Monday 18 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Fighting our way to the top

Hold the Back Page

Eamonn Sweeney

It isn't that long ago, but in terms of Irish amateur boxing 2006 seems to belong to a different historical era altogether.

Seven years ago Ireland won just a single medal at the European boxing championships in Plovdiv. Yet this haul wasn't greeted with any great disappointment. In fact, Kenneth Egan's bronze in the light-heavyweight division was regarded as a major achievement. As, by the standards of the time, it was. Egan's bronze was our only medal of the championships as Andy Lee's had been two years previously in the Croatian town of Pula.

Egan and Lee were regarded as virtual superstars in Irish amateur boxing. Only such exceptional talents, it seemed, could manage to break through at European level. There had been no medals at all in 2000 or 2002. You had to go back to 1998 for our last silver, won by Brian Magee, later European super-middleweight champ in the pro ranks, to 1991 for our last gold, won by Paul Griffin and all the way back to Madrid in 1971 for the previous multiple medal-winning championships, Mick Dowling, Neil McLaughlin and Brendan McCarthy taking bronzes on that occasion.

That's why we should never get blasé about the terrific performances our boxers have been producing in major tournaments since Beijing. Because, despite all the talk about our great tradition in the sport, we've never had an era remotely like this one. The four European Championships since 2008 have yielded a total of 14 medals, the same total we won from 1971 to 2006. Since 2010 we've won five gold medals, the same amount we amassed in the previous 70 years.

Thanks to Egan, we made the top ten on the 2006 medal table, sharing it with another nine countries who'd won a single bronze. Two years later, we bagged three bronzes but had dropped a place.

What a change there's been since. Runners-up to the Russians in 2010, third behind Russia and Azerbaijan in 2011 and second behind the Russians again this year, it's fair to say that we have become a major power. And had Joe Ward not been eliminated due to a freakish injury and Paddy Barnes not been forced to pull out of his final due to a fractured nose, the unthinkable might have happened with Ireland winning more gold medals than Russia. They ended with five to our two but that included golds in the light-flyweight and light-heavyweight divisions which, with ordinary luck, Ward and Barnes might well have won.

Ireland has fundamentally altered the balance of power in European boxing. Bulgaria, second in the medal table in 2006 and Germany, runners-up in 2004, won three medals between them in Minsk, none of them gold. These days it's former powerhouses like Armenia and France who've learned to be grateful for a solitary bronze.

The Minsk haul of two golds and two silvers was particularly satisfying because it combined the quantity of the 2010 championships where Ireland won five medals, three of them bronze, with the quality of 2011 where we bagged two golds for only the second time in championship history. And there could have been no more fitting fighter to lead the way than John Joe Nevin because the Mullingar man epitomises the quality of sustained excellence which lies at the heart of our transformation into a kind of rainy Cuba.

In 2009, he won a world championships bronze medal and suffered the agony of defeat by a single point in the semi-final. Two years later came another combination of achievement and disappointment with a further bronze medal and another semi-final defeat, this time on countback. The wider public really became aware of Nevin when he won silver in last year's Olympics. And his European triumph continues a record of consistent excellence at the top level which has few equals in Irish sport. This time round there was no heartbreak at all as Nevin won not only his first major title but clinched the boxer of the tournament award. He is arguably the finest amateur boxer this country has ever seen and given that he only turned 24 earlier this month will probably put that beyond argument in the coming years.

That the Irish sporting public shows a certain reluctance to clasp Nevin to its bosom in the way that it is wont to do with athletes who have achieved a great deal less is perhaps not that surprising. This is a country where casual racism towards Travellers, if anything, seems to get worse as the years go by. The fact that Nevin is dignified, confident and almost impossible to condescend to probably makes his success a bitter pill to swallow for the bigots among us. Good.

If Nevin, in maintaining the highest standards year after year, is emblematic of Irish amateur boxing in the new era of the High Performance Programme, the gold medal success of Jason Quigley typifies it in another, equally important, way.

Given the unparalleled nature of the current success, it's understandable that some of us worried at first that this just happened to be a golden generation, the passing of which would return Irish boxing to the quotidian realms of old. The first conclusive proof that this wasn't so came with the eclipse of Egan by Joe Ward. Egan had barely settled in to his status as national hero after Beijing when he suffered the first of the three crushing defeats by Ward which eventually drove him into retirement.

Ward showed that the heroes of Beijing couldn't rest on their laurels. And he also showed the clear link between high achievement at underage and senior level. When he and Ray Moylette won their European titles in Moscow two years ago, they were adding to the world youth titles they'd won previously. And with Ireland figuring prominently at every major underage boxing championships, there are a horde of youngsters for whom the current national senior champions have a big target painted on their back in the run-up to Rio 2016.

The ascent of Quigley has looked inevitable since he won the European youth title, and the best boxer of the tournament, in 2009. But this doesn't render his achievement in winning gold at his first major senior tournament any less remarkable. Like Ward, Quigley got his chance by dethroning a hugely experienced national champion, Darren O'Neill, himself a European silver medallist three years ago. He then took it with both hands, a semi-final victory over reigning world champion Evhen Khytrov illustrating that the new model Irish boxer fears no opponent. At 22, Quigley has even greater things ahead of him.

These should include the world championships in Kazakhstan in October. These championships perhaps represent the last peak Irish amateur boxing needs to scale as our

record in the worlds has been undistinguished. We've never done better than bronze, never won more than one medal at a single championships. Two years ago they represented a blip in an otherwise smooth progress towards London 2012.

