Sunday 19 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Sometimes we take the perpetual excellence of our amateur boxers for granted

Fighters from other countries had wilted as the Azerbaijan bandwagon gathered steam. Michael O’Reilly looked like he was fighting Xaybula Musalov in Portlaoise rather than Bakumakes
Fighters from other countries had wilted as the Azerbaijan bandwagon gathered steam. Michael O’Reilly looked like he was fighting Xaybula Musalov in Portlaoise rather than Bakumakes

Eamonn Sweeney

Michael O'Reilly's gold medal in the European Games is the ultimate sporting tale of the unexpected. No-one expected him to win the middleweight division before the competition. No-one expected a boxer from Azerbaijan to be beaten in a final in their home stadium. And no-one expected anyone other than Katie Taylor to give the defining Irish performance at the championships.

The 21-year-old from Portlaoise has been earmarked as a rising star ever since he was winning European medals at underage level. And his victory over Darren O'Neill in last year's national final showed that he had arrived as a force to be reckoned with in the senior ranks.

Yet seldom has an Irish fighter seemed to be up against it to the extent that O'Reilly was in Baku yesterday afternoon. The final day of the boxing competition has turned into one long victory procession for Azerbaijan who, as O'Reilly and Xaybula Musalov took the ring, had just moved past the Russians on the medals table. The combination of fanatical home support, judges who hadn't exactly been doing the home fighters many disservices and an opponent who in his semi-final had outpointed one of the world's best at this weight, Hungary's Zoltan Harcsa, made the young Irishman perhaps the biggest outsider of the day.

Yet O'Reilly made nonsense of the odds with a performance reminiscent of the one which gave Michael Carruth gold at the 1992 Olympics. Level going into the final round, O'Reilly seized the moment and by the final minute was outpunching Musalov at will, visibly growing in confidence as he sensed that the momentum had turned irresistibly his way. It was probably that finale which sealed the deal for O'Reilly but from the start he had been a study in concentration, intelligence and craft.

Katie Taylor, Ireland, with her Women's Boxing Light 60kg Final gold medal. 2015 European Games, Crystal Hall, Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Katie Taylor, Ireland, with her Women's Boxing Light 60kg Final gold medal. 2015 European Games, Crystal Hall, Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

That, after all, is the Irish way. It is the Billy Walsh way. Because the one thing we always know about an Irish boxer in a major fight is that he will go in there with a plan and execute it to the best of his ability. This is a rare thing not just in Irish sport but in Irish life and it, coupled with his own talent, is what enabled O'Reilly to deal perfectly with a high-pressure situation. Fighters from other countries had wilted as the Azerbaijan bandwagon gathered steam. O'Reilly looked like he was fighting in Portlaoise rather than Baku.

We'd already seen how difficult it was to halt the Azerbaijani charge when the unthinkable happened on Friday and Katie Taylor found herself facing defeat, an occurrence which for shock value ranks with the sun failing to come up in the morning.

At the halfway stage Taylor was trailing against Yana Alekseevna, a home fighter spurred by the crowd to reach new heights. Seldom has Taylor seemed so troubled by an opponent and it did seem that the inspired Alekseevna was going to prove irresistible. And that's why Taylor's comeback and the narrow, but deserved, victory she eked out will stand as one of the great triumphs of her career.

Her talent and popularity have of late seen her move into the zone where sporting achievement turns into celebrity. Brian O'Driscoll entered the same territory in his final years with Ireland. The star becomes a kind of icon to the extent that people lose sight of what they were all about in the first place. Their triumphs come to seem inevitable.

But to see Katie Taylor struggling in Baku was to be reminded that, unlike a pop star or a politician, she has to prove herself anew every time she enters the ring. That is what makes sportspeople different. Her victories had come to seem routine but Alekseevna reminded us that they are nothing of the sort.

And perhaps nothing was more remarkable than the final minute of the bout when a big finish showed that the Irish fighter was going to win because she was hungrier than her opponent. That this hunger still exists in a boxer who was going for her 18th major title says everything about the extraordinary nature of the woman from Wicklow.

Michael O'Reilly, Ireland, is announced victorious over Zaybula Musalov, Azerbaijan, by referee Mik Basi, following their Men's Boxing Middle 75kg Final bout. 2015 European Games, Crystal Hall, Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Michael O'Reilly, Ireland, is announced victorious over Zaybula Musalov, Azerbaijan, by referee Mik Basi, following their Men's Boxing Middle 75kg Final bout. 2015 European Games, Crystal Hall, Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

She is a phenomenon. She is to a degree bigger than her sport and perhaps even bigger than the European Games which needed Katie Taylor's presence more than she needed the gold it had to offer. The victory in the final over Estelle Mossely of France was the old familiar story of a great champion utterly outgunning an outclassed opponent. But the semi-final told us far more about the nature of Katie Taylor's greatness.

Sometimes we take that greatness for granted. As sometimes we take the perpetual excellence of our amateur boxers for granted. Yet in Baku they gave yet another extraordinary display. Our two outstanding boxers of the moment, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, who've already qualified for the Olympics, were absent as was Stephen Donnelly who came within an ace of emulating them. But in their absence Michael O'Reilly wasn't the only one who showed that the conveyor belt of talent moves remorselessly on. A new star has been born in the person of Brendan Irvine, the 19-year-old Belfast light flyweight who, like O'Reilly and Taylor, achieved the considerable feat of defeating a home fighter.

