Monday 24 October 2016

Power struggle ends in inevitable split decision

Tommy Conlon

Published 25/10/2015 | 17:00

'The final exiling of Billy Walsh last week was the culmination of this long-running power struggle. He was just too successful, too independent, too popular'
'The final exiling of Billy Walsh last week was the culmination of this long-running power struggle. He was just too successful, too independent, too popular'

The IABA came out swinging alright on Friday, but it didn't come out fighting. Because that's a whole different ball game. You need an opponent for fighting. And Billy Walsh was in America.

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Rather, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association came out swinging like a fella at closing time who knows that the target of his flailing fists is safely removed down the other end of the bar.

Their statement on Friday was all bluster and belligerence; it was conspicuously lacking in the sort of solid facts and precise reasoning that builds a winning tally on the judges' scorecards.

It was destined to fail anyway because they went into the ring without a defence: they had lost the greatest coach in the history of Irish sport, on their watch, from under their noses, and this quite simply is an indefensible fact. On Friday, they tried to defend the indefensible; and inevitably they could not do it.

The IABA had eight months to hold onto Walsh. The head coach of amateur boxing's High Performance Unit first alerted them last February to the lucrative offer from USA Boxing. America's amateur boxing programme was in a bad place. They wanted a world-class solution. They found him in Wexford.

Elite amateur sport in most countries follows the Olympic cycle. It was unthinkable that the governing body of Ireland's most successful Olympic sport would allow Walsh to leave, a year out from the Rio games in 2016. It just doesn't happen; it couldn't happen; not a chance.

For starters, Walsh himself didn't want to go. He made it clear, over and over, that he wanted to stay. And the IABA for its part, said they wouldn't let him go, if only for the tsunami of shame and scorn it would bring down upon their heads. Billy Walsh leaving? Nah. It was just inconceivable.

So what happened? Six months passed and nothing happened, is what happened. If the IABA had really wanted to keep him, they'd have reacted to the news in February like scalded cats. They'd have showered him with love; they'd have locked Walsh in a room and thrown away the key until he'd signed a new contract.

So how did the IABA explain the six months in which nothing happened? This is how: "There was an initial urgency to the (negotiating) process at Billy's insistence," they said in Friday's statement, "but that urgency subsequently subsided due to overseas tournaments and competitions and US work visa issues, which took a number of months to complete."

The "urgency subsequently subsided". In other words, while Walsh was away helping Irish fighters bring home more medals, the IABA back at home on the South Circular Road was doing what - fiddling with its bells at ringside? In effect, the governing body left Walsh dangling. While he waited, and waited, for a settlement, they played their miserable little games.

One morning in February 2003 Walsh and Gary Keegan, the High Performance Unit's visionary founder, made an announcement that reverberated through the system. They banned all club coaches from their elite training sessions. The incident is recounted in Seán McGoldrick's fine new history of Irish Olympic boxing, Punching Above Their Weight.

"I just (asked) all the coaches to leave now," Walsh remembered. "Normally club coaches would stay for the sparring sessions. But we had to set our standards. It went down like a lead balloon with a lot of them. We had to decide on our culture; we needed to change the culture and have our own type of training."

From there on, the trouble began. Before the Beijing Olympics the IABA separated Keegan from the team. He had built up a close working relationship with the boxers; he was a key component of the inner circle. It was assumed he would be team manager in Beijing. Instead, the IABA appointed the secretary of its Munster Council to the job. Keegan, who had done so much to bring home those Olympic medals from China, was left out in the cold.

After Beijing, Keegan took up a post at the Irish Institute of Sport. Walsh was the automatic choice to take over as Director of the HPU. Lo and behold, the IABA chose Dominic O'Rourke instead. O'Rourke was IABA president at the time.

The final exiling of Billy Walsh last week was the culmination of this long-running power struggle. He was just too successful, too independent, too popular.

The IABA are protesting that it was a simple matter of Walsh being made an offer in America that he couldn't refuse. But from his point of view it felt more like a prolonged process of constructive dismissal; the sense that he was being quietly undermined all the time, having his wings clipped at every turn; the constant, low-level hum of resistance and antagonism.

He had helped to establish an outstanding culture of work and achievement. In the end it seems he was worn down.

Joe Christle is chairman of the IABA board. He should resign. The board of directors should resign. Fergal Carruth is the CEO of the IABA: he should be sacked.

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