Wednesday 29 March 2017

The real story behind why Billy Walsh said goodbye to Irish boxing

Slow unravelling of his authority was, for Irish coach, the breaking point after eight months of often hostile negotiations with the IABA

IABA's High Performance Head coach Billy Walsh
IABA's High Performance Head coach Billy Walsh
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was February last when Billy Walsh first walked into Fergal Carruth's office to inform him of the offer from America.

He was pleased to find IABA chairman, Joe Christle, sitting with the CEO, joking to them both "Great, I can kill two birds with the one stone here!" USA Boxing wanted the Wexford man to oversee their women's programme and had put together a lucrative package designed to persuade him to relocate to Colorado.

Walsh told Carruth and Christle that he understood the Association would never be in a position to match the financial aspects of the American offer, but he also said that he did not want to leave. Their response gave him an early sense of foreboding.

It was suggested that, when the time came, they should issue a joint, amicable press release, announcing his departure.

No exploration of what it might take to keep him in Ireland then. No expressions of concern that a man who has been so central to one of Europe's great sporting revolutions might be lost to Irish boxing. Within seconds of Walsh mentioning America, the IABA officers seemed - to him - to be all but working out the structure of a resignation statement.

Unremarkable

He subsequently produced a five-point proposal of what it would take to see off the American interest. The financial aspect to it was unremarkable. Although he had been in charge of the High Performance Unit since 2008, he still retained the title (and salary) of a Head Coach.

Walsh's request was simply a salary that would be closer to that of high performance directors in other sports.

The remainder of his proposal centred on matters of autonomy. He sought the restoration of a basic per diem allowance of €15 to his coaching staff while on trips abroad, something that had been in place as a basic courtesy since the inception of High Performance, but was scrapped by Carruth on his appointment as CEO.

Walsh sought assurances too about the movement of staff, having seen his administrative secretary relocated to another office without prior notice (something he had sought HR advice about in January). And he reiterated a long-held desire to, as the head of High Performance, have a right to pick teams for competition without having to submit them to committee for approval.

His proposal went before the IABA Board and was rejected on every issue.

* * * * *

Those who attended negotiations on Walsh's behalf during the past six months were left bemused by yesterday's IABA statement and, specifically, the reference of its chairman, Joe Christle, to Walsh as "our friend" and "a valued and esteemed colleague".

From Walsh's perspective, the tone of negotiation had been neither fraternal nor respectful. On the contrary, one of his advisors said yesterday that they had encountered an "air of condescension that, at times, was simply breathtaking".

They were also unimpressed to hear that the Association had acceded to "many" of the amendments requested by Walsh's legal team to the last contract offer presented. There were in excess of 60 changes requested to that contract - almost all of them to do with the autonomy of Walsh's position.

Fergus Barry was Walsh's main negotiator. A highly respected Human Resources expert, he said yesterday: that "bar agreeing to a few stylistic changes and one or two of limited substance, they for the most part rejected all proposed amendments."

It was also considered disingenuous of the Association to suggest that the "vast majority of the discussions related to remuneration matters", implying Walsh's sole focus to have been financial.

This patently was not the case. Given the intervention of the Sports Council and, subsequently, the Minister for Sport in August, Walsh was eventually agreeable to the financial package on offer (€115,000 per annum for a fixed term of three years, plus an annual bonus payment of €10,000). His concerns were to do with having the required authority to do his job, something he believed the Association was denying him.

The IABA's initial proposal to him had suggested Walsh resign from his permanent position and become a self-employed contractor on a gross salary of €115,000 (his existing salary was €77,000) for an 18-month term, something that he indicated in April would not be acceptable to him, given the absence of any job security beyond that term.

The alternative offered was to remain a full-time employee on his current figure, with the IABA seeking funding from the Sports Council for a bonus arrangement for all of the High Performance coaching staff.

By July, a third option had been drawn up, offering Walsh a three-year fixed-term contract of €115,000 per annum, again on the basis of him resigning from his permanent position.

Although mindful that the US offer would not be on the table indefinitely, the Wexford man's priority throughout this period was the preparation of his boxers for the inaugural European Games and, subsequently, European Championships.

Return

It was just after his return from the latter that he was summoned to the Clayton Hotel in Leopardstown.

Having briefly exchanged courtesies in the lobby with IABA representatives, Fergal Carruth and former rugby international, Des Fitzgerald, he went in to meet Kieran Mulvey and John Treacy. On the IABA's invitation, the Council wanted to identify the stumbling blocks to progress and, after hearing Walsh's view, they then called in Carruth and Fitzgerald.

