Friday 28 October 2016

Walsh's treatment beggars belief

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 30/08/2015 | 17:00

Billy Walsh was undermined, humiliated and left with little option but to walk away from the programme which he had built up
Billy Walsh was undermined, humiliated and left with little option but to walk away from the programme which he had built up

August 25, 2015 may well be a day which lives in infamy in the annals of Irish sport. It was the day the deal wasn't done, the day Irish boxing lost Billy Walsh. Or, to be more precise, the day Irish boxing drove him away. If there's one thing in Irish sport which indisputably works it's amateur boxing's High Performance Programme. Seven medals in the last two Olympic Games, six golds in the last three European Men's Championships and second place in this year's medal table behind Russia, three medals at the last two men's world championships. Outside perhaps of rugby, in no other sport are we world-class to the same extent that we are in amateur boxing.

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The man who takes the lion's share of the credit for this is Billy Walsh. Walsh's appointment as the head coach a decade ago has coincided with a golden era being enjoyed by the sport. You want to know how good that seven-medal haul from two games really is? In the 12 games since 1960 all sports combined won just 11 medals for Ireland. Take out Michelle Smith's four medals from Atlanta 1996, (which I always do personally), and boxing has won more Olympic medals in just two games than every sport combined has since 1960.

Billy Walsh is not the sole architect of this remarkable achievement but he has done more than anyone else to make it happen. You can even argue that he's the outstanding Irish coach of modern times. Who's been better than him here in any sport at any time?

That's why the news that Walsh is quitting Ireland to take charge of the USA's women's boxing programme is so hard to take in. It's like hearing that Kilkenny have given Brian Cody the chop or the IRFU have asked Joe Schmidt to sling his hook. And the timing is just as inopportune with the World Championships in Qatar, which double as qualifiers for the Rio Olympics and for which seven Irish boxers have qualified, coming up at the start of October.

With Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan already qualified for next year's Olympics through the World Series of Boxing and European and World Championship results indicating that Ireland are in an even stronger position than they were going into the 2012 games, the stage seemed set for a record number of qualifiers from Doha and perhaps even a record number of medals in Rio. Now that prospect has receded. We have lost one of the few indispensable figures in Irish sport.

Why? The answer appears to lie in the fraught relationship between Walsh's High Performance Programme and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association. This goes back some years and the IABA was singled out for criticism in the official debrief from the last Olympic games, carried out by London consultancy firm Knight, Kavanagh and Page.

The report, which came out in March 2013, stated that, "While the HPP is strong, effective and in terms of medals represents good value in terms of Irish Sports Council support 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 HP staff and have imposed specific members of staff on the HPP without Performance Director assent."

It was a pretty shocking indictment of the IABA's behaviour and one which made it clear that Walsh had been operating under circumstances which must have verged on the intolerable. The politically motivated 'box-off', whereby fighters sometimes got another crack at opponents who'd already defeated them in the qualifying process for major championships, was one scourge and there were others. It must have rankled with the Wexford man that, for example, he had to submit all team selections to IABA committees for ratification, thus suffering the indignity of having his judgement second-guessed by officials who knew a lot less about the form of the fighters than he did. Yet he kept his counsel, turned down offers from the English and Australian boxing associations and concentrated on doing the job better than ever, however hard things must have been for an honourable man to swallow.

Then came the offer from the USA. Over Christmas they flew Walsh out to Colorado where he spent a few days looking at the facilities which would be available to him should he take the job. They offered him a salary hugely in excess of his current one and, importantly for a 52-year-old whose life has been spent in the service of sport, health insurance and a pension, neither of which Walsh gets in his current job.

The US post is a dream job for a man like Billy Walsh, perhaps the dream job as he is eventually expected to be given charge of the entire American amateur boxing programme. Once the leading nation in the world at the sport, the Americans have been in steep decline in recent years yet the potential for improvement is vast. The challenge involved would have been just as appealing as the money.

Who wouldn't jump at a job like that? Well, Billy Walsh for one. Despite all that had transpired before, his relationships as friend and mentor to the young men of the High Performance Programme are deeply important to him, so he told the IABA about the American job offer and sought a new contract which would enable him to continue his work here. According to Vincent Hogan in the Irish Independent last week, it wasn't money which concerned the coach most but the ability to do his job without interference.

So the Irish Sports Council, who made it clear they'd cover any salary increase Walsh needed, sat down with the IABA and hammered out a deal which would keep him in Ireland. It just had to be rubber-stamped by the IABA at a board meeting on Tuesday. The finest coach in Irish sport was going to stay home after all. He probably had a wry smile to himself and wondered what it would have been like out there in Colorado, all that skiing and everything.

And then, the final indignity. On Tuesday the IABA emailed the sports Council to say that they'd changed their mind on basically every aspect of the deal. Everything Billy Walsh had asked for was turned down.

You can only imagine the effect this kind of treatment had on a man who'd been given the impression that the deal was done. The sports council were apparently flabbergasted by the disrespect shown by the IABA to Walsh. Treat someone like this and they'll probably walk, whether they have another job to go to or not.

I've no doubt that Billy Walsh will prosper in America and that in the future we'll be hearing the Star Spangled Banner at a lot more medal ceremonies than we have in recent years. He's not the loser here, in fact I'm pleased to think of him finally being properly looked after. And I'm sure that an awful lot of Irish sports fans will find themselves rooting for the American women in Rio. That's the kind of esteem in which Billy Walsh is held by the public. He owes Irish sport nothing.

Whether we'll be hearing Amhrán na bhFiann quite as often from now on is a different matter. Not for the first time the people at the coalface in Irish sport have been let down by blundering behind the scenes. Billy Walsh was a man who should have been cherished. Instead he was undermined, humiliated and left with little option but to walk away from the programme which he had built up. I'm no fan of political intervention in sport but the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, who've done very well out of the public purse in recent years, surely have to be called to account on this one. They were warned three years ago and it seems to have made no difference at all.

The IABA seem to think that boxing's success is inevitable. But the fact is that prior to Billy Walsh's appointment we'd qualified just a single fighter for each of the previous two Olympics and they won a single fight between them. The legacy of Carruth and McCullough in 1992 had been comprehensively squandered. And now it may happen again.

Will we ever get sense?

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