Saturday 1 October 2016

The one man boxing could not afford to lose was Billy

While Walsh's resignation may have come as a shock to many, tensions had been simmering for a long time

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

Put in a corner: Billy Walsh has stepped down from his role as head coach of Ireland's High Performance Unit. Irish boxers have won 67 medals at major championships under his watch, including Olympic champion Katie Taylor
Put in a corner: Billy Walsh has stepped down from his role as head coach of Ireland's High Performance Unit. Irish boxers have won 67 medals at major championships under his watch, including Olympic champion Katie Taylor
Katie Taylor

The Irish Amateur Boxing Association should have been basking in reflected glory after the London Olympics. After all, its boxers had just secured one gold, one silver and two bronze medals, 80pc of the Irish total.

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Instead it found itself the target of fierce criticism in the official report on the Irish performance at the games carried out by the London consultancy firm Knight, Kavanagh and Page.

The report, which came out in March 2013, stated that: "There are clearly issues and frustrations in the wider structure of Irish boxing. There are still situations where IABA committees have the constitutional authority and see fit to overturn Performance Director selections, to ask specific athletes to enter 'box-offs' against the advice of High Performance Programme staff and have imposed specific members of staff on the HPP without Performance Director assent."

This wasn't the first time that the IABA and boxing's High Performance Unit had come into conflict. The sterling performance at the 2008 Olympics, where three medals were won, was also marred by controversy because the IABA appointed long-serving official Jim Walsh as team manager rather than Gary Keegan, then director of the High Performance Unit.

According to Sunday World journalist Sean McGoldrick, whose just published Punching Above Their Weight is the definitive book on Irish boxing at the Olympics, this "tradition of appointing one of their own . . . angers the coaches and boxers and is frowned upon by the Irish Sports Council".

Without official accreditation, Keegan ended up watching the tournament from the stands. "He was so heartbroken he wasn't even going to come to watch us boxing . . . it was terrible that he wasn't with us in the Olympic village," recalled Ireland's outstanding performer at those games, Kenneth Egan.

The current controversy which has apparently ended with Billy Walsh, Irish boxing team head coach and head of the HPU, departing to take up an offer to coach the US women's amateur boxing programme in Colorado, did not come out of the blue.

It has to be seen in the context of a long history of distrust between the IABA and the HPU. There are many sporting bodies in this country which have had difficulty dealing with failure. The IABA, on the other hand, appear to have had a problem dealing with success.

On Friday's Today with Sean O'Rourke programme on RTE Radio One, IABA chairman Joe Christle put up a spirited defence of the association's conduct in the contract negotiations which led to Walsh's departure. Yet Christle, who like Walsh is a former Irish international, damaged his credibility by insisting that the relationship between the head coach and the IABA had not been a problematic one.

The truth is that Walsh's apparent resignation takes place against a backdrop of tensions which have been simmering for a long time. A source who's watched the relationship in action used the term "civil war" in describing it to me.

Walsh was frustrated by clauses in his contract which required him to seek written permission before speaking to the media and to submit team selections to the IABA's governing council to have them ratified.

There were other little slights as well, like the decision to switch his secretary from the HPU to the IABA, something mentioned last week by Joe Hennigan, manager of the Irish team at the recent world championships in Qatar, who wondered: "His secretary was doing fantastic work and then they moved her from A to B. Why did they move her when there was no need to move her?"

Hennigan, who as chairman of the Connacht Council of the IABA might be seen to have a foot in both camps, is in no doubt that "it seems to be all along that there's a personality clash there. It's going on for a while".

Perhaps the most telling example of how Walsh has been treated by the IABA involves the position of director of the High Performance Unit. When Keegan left following the Beijing Olympics, Walsh took the job on an acting basis.

It took the IABA almost two years to advertise for a replacement for Keegan and instead of Walsh, the obvious choice, they awarded the job to Association president Dominic O'Rourke.

The Irish Sports Council, which was to fund the position, refused to accept this and eventually a compromise was reached which involved Walsh being made head coach at the HPU.