The following day, August 22, more meetings at the same venue and, it seemed, the brokering of an agreement.

Walsh hurried away afterwards to a radio appointment on RTé, believing that that agreement would be presented for approval to the IABA Board the following Tuesday night.

Mulvey was of a similar view, telling an Oireachtas meeting last Wednesday that the respective parties "shook hands" at the end of a four-hour meeting.

The deal, favourable to both Mulvey and Walsh, was that the Wexford man retained his permanent position with the IABA on a new salary of €97,000 per annum.

The IABA's unease centred upon the implications of such a salary raise for other staff contracts, yet Mulvey assured them that they would not face any issues there.

But that Tuesday, the ISC received an email from Carruth, seeking a dramatic redrafting of what had been agreed. The deal was dead in the water. Yesterday, Christle said that, although he had presented a "draft proposal" to the Association's Board of Directors on August 25, he refrained from putting it to a formal vote as his opinion was that the "vote would be negative".

This, presumably, will have been news to Mulvey and Treacy.

On September 8, the IABA negotiators called a meeting with Walsh at short notice.

As Barry was in London on business that day, he organised for an experienced trade union official, Tommy Cummins, to attend on Billy's behalf.

That meeting took place at the Hilton Hotel on Charlemont Place and Cummins interpreted it as acquiring an instantly hostile tone from Carruth's opening observation that Walsh was an employee of the IABA, not the Irish Sports Council.

Cummins reflected afterwards that, in 30-odd years of industrial conflict resolution, he had never experienced anything like the attitude of the IABA negotiators in a meeting lasting maybe 40 minutes. Christle's recall of a subsequent meeting at the Institute of Management offices in Sandyford on Monday, September 14 seemed to suggest that a final deal - brokered by Minister Ring - had been agreed with Walsh. It had, but only subject to the presentation "of a fair contract".

No paperwork was put before Walsh or his representatives that day.

They continually reminded the IABA officials of this, stressing that the financial element was "only one part" of the deal. Walsh had, reluctantly, agreed to what his people regarded as a "convoluted" deal in which he would resign from his current position, be paid a severance package, then sign a fixed-term contract for three years.

By now, he was - clearly - under pressure too to give a final response to Mike Martino, the executive director of USA Boxing, who remained so determined to recruit him to the American women's programme.

Christle yesterday recalled phoning Treacy after that September 14 meeting and telling him rather colourfully "to get up off his knees because the threat of Billy Walsh going to America is over." He said he made a similar call to Minister Ring.

Yet, Walsh's representatives did not share that excitement.

That meeting had, at times, become heated and, at one point, a recess was requested. Christle also had to ring individual members of the IABA's Board of Directors to get consent on the financial terms and seemed to want that consent to be met by absolute confirmation that the threat of Walsh departing would now be removed.

Walsh's people were in agreement with the financial side, brokered by the Minister and funded by the Sports Council. But they remained suspicious of the terms of employment that would ultimately be attached. Why?

Because the High Performance Unit's history with the IABA has long been one glaringly short on trust. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the head of the programme, Gary Keegan, was denied accreditation, the association instead appointing a manager to the Irish team who would have minimal contact with the boxers.

It meant that Keegan had no formal access in China to a team he had been effectively preparing for the previous five years.

And Walsh, who has run that programme since Keegan's subsequent departure to the Institute of Sport, was then overlooked for the post of HP Director, the position being given instead to the then president of the Association, a move that prompted the Sports Council to withhold funding for the role.

Despite their awareness of the pressure that Walsh was under from America on September 14, it took three days for the IABA to finally deliver their contract to his solicitor. And it proved, as his representatives had feared it would, unacceptable.

Walsh was advised legally that it would be unwise to sign. The contract had glaring issues on the autonomy of his job description and the most basic issues of authority.

Mulvey this week highlighted one of the most staggering clauses inserted. It is number 24, under the heading "Communication with Outside Agencies". It runs: "24.1 Any contact with the Sports Council, Olympic Council or any other outside agency must be approved in advance in writing by the CEO.

"24.2 No public statements either by way of TV, Radio, Newspapers or Social Media must be made without the prior written approval of the CEO."

At its most basic level, the notion that the man running the High Performance programme would need written permission simply to communicate with people he, clearly, had to communicate with offers a glimpse of the document's prevailing tone.

And this was one of many clauses that, on request, the Association would refuse to remove. Walsh's wish to be clearly identified as Head of the High Performance Unit was also denied, the response being that that status belonged to the IABA themselves.

