Friday 17 August 2018

Vincent Hogan: Back to the future for Nolan as Oulart go again

Adam Nolan with his gold medal with the gold medal he won at welterweight in the European Qualifying Championships for the 2012 Olympic Games. Picture credit: David Maher / Sportsfile
Adam Nolan with his gold medal with the gold medal he won at welterweight in the European Qualifying Championships for the 2012 Olympic Games. Picture credit: David Maher / Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The game was winding down, and not in the way he would have chosen. Sitting in a spartan room on a university campus in Almaty, his sister's voice had Adam Nolan's rapt attention.

Through the miracle of Viber, Leanne was transporting him from a colourless Sunday in Kazakhstan to Wexford Park, Oulart-The Ballagh seemingly almost on their knees.

A big lead surrendered and now Ferns swarming forward for the kill.

Two points in it, seconds remaining.

Every fibre in Nolan's body wanted to be home. He'd been evicted from the World Championships on a split decision, but the Irish boxers had gone there as a team that would not sunder. They'd stay together for 26 days, irrespective of winners or losers.

But this Sunday of all Sundays… No club had ever won five in a row in Wexford, yet just over 3,000 miles from this town in Central Asia, Adam's older brother Darren was trying to captain Oulart-The Ballagh to that mountain-top.

Leanne's staccato commentary came to him in panicked fragments.

A final Ferns attack.

A defender's foul.

A 21-yard free.

A goalkeeper's save.

The follow-up pull.

GOAL!!

Adam Nolan's knees buckled under him. Inconsolable, he fell to the floor only for Leanne's voice to interject, shrieking: "No, no, it was the side-netting!"

Seconds later, a puck-out and the thunderous rumble of local voices. Darren's place in history secure.

Lonely

"I just burst out crying," Adam remembers now. "It was such a lonely feeling being in that room on my own.

"I was sick that I couldn't be there. Darren's a quiet fella, a great servant and I was so happy for him that he'd done it."

Maybe that was the day the tug of home and hurling began to become insatiable.

It was October 2013 and he had gone five full years without even picking up a hurley.

A member of Oulart-The Ballagh's senior panel in '08, he'd found himself stationed as a Garda in Bray and gone to train there in that old boat-house with Pete Taylor.

And that was when boxing took hold of his life again.

He had won a national title with Billy Walsh in his corner as an 11-year-old, a child of The Ballagh Boxing Club where his dad, John, and Martin O'Connor ran the show until its closure in '95.

After that, he and Darren switched to St Ibar's in Wexford town, out of which both of them would win Irish titles.

In '04, Adam beat Carl Frampton in an Irish youths final at The Stadium, boxing at a spindly eight stone. He was 17 but, having neglected his Leaving Cert, something had to give.

"I suppose I kind of rode off into the sunset after beating Frampton so that I could repeat the Leaving," he smiles now. "Because that was my last fight for four and a half years!"

He'd gone to Taylor's gym in '08 essentially to stay fit for hurling then, but the coach's practiced eye soon drew the two men closer.

By 2010, Adam was an Irish intermediate champion and, over the next six years, he would win five senior welterweight titles.

In 2012, he represented Ireland at the London Olympics and, in his mind, Rio 2016 was the next compelling target.

But Olympic boxing has become a murky river, amateurs and semi-professionals chasing the same ticket down different avenues.

Nolan was national champion (uniquely winning the title twice in 2015), yet Stephen Donnelly achieved Olympic qualification through the World Series of Boxing, the same route that delivered Paddy Barnes to Rio.

The IABA's hands were tied. Two men from one country cannot fight for Olympic glory in the same weight division so, if they didn't ratify Donnelly, there was a danger that Ireland would have no welterweight in Brazil.

"No-one let me down individually," says Nolan now. "It was the system that let me down!"

So, with Rio out of reach and factoring in how he'd be 33 come Tokyo 2020, Adam Nolan decided that it was maybe time to go home again and hurl.

"The boxing had become a chore to me at that stage," he explains. "I'd fallen out of love with it."

