Tuesday 22 August 2017

Boardroom roadblocks drive Moore to the margins

Jim Moore feels he had no choice but to step down as Irish boxing's youth coach, writes John O'Brien

When the Irish boxing team returned from the Youth Olympics in Singapore last August, celebrating the gold medal won by Ryan Burnett, it confirmed Jim Moore's status as the most successful youth coach in the history of Irish sport. Burnett's gold was the 15th major medal Moore's fighters had claimed in the five years he had been part of the high performance unit. Each year had always been better than the last.

When he devised the high performance plan in 2003, Gary Keegan had been astute enough to understand that its long-term health would depend, not just on the senior boxers they had at the time, but equally on the generation that would follow them. In Moore he knew he had found a coach who shared the drive and passion of those already in place. You never left the gym without Keegan or Billy Walsh singing the praises of a young fighter and the work Moore was doing in shaping him.

The extent of Moore's influence will be visible throughout the National Senior Championships which began on Friday and run until Friday week. He'll see raw kids he first took for weekend training back in 2006 growing into men now, eager to stake a claim for a senior title and a shot at Olympic qualification. Some of them have already made the leap. Others like Ryan Burnett and Joe Ward are hatching plans to join them.

Yet Moore watches from the margins, his heart riven with mixed feelings. Less than a month after Singapore, he was no longer part of the high performance unit and what should have been a great personal milestone had, instead, turned into an emotional last act. Although it was his decision to leave, the truth was that, in the public war between the unit and the board of directors, he had been caught in the crossfire and became its most unfortunate casualty.

His decision to walk away dismayed those he worked with, but it didn't entirely come as a shock. At the time it was reported that Moore's grievances centred around the financial terms of his contract with the board. But that was little more than a misguided assumption. From the beginning it had never been about money, he insists. The truth was much more fundamental than that.

After Singapore, he sat down with Billy Walsh and discussed his future. "I'd a World champion and an Olympic champion then. 'Everyone's delighted,' Billy said. But I wasn't. I went to Singapore expecting to win two gold medals. But that wasn't the point anyway. I said, 'Look Billy. I can't go any further. I can't achieve any more with the youths. I don't want to spend what time I've left in boxing with youths and juniors. I want to train seniors'."

From the start his ambition had been to become head coach of the senior programme. He saw it as a realistic target. He'd coached his first champion, Paul Fitzgerald, back in the early 1980s and his own son, Jamie, had been one of the first boxers to sign up when the high performance plan was conceived. He thought of Guadalajara in 2008 when his boxers had won a gold, silver and two bronze medals at the World Youth Championships. At every stage he'd delivered results and brought young fighters through.

Moore reasoned, as most did, that somewhere down the line Walsh would move on and a vacancy would crop up. But the road took an unexpected twist. When Keegan quit his job as director, the board, instead of promoting Walsh, opted controversially to appoint existing president Dominic O'Rourke instead. So Walsh remained as head coach and Moore's forward path was blocked. They told him that his position would be reviewed at the end of this year, but that wasn't enough. He felt backed into a corner.

"You know when I was there I trained the seniors with Billy and the lads during the week anyway. So it wasn't as if I wouldn't be working with them. But I wanted to be a part of it. Go away to camps with them. Go to the Olympics in London with them. If that's not on, I'll have to find a target somewhere else. I just said if my heart wasn't going to be in looking after the young lads, if I couldn't guarantee it 100%, then how could I stay?"

He is unsentimental as he talks, disarmingly matter-of-fact in the way he relates the details. Yet it is clear how much of an emotional wrench it has been. He sits in his car outside Drimnagh Boxing Club, where he has taken two of his fighters from Arklow to spar ahead of the Nationals. Drimnagh evokes happy memories. In a sense this is where it started. In 2006, Moore and Tony Davitt would bring boxers here to train on weekends: Tommy McCarthy, John Joe Joyce and Tyrone McCullagh among them. From the start he knew there was something special stirring.

He had known Keegan and Walsh for years. Cathal O'Grady had coached the juniors and when he left, Keegan urged him to apply for the job. Moore had just retired from his job with the ESB so the timing was perfect. The passion and discipline he saw around the Stadium enthused him. The sense of purpose about the place inspired him. Even better: they were paying him to do a job he loved. Money? No, it was never about that.

A couple of weeks back he had some business in Dublin and called into the Stadium hoping to have a chat with Walsh. It was the first time he'd been back since September and he found the emotion welling up inside him. While there he bumped into two Russian coaches he'd known from his travels around the globe. They had brought a team of youths with them to see what it was that had made Ireland one of the most respected boxing nations in Europe. Moore remembered the days, not so long ago, when it had always been the other way round.

So he's back in Arklow now, trying to build up his old club again, fully immersed in the challenge of increasing the appeal of boxing in a town that has always been soccer-mad. Yet a day rarely slips by when he doesn't think of his days in the Stadium and of the boxers and coaches he shared so many good times with. "I miss it a lot," he says wistfully. "Even just walking into the office and the gym. It was a big part of my life and now it's gone."

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