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Muhammad Ali inspired Armagh GAA team to their greatest day at Croke Park

by declan bogue

Published 07/06/2016

This is an Oct. 9, 1974, file photo showing Muhammad Ali. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)(AP Photo/FIle)
This is an Oct. 9, 1974, file photo showing Muhammad Ali. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)(AP Photo/FIle)
The letter Muhammad Ali wrote to Armagh players before their big match

Armagh's All-Ireland-winning Gaelic football team share a special connection with sporting legend Muhammad Ali, who died at the weekend.

On the morning they played their Croke Park final against Kerry in September 2002 each member of the Armagh squad woke up in the CityWest Hotel to find an inspiring letter had been pushed under their doors in the middle of the night.

Addressed to the 'County Armagh Gaelic Football Team', it read:

"Dear Armagh Player,

"It is with great pleasure that I write to each one of you today, wishing you the best of luck at the All-Ireland football Championship final! You have already made history and should be very proud of yourself.

"I understand how much this match means to you, and am honoured if I have provided some inspiration to you along the way. But you are also an inspiration to the thousands of people who will be watching you, and who have followed the Armagh Team all season.

"As one who also has heritage from Ireland (my great grandfather, Abe O'Grady, was an Irish emigrant), I know the "luck of the Irish" is not just a saying! Best wishes to you on a successful match. Your co-countryman, Muhammad Ali."

Later that afternoon the Orchard County won their only All-Ireland. Many of the players cite this little touch as a crucial component of their mental build-up. Writing in this newspaper about the idea in September 2009, the then-Armagh manager Joe Kernan said: "The message, urging the players to have inner belief and to focus solely on the biggest mission of their sporting lives up until then, arrived with the blessing of the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Centre Global Education and Charitable Fund.

"It was the brainchild of our squad's sports psychologists Hugh Campbell and Des Jennings to get in touch with the Muhammad Ali organisation and seek its help in our efforts to ensure that all the players were at the peak of their mental powers of concentration."

In the years since, a number of players have spoken of how that gesture helped them through the biggest day of their sporting careers. SDLP MLA Justin McNulty, corner-back on that team, revealed during a radio discussion that it inspired the players as they travelled on the team coach to Croke Park.

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