It was July 31 last year when he presented himself to training with Oulart-The Ballagh's intermediates, a distinctly uncomfortable experience. Had he returned in January, he might have felt entitled to a warmer welcome. But in mid-season?

"I rocked up in the field, thinking 'What are these lads going to make of me here?'," he says. "The first couple of sessions, I'd say they were looking at me saying 'That lad thinks he's carrying a slash-hook!'

"I wasn't worried about my fitness, but I hadn't picked up a hurl in years and it felt strange. Now I was walking in out of the blue and I was worried some of them might give me the cold shoulder.

"Some of the elder statesmen particularly could have been thinking 'Who does he think he is?'

"I'd gone to primary school with a lot of these lads... in fairness, they couldn't have been more welcoming."

Nolan quickly rediscovered his love of the game, and when the intermediates' season ended, Frank Flannery invited him onto the senior squad. He would be an unused substitute when Oulart won their tenth county title in 13 seasons last October, beating Cloughbawn in the final.

One year on?

He finally made his senior Championship debut at 30 with a late substitute's appearance in their recent semi-final defeat of Rapparees and hopes to see more game-time in tomorrow's final against St Martins.

The simple purity of hurling alongside family (Darren is still involved at 35), friends and neighbours has been almost cathartic for Nolan, having had such a close perspective on the self-harm now seemingly endemic in Irish boxing.

He remembers taking a phone call from South East Radio the morning, two years ago, that Billy Walsh's departure for America was confirmed.

"I'd just got the news on WhatsApp when they rang," he remembers. "And they played a pre-recorded interview with Billy in which he broke down.

"I hadn't even spoken to him at that stage so there I was sitting in a hotel room in the midlands, completely in shock, and I hear Billy's voice, sounding inconsolable.

"Then I'm put straight on and, for the first 20 seconds or so, I couldn't speak. I wasn't worth tuppence!"

The team had just returned from the World Championships in Doha, an event at which Ireland would finish a remarkable fourth in the medals table. Despite his proximity to the boxers in Qatar, Walsh kept a wall up to his inner turmoil.

Looking back, Nolan marvels now at his old coach's outer serenity.

"I could never see the day when Billy Walsh would go and coach a different country," he reflects.

"The IABA obviously thought the same. They were thick-skinned. They just rode it out, ducked and dived until he was on a plane.

"You always knew it was going on in the background, but Billy never showed it. Zaur (Antia) never showed it.

"Once you hit the gym floor, there was no sense of any of that. It never affected us because they would not let it.

"And Billy's attitude never changed. There were some days I'm sure he'd have been entitled to be in foul form because of what was going on, but he never showed it.

"In the end, he was pushed out. Even though I knew things were bad, I think we all felt they'd never get that bad where Billy was forced to go."

Of course, it isn't just Walsh who has been lost now. Coaches Taylor and Eddie Bolger are gone from High Performance too, while Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan and Barnes all turned professional.

And the team's meltdown in Rio has dramatically redrawn the energy around Irish boxing, leaving Nolan is guarded about the future.

He was dismayed by the palpable sense of recidivism last March when newly appointed high-performance director Bernard Dunne found his position almost instantly undermined by Central Council.

"He wasn't a wet week in the job and they didn't even want to send him to his first major tournament as manager," reflects Nolan.

"They were putting stumbling blocks in his way straight away.

"What's the common denominator here? It's not the coaches, it's the people upstairs.

"They're making life so hard for the coaches, and it's still going on. It's just an ongoing circus. And any time the heat comes on them (IABA), they just bury their heads in the sand. They lie low until it passes."

Nolan is happy to be free of that now, although he doesn't regret a second of his time in the ring.

But tomorrow in Wexford Park, he chases something - by comparison - beautifully uncomplicated.

"At least in hurling, there's nothing underhand, there are no hidden agendas," he says flatly.

"You're not worried about outside influences. The manager picks the team, he doesn't need a chairman to ratify that team. He's his own man. He makes decisions purely on the basis of what he sees, on common sense.

"Listen, there's politics in GAA clubs too, but you couldn't compare it to the politics going on up in the National Stadium."

Tomorrow, that fractious, garbled world will belong to another universe.

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