and when the ball went out the back there was lots of space. It was an era where fellas of my weight could play. Now there’s 13 guys across the pitch getting hammered; it’s like rugby league.”
While never fortunate enough to win a Towns’ Cup medal, Campbell, along with David Kearney (father of Ireland internationals Rob and Dave), Robbie Rutherford and Richard ‘Hairy’ Jeffers, featured for Leinster juniors in an interprovincial against Munster in 1977, a feat which he ranks as a career highlight.
It was perhaps fitting that several years later, his son, Thomas (TC), followed in his footsteps by playing scrum-half on the same representative side.
Tommy recalls the occasion: “We won 6-3 on a very wet and mucky Saturday afternoon. It poured rain the whole match and it was with a leather ball, so I was just told by the lads to put it back up into the air and let them make the mistakes, which I did; I was a good box-kicker.”
By then, Campbell had begun his coaching career, benefitted by the knowledge bestowed upon him by a weeklong training course held at Mosney Holiday Camp. He and Jim Coburn went on Dundalk’s behalf, with Chris Laidlaw, a former All Black, among the coaches on hand.
“Don McDonough started the streets’ league in the early 70s,” he adds.
“Owen Joe Woods would take four or five lads in from Kilcurry every Saturday morning to the hurling pitch in Fatima. I’d a team of U11s, U13s and U15s, it was Fatima and Kilcurry combined, and we called them The Lions.
“We played against teams from Ard Easmuinn, Alf Dwyer looked after that; Blackrock, Bertie Dillon took that, another ex-Dundalk player; The Barbarians were from the Dublin Road, that was Gerry Hannigan.
“We won a couple of cups and there was great excitement. It was the start of underage rugby in Dundalk really.”
And almost half a century onwards the juvenile game is thriving locally, and Tommy remains the common link.
“Once there’s a ball, I’ll watch it. I watch the games and I see some rising stars and super players. It’s great to see young fellas and girls playing, there’s so many here at the minis at the moment and so many dedicated people giving their time to train teams in the club.
“It’s great, and the girls’ rugby has come on a treat too.
The club, it’s a home for me. There’s a great bunch of people. Everybody has the interests of the game at heart and the youth at heart, and we will go from strength to strength.”
THE WORK STARTS
For 15 years of his early working life, Campbell was an “estimating clerk” at McGowan’s, before taking over as Dundalk’s main man in September of 1982. It seems the late Paddy and Bridie Boland, who looked after the players through his term on the pitch, were the people he was seeking to emulate through assuming the position.
And as the facilities developed and club began to boom socially, with “the great Ollie Campbell” officially opening the club’s members’ bar in 1983, Campbell’s workload increased. He jokes that at the end of some 40-hour weekends, “the old varicose veins would be standing out on the legs…
Tommy Campbell feeds the ball into a scrum against CYIMS
“I remember an uncle of mine coming home from Scotland and saying ‘you’ve made an awful mistake’ when I took the job. ‘Why,’ says I? “He says: ‘It’ll totally take your life over, I know you’. And he was 100 percent right.
“The night club used to be packed every Saturday night; we boomed. St. Stephen’s night was a cracker, a fancy dress night that was sold out at the end of November. New Year’s Eve was the same. But it died off in the early 2000s. We had a squash club here, too, for many years.
“The work pattern when the nightclub was going was crazy, but I’m still here most days because there’s always somebody who calls you.
“I come in around half-nine every morning because it’s like a house; just non-stop; home from home; always something to be done.”
Asked for a story of the light-hearted variety, Tommy squirms as though trying to remember one mild enough to be printed.
“We’d checked the place and locked up one night, it was around Christmas, but the alarm went off and I got the call from the alarm company and arrived up. The guards landed, too.
“I came in and knew it was the lounge. I opened up and found a fella who had been asleep and woke up. He was walking around in a state. I wasn’t, let’s just say, fond of him for a while… I won’t name him.”
Democrat: “A club man?”
Tommy: “Oh a clubman, and still a clubman… I could tell stories about a load of them… but I won’t!”
But he will…
“We used to play for the Regie Blackstock trophy, called after our President. We hosted it the first year, in ’82, and had Tuam over from Galway, along with Ennis and Lisburn. The day was great and everybody had booked into a hotel.
“Anyhow, when the night finished up, the band had gone and I was here on my own. I’d no car at the time, it was off the road, but I’d a bicycle.
“It was very late and as I locked up, with all the warm gear on me, I discovered this guy asleep in the corner. He was from Tuam and just hadn’t a clue where Dundalk was, not a notion.
“In those days you couldn’t get a taxi that easily so I rang the Imperial, where they were staying, and the girl on the night shift didn’t want to know about me. ‘He’s all yours…’
“This guy was hungover and… grouchy, so he’d one option, and that was the bar of the bike into Dundalk. I put him on the bar, up the Mill Road and down Castletown Road… I tell you, I lost some sweat that night.
“It was freezing cold and I could feel him moving from side-to-side, shivering. Says I, ‘will you stop moving…’ “I left him at the door of the Imperial and walked down towards the bridge and as I got past McCann’s Bakery, there were fellas going into work looking at me. ‘Where is that fella going?’
“I was very sober, but very tired… That’s a long story… Maybe you shouldn’t print that…”
Ah well, it’s in now, Tommy.
It’s difficult to extract much emotion from Mr Dundalk RFC, even if he does admit to shedding a tear when the club gained promotion to the senior ranks, with TC a central cog, for the first time since its 1877 formation in 2015.
The victory over De La Salle Palmerston, which gave the locals uprise, was the stuff of dreams.
“It’s the highlight of my life here,” he says.
“All the lads I ever played with over the years, and the committee men that were here, dreamed of was being a senior club. Vinny McGee, one of our greatest clubmen, it was his dream to go senior, and we eventually did it.
“It was a moving occasion and emotional for me because I’d seen guys come here over the years who’d dreamt about senior rugby, but passed onto the next world before we got there.
“We did it, though, and it was unreal.”
Other seminal occasions include the Irish rugby team’s visit in 1975 and New Zealand landing towards the close of the 80s, while the club’s centenary celebration in 1977 saw a Dundalk selection face Belfast senior side CYIMS, who contained several full internationals.
Though the Mill Road men had recruited a few Ireland stars of their own for the day, with Alistair McKibbin and Charlie Murtagh featuring, while Campbell was in a backline that included Kearney and Tony Steen.
Yet he seems to take more visible delight from a victory of a different kind, having won the President’s Prize at Ashfield Golf Club last summer.
It surely isn’t a patch on the honour he landed from Dundalk, though, Campbell earning a lifetime achievement award at the club’s awards night earlier in the year.
So, all in all, he hasn’t had a bad run from something his uncle said he’d regret.
Democrat: “Where would you be had you heeded his advice?”
Tommy: “I don’t know... I thought when I took the job I’d stay for a few years. That was 37 years ago...”