The view of Walsh's representatives was that, on a number of levels, the contract offered was ludicrous.

They considered it a virtual denigration of Ireland's most successful Olympic coach, his solicitor eventually seeking in excess of 60 amendments. Legal advice was that the contract offered him no employment protection. If anything, he was being downgraded.

The IABA had to then be twice invited to respond to those amendment requests before doing so on October 8. On all of the key issues, their answer was "not acceptable".

Walsh was, by now, fully immersed with his boxers in Doha, a remarkable seven having qualified for the World Championships. His frustration at boiling point, he kept that anger to himself.

Ordinarily, he would room with Zaur Antia - the wonderfully gifted Georgian coach who has been asked now to fill his role on an interim basis. But Walsh made a point of rooming on his own this time, determined that the team and staff would perform without distraction.

And Ireland won their first ever World Championship gold in Doha through Michael Conlan with Joe Ward taking silver and Michael O'Reilly bronze. Watching, Billy Walsh knew that he was managing them for the last time.

He'd given Martino the commitment of a definite decision after the Worlds and had long since come to the conclusion from negotiations that the IABA did not want him.

The Association's statement yesterday seemed to imply that the financial aspect consumed most of the negotiation. But it must be stressed that that aspect was secured by the Minister and Sports Council.

The deal fell down on matters of autonomy. The one area that was in the IABA'S control.

* * * * *

Billy Walsh pointedly reminded people in a radio interview this week that he himself was "of the IABA", not some kind of hostile outsider looking to undermine their work.

He first boxed under their rules as a seven-year-old and has, since, spent 45 years devoted to a sport he loves. It seems ironic that he has found himself in conflict with Carruth, given his historic closeness to the CEO's Crumlin family.

Walsh and Michael Carruth have always had a particular bond, given they used box at the same weight and it was Walsh the Olympic champion had to beat in a controversial box-off just to get on the plane to the 1992 Barcelona Games. Billy used refer to the Carruths' late mother, Joan, as his "Dublin mammy".

He still considers Michael a good friend and expressed a hope this week that his departure for America will not impact negatively on Ireland's medal hopes in Rio.

The evidence of Ireland's medal haul this year at those European Games, European and World Championships suggests that he leaves behind a programme working extraordinarily well. Two years ago, Walsh decided that that programme needed an overhaul.

This, perhaps, is the side to his work that largely goes unseen. As Keegan once put it, Walsh is the "glue holding High Performance together". The technical expertise of coaches like Antia, Eddie Bolger and John Conlan is undeniable. But Walsh has been setting the Constitution.

The review he demanded two years ago was on the basis of standards slipping. He told me this week: "On the surface, we'd just had our best year ever. Four Irish boxers reached finals at the European Championships, two claiming gold. Five got into the top eight at the Worlds, two of them winning medals.

Complacency

"But I'd seen a slippage. Just the nuances of what we were doing. It wasn't complacency. I would never get complacent because, in boxing, you're always only one punch from defeat. But in some ways, maybe you're like a parent spoiling your children.

"And I suppose we had begun to accept some behaviours that weren't world-class, that didn't belong in High Performance.

"I'm not talking about bad indiscipline in anyone. It might just be the way someone was making their weight, crashing down in the last minute. Small things like that.

"Just the culture around the place I could sense begin to change. So, after our most successful year, we called for a review and went into a tough process."

It started with an online survey, then the appointment of High Performance judo coach, Ciaran Ward, as facilitator. Everybody was exposed to (often harsh) scrutiny, nobody protected.

Walsh's belief is that that review will now protect a programme he has, reluctantly, had to leave now. He saw the standards set by everyone in Doha. Even being alone with his own bleak thoughts at night over there offered him consolation.

From the first pebbles tossed by himself, Keegan and Antia in '03, Irish boxing is now an avalanche.

"Sure it's a million miles away," he said this week. "We didn't know what we were looking for. We had an idea, but we didn't know what it looked like. We didn't know how to win medals. We had to go and learn that on the journey. Now we're at a point of that journey where it's almost automatic.

"There's a momentum with this team now. There are warriors there and they will carry themselves through. They will go in, all guns blazing. There's a belief in the team. It may affect some of them more than others that I am out of the team but, in general, they will rally.

"There's only one thing missing (for High Performance) now. And that's an Olympic gold medal.

"We have the team to get that. I hope to see it happen but, unfortunately, I'll be sitting there with a different country now."

Irish Independent

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