He came extremely close to emulating their gold medals, losing a slightly unlucky decision in the final against Russia's Bator Sagaluev. The kid they call 'Wee Rooster' will be on the podium again one suspects and is an obvious heir apparent to the incomparable Barnes. They've been producing hardy little men in his home town since the days of Rinty Monaghan. Belfast is also the home town of lightweight Sean McComb who also made the medals before losing out in the semi-final to Albert Selimov of Azerbaijan, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world who was a world champion as far back as 2007 and was named world boxer of the month in April after cutting a swathe through opponents in the World Series of Boxing. That McComb gave Selimov plenty of it before succumbing on points shows that he too is on the way up.

When Ireland broke into the medals at the 2008 Olympics there was talk of a 'Golden Generation' but it's becoming increasingly clear that every generation is a golden generation thanks to Walsh and his cohorts. To take two golds, a silver and a bronze in what was unquestionably the strongest event of the games is a signal achievement.

And let's not pass by the heroics of our badminton stars or, as they're also known, the Magee siblings from Raphoe. Sister Chloe teamed up with brother Sam for bronze in the mixed doubles and Sam and brother Joshua came away with the same colour medal in the men's doubles. It's a nice boost for a game which has long been a staple of parish halls and sports complexes without ever getting much media attention. Respect.

Sean McComb
Sean McComb

But in the end it was about the boxers. And the abiding image of Baku will be of young O'Reilly up on his toes, the hint of a smile on his face as he took the fight to a fading opponent in the final minute, glorying in his own talent and knowing that he is part of the most remarkable sustained success story in Irish sport.

We've come a long, long way together through the hard times and the good, we have to celebrate them baby, we have to praise them like we should.

There's none so blind as those who will not see

At Spawell, an organisation which represents all that is best in Irish life went up against one which represents all that is wrong about it. The good guys lost.

The sale of the Spawell Complex is as neat an encapsulation of what's wrong with modern Ireland as you could wish for. The Dublin County Board didn't just come up with the €6.5m asking price, they went higher than that before pulling out before being forced into some potentially limitless bidding war.

Had their bid been accepted, Dublin would not just have built a badly-needed 25,000 capacity stadium which would have bridged the gap between Croke Park (too cavernous for all National League matches) and Parnell Park (Sligo, Roscommon and Fermanagh all have bigger county grounds; Cork, Kerry and Waterford have two each). It would also have provided a state-of-the-art sporting facility in a city which by European standards is poorly provided for, with the board planning to provide several full-sized training pitches at the site.

Sadly, this dream is now in tatters. And what will be built there instead? Thanks to the secrecy with which NAMA operates we don't know. But the site has planning permission for a 150-bed hotel so chances are that instead of a theatre of dreams South Dublin will be provided with yet another suburban chain hotel. It's even possible that the buyers have bought the site with the intention of selling it on as part of the land speculation game which has served the country so well in recent times.

NAMA have defended the decision not to sell to the GAA on the grounds that the higher price gave taxpayers a better return on the money which, without ever being consulted about it, they have pumped into the agency. Which is all well and good if you think that return can only be measured in financial terms.

Yet, as Dublin CEO John Costello pointed out, NAMA's terms of reference include an obligation to take community development into account when making decisions. The public good would surely have been better served by the provision of a major sports facility rather than a kowtowing to some developer. After all, and this is important, Dublin weren't looking for something for nothing. They had met the initial asking price.

In any case the money involved is surely a drop in the ocean considering the sums NAMA is dealing with overall. And while this 'looking after the taxpayers' money' line sounds very good, the fact is that the agency isn't always so fastidious about these matters.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled against their argument that in effect the agency is entitled to carry out its business largely in secret and reveal little to the public.

The case against NAMA was taken by the admirably tenacious journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner Gavin Sheridan, who pointed out after his victory that the agency had spent large sums of public money in fighting the case. So much for the needs of the taxpayer. Apparently, your money must be protected from sporting organisations but can be freely squandered on NAMA's behalf.

The Spawell decision seems to stem from the attitude displayed by Margaret Thatcher's infamous comment that "there is no such thing as society." Thatcher and her disciples saw money and market forces as the only real measures of worth and it is this outmoded creed which cost Dublin the chance to achieve something of real worth for not just the GAA but the city and county as a whole.

Yet, even on a narrowly financial basis, Dublin GAA still offered the best return for the taxpayer. It's surely beyond dispute that spending money on sporting facilities saves money in the long term on the areas of health and policing. The GAA, and other sporting organisations kept afloat by volunteerism, have done more to promote good health and a sense of responsibility among young people than any government programme. The major sporting facility envisioned by the GAA at the Spawell complex would have delivered a considerable dividend to society in the long term.

That NAMA didn't factor this into their calculations indicates both a lamentable lack of imagination and a boneheaded determination to focus on the short-term view. It also shows a total lack of respect for the community values epitomised by the GAA.

Dublin GAA people deserve better than this. We all do. It's not NAMA's country, it's ours.

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