Monday 18 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: IABA's 'regret' rings hollow as Billy Walsh quits

24 June 2015; Team Ireland coach Billy Walsh watches on as Michael O'Reilly, Ireland, boxes Aljaz Venko, Slovenia, during his Men's Boxing Middle 75kg Quarter Final bout. 2015 European Games, Crystal Hall, Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
24 June 2015; Team Ireland coach Billy Walsh watches on as Michael O'Reilly, Ireland, boxes Aljaz Venko, Slovenia, during his Men's Boxing Middle 75kg Quarter Final bout. 2015 European Games, Crystal Hall, Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Billy Walsh travelled to Doha from a training camp in Assisi on October 2, knowing that it would be his last assignment with Irish boxing.

Eight months of "negotiation" with his employers, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA), had worn him down to a point of abject frustration.

He told nobody of his intentions, wary of the news impacting in any way upon his boxers' performances at the World Championships. But Walsh's patience was, finally, exhausted.

It was, thus, a little hard to reconcile the "regret" with which the IABA accepted Walsh's resignation yesterday with their attitude to Walsh since he made them aware of a US bid for his services last February.

The guardians of Irish amateur boxing waited almost until 6pm before finally offering their response to a story that would lead RTE's Six-One News and trigger day-long expressions of outrage and disappointment.

The most successful head coach in Ireland's Olympic history had phoned Joe Christle, the Association's chairman, out of courtesy yesterday morning to alert him to an email just sent, confirming his resignation after almost 13 years at the coal-face of boxing's High Performance programme.

It was delivered just days after the return from the Middle East of Ireland's most successful World Championship team ever.

Asked if he was angry last night, Walsh admitted: "I am yeah, I am in a lot of ways. It's like a death in the family walking away from this. I've tortured myself, I've cried a lot. I cried this morning when I pressed 'send' on that email.

"But in other ways I'm sort of relieved that it's come to an end because it was very, very tough. And I'm mindful of the boxers first of all, the support staff and the people that worked with me for so many years. . .

"I know what it's like. Gary (Keegan) left (in 2008) and we were all sort of lost for a time and, obviously, I had to become the leader. The group will now have to find a new leader."


Walsh will fly to Memphis on Thursday and he is expected to sign a contract as head of the US Women's Programme while attending their Olympic trials.

It has also been confirmed that he will take charge of their troubled men's programme, making him the key man in American plans for the Rio Games.

He has previously been head-hunted by the Australian and English federations, yet stayed at home to build the Irish model into one of the most respected in amateur boxing.

As far back as October, the US sent a delegation to Dublin in a bid to sign him up and, during his Christmas holidays, Walsh took up the offer to go and view their set-up over four days in Colorado Springs. He was then made an offer dwarfing his current salary in a package that included pension and health insurance, neither of which he gets from the IABA.

Having made the Association aware of that offer, he indicated certain changes he felt needed to be made to the circumstances in which Irish boxing's High Performance Programme was run. Fundamental to this was bringing an end to the seemingly endless struggle for autonomy.

Walsh has always sought the right, as head of the programme, to pick Irish teams for competition rather than have selections imposed upon him by committee. He has also been left deeply frustrated by members of his staff being randomly re-assigned to other positions in the Association without prior consultation.

The issues most pressing to him are not and never have been about money.

He confirmed yesterday that a simple desire to protect his "dignity and respect" was the final trigger for his resignation.

And the remarkable wording of a statement from Sport Ireland surely hinted at the nature of dialogue (or lack of it) with the IABA that ultimately brought this matter to a sorry close.

Pointing out that Walsh and the Irish Sports Council were led to believe as far back as August that an agreement had been reached with the boxing federation, the statement read that it is "not clear why this proposal was never presented to the board of the IABA as agreed", before adding "and we have never received a satisfactory answer on this matter."

Given that the IABA is in receipt of ¤1.2m of Government funding per annum, their attitude towards Ministerial (Michael Ring met them on three occasions apparently) and Sports Council pleas to resolve the Walsh issue simply beggars belief.

And it would appear that that attitude has left an ugly scar, given Sport Ireland's stark declaration last night that it would "now have to review the outcome of its recent engagement with the IABA."

Still, none of this will keep Billy Walsh at home now.

He has effectively run the High Performance Programme since Keegan's move to the Institute of Sport in '08, but always still on a coach's salary because of the IABA's mysterious refusal to appoint him director of that programme.

I understand that their last contract offer to Walsh required him to work as "a contractor" for the Association, offering the Wexford man no long-term employment security.

The Americans' willingness to wait so long for his commitment conveys a rather different appreciation of his coaching talents.

They've seen Ireland's amateur boxers have an extraordinary year so far, claiming two golds, a silver and a bronze at the European Games, two golds and a bronze at the European Championships as well as gold, silver and bronze at those World Championships in Doha.

Having finished fifth in the medals table at the London Olympics, the avowed Irish target is No 1 in Rio.

Quite how Walsh's departure impacts upon that target only time will tell.


But the broad response to his departure last night was enough to engender worry. London silver medallist John Joe Nevin - now a professional - tweeted a description of Walsh as "the best coach iv ever worked wit no questioning that" above the hash-tag@IABABOXING should be shamed.

And twice Olympic bronze medallist Paddy Barnes, who has already qualified for Rio, expressed a concern that Walsh's departure could now be followed by that of his Georgian right-hand man, Zaur Antia.

Walsh himself reflected last night: "Make no mistake, this team will go on to be successful. The template is there for them to deliver on the big stage in Rio. It's never been about one person.

"I was probably lucky in that I was the leader of the programme and got most of the attention. But there's lots of people in that programme who do fantastic work under the radar to make the team a success.

"I just happened to be the figurehead. I'm well aware of that, I'm well aware of my own limits and I'm well aware of what everyone else contributes. . . and that's going back to all the clubs in Ireland.

"For me, it's just that there are simple things like dignity and respect with your role.

"And they've been dismantled over the last year."

At what cost to Irish boxing? A year from now, the first audit will be with us.

Irish Independent

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