They may have done so because the team went into the championships following the IABA's controversial decision to order national champions into box-offs to secure their place. Leading fighters, feeling they'd already done enough, stayed away from those box-offs. They were all injured apparently. Box-offs are sometimes seen as being motivated by internal politics and that decision did little to help the world championship team.

That's why it was a little disappointing to see RTE boxing pundit Mick Dowling, with Darren O'Neill sitting beside him, use the run-up to Quigley's final against Bogdan Juratoni to (a) dismiss Quigley's national championship win over O'Neill as a bit of a fluke and (b) suggest that even if Quigley became European champion he should still have to fight O'Neill for a place in the worlds.

Given what Quigley has just achieved, in a campaign which included a win over the German boxer Stefan Haertel who knocked O'Neill out of the Olympics, it would beggar belief were the IABA to try and deny a reigning European champion the chance to represent Ireland at the worlds. And it was very disappointing to see Dowling use his position to indulge in special pleading for a fellow Kilkenny man.

When those leading boxers stayed away from the box-offs in 2011, I supported their inclusion in the world championship squad on the grounds that as national champions they had already done enough. John Joe Nevin was one of them. And Darren O'Neill was another. The IABA eventually agreed that this was the right thing to do. Let's hope they make the correct decision again this time.


Lesser counties have rights too

You may recall the furore which followed Dublin's 37-point win over Carlow in the Leinster under 21 football championship. There were calls for the Dubs to be split into three different teams and suggestions that they had finally got it right at underage level to such an extent that their advantage in terms of population would make them impossible to beat.

Shortly afterwards, Longford knocked Dublin out of the aforementioned championship.

But it's hard to kill off an idea which has become part of conventional wisdom. It can be impervious to anything as crude as results. So the talk about the unfair advantage enjoyed by the all-conquering young Dubs continued. Which made Carlow's 1-13 to 1-11 victory over them in the provincial under 21 hurling championship all the more pleasing.

Carlow and Longford are notably short on numbers, ranking 30th and 31st in terms of county population. Between them they can barely muster half the population of Meath. The county of Longford has roughly the population of Swords, Carlow that of Tallaght. Yet they benefit from the fact that there are only 15 players on a team in football and hurling. If there were, say, 100, then chances are Dublin probably would be unbeatable in the championship. But there aren't.

It was a great week for Carlow and also for anyone who comes from one of the GAA's weaker counties and is fed up to the back teeth of hearing those counties dismissed as not just an irrelevance to the championship but an embarrassment.

What people who don't support Longford or Carlow or Sligo don't realise is that what's seldom can be wonderful. We'd prefer to win more often but the victories we do achieve have a special savour about them. The fact that none of these counties has won a senior All-Ireland does not mean their histories are ignoble. In their own way they are a vital part of the GAA's rich pageant.

Yet with every year the calls grow for these counties to be dumped into some kind of 'B' football championship. For our own good, you understand. So squeamish pundits will be spared the horrific sight of us being slaughtered by the big boys.

But the day that happens will be the day the GAA begins to lose its soul. Over the past couple of weeks we've seen hordes of players leave county teams which have been knocked out of the provincial championships and head abroad for the summer. It clearly shows that there's something not quite real about the qualifiers. The provincial championships are what matters. Consign their counties to a Mickey Mouse competition and players won't even hang around till June. All the condescending piffle in the world about how those counties will come to love their new championship won't change that. We were told, after all, that they'd learn to love the qualifiers.

I appreciate the impatience of people who, like a teenage boy searching for the sexy bits in a movie billed as an 'erotic thriller', simply want to cut to the chase and see Dublin playing Kerry or Cork playing Donegal. But for the time being you'll have to put up with the rest of us.

Carlow under 21 hurlers probably won't win anything this year. But they'll always have the memory of that win over Dublin. And I suspect it will mean a lot more to them than beating Westmeath or Wicklow in some 'B' final.

Because while I've seen Sligo ship some hammerings in my time, I've also seen them beat Tyrone, Kildare, Kerry, Dublin, Galway, Mayo, Meath and Down. And when something like that happens, as any Carlow man can tell you, it's well worth waiting for.


AN Other load of oul' nonsense

Enough already with the whingeing about dummy teams being supplied by inter-county managers, evil genius Wexford hurling boss Liam Dunne the latest to incur journalists' wrath. It doesn't matter one iota.

Not that this stops some of the whingers behaving as if they've just entered a Ludicrous Argument contest. The dummy team is apparently evil because 1. Fans will stop buying programmes if the correct team isn't in them. 2. Players who have been named but aren't really playing may be psychologically damaged when their friends mistakenly congratulate them. 3. There will be less team news in the papers with catastrophic consequences for the GAA and 4. Any other oul' guff that's hanging around.

In fact, it's perfectly understandable that managers don't fancy supplying the other team with a correct line-up three or four days before the game, thus giving them the chance to plan a few counter measures. They'd much prefer if the GAA allowed them to follow the soccer practice of not naming the team until half an hour before the start.

It's hard to see why the practice of naming dummy teams would stop anyone buying a programme. I've bought one at every soccer match I've gone to even though by and large they didn't contain the exact starting line-ups. I was able to work out who was playing where by the application of a sophisticated piece of equipment which goes by the name of 'Eyes'. GAA fans are, I believe, also equipped with this technology.

There'll be plenty to give out about before the summer is over. But let's give the subject of dummy teams a rest. Most people don't give a damn.

Irish Independent

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