However, the continued refusal of the IABA to make him High Performance director meant that he was paid less than those doing the same job in other sports. And right after the London Olympics he observed: "We're not valued for what we do. We're making history, bringing more medals into this country than any other sport. I know for a fact that I'm the lowest paid High Performance manager, or whatever you want to call it, of all sports."

The IABA's cavalier attitude to Walsh would have been difficult to justify under any circumstances. But it was downright foolish when Ireland's success had earned the coach offers from abroad.

He was believed to have turned down offers from the English and Australian boxing associations before the Americans offered him a financial package which included not just a greatly improved salary but a pension and health insurance, neither of which he had in his job here.

Walsh informed the IABA about the American offer and tried to negotiate a new contract. Sport Ireland got involved and made it clear that they would cover any increase in salary the coach required.

A deal was hammered out which reportedly included a rise in salary. At a meeting on August 22, all parties involved met to agree the deal.

And here's where things get slightly murky. Sport Ireland say that they believed the deal had been agreed until a few days later when IABA chief executive Fergal Carruth emailed them to say the association changed its mind on key aspects of the contract.

The IABA say they expressed concerns about the deal at the meeting and that these concerns were not addressed. Either way the deal was dead.

It was at this stage that the story reached the papers. There was consternation at the idea that the man who has been Ireland's most successful coach in any sport - Irish boxers have won 67 medals at major championships on his watch - was left with no alternative but to leave his position. It even seemed likely that he would be gone before Ireland competed in the world championships.

However, Walsh stayed on and oversaw Ireland's best ever performance at the championships. With one gold, one silver and one bronze, we finished fourth on the medals table.

In the meantime, Minister for Sport Michael Ring attempted to broker a new deal which would keep Walsh in Ireland. The IABA claim that they believed Walsh was in the process of negotiating this deal and that his announcement last week, that "the IABA have not made it possible for me to continue on in the role of Head Coach of the High Performance Unit and senior team", came as a complete shock.

It does seem that the resignation was a bombshell, not least to the fighters who apparently thought that Walsh would be staying.

Yet, given all that had previously transpired between the IABA and Walsh, it was perhaps optimistic on their part to expect that these last-ditch negotiations would bear fruit.

Walsh now says that his "sights are now firmly set on my future role with USA boxing. I am greatly looking forward to the opportunities ahead in bringing my expertise and experience to the USA women's team as they prepare for success in Rio and beyond".

Walsh's departure has also resulted in what seems like an unfortunate intervention by Sport Ireland, whose chairman Kieran Mulvey appeared to make a thinly veiled threat about the future of the IABA's public funding last week.

This not only drew an angry response from the IABA but also earned Mulvey a rap on the knuckles from Michael Ring who said there was no question of the organisation's funding being in danger, perhaps mindful that a previous intervention into the internal affairs of Athletics Ireland resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of euro of government money following a lengthy legal case.

The IABA will be irate about suggestions that the HPU should be removed from their control and handed over to Sport Ireland. For one thing, the High Performance Programme generally would be in very poor nick were it not for boxing.

In fact, it is the success of boxing which camouflages the underwhelming results of the programme in most other sports. And when the IABA's statement made pointed reference to the work being done at grassroots level by their coaches, they had a point.

The raw material Billy Walsh had to work with was very good. Ireland regularly win medals at World and European Championships at schoolboy and youth level. This year's world silver medallist Joe Ward was an under-age world champion twice over before he ever joined the HPU. Irish boxing is bigger than any one man.

But if there was one man the sport could not afford to lose, it was Billy Walsh. In years to come the IABA may well look back and wonder why they seemed inclined to regard the High Performance Unit with circumspection instead of treating it as the jewel in the sport's crown.

The effect of this whole shambles may become evident as soon as next year's Olympics.

In the words of Joe Hennigan, "No matter who comes in, and no matter how good they are, you cannot put 10 months' work into the 13 years' work put in by Billy."

Sunday Independent

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