Tuesday 21 November 2017

As valuable as any medal

Walsh and Antia – the men behind boxing ethos and framework – must be retained at all costs

Ireland's boxing medallists John Joe Nevin, Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan show off their valuable London souvenirs yesterday
Ireland's boxing medallists John Joe Nevin, Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan show off their valuable London souvenirs yesterday
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Before the '92 Barcelona Olympics, Ireland's boxers went to a pre-Games training camp in Germany.

One morning, the German national coach approached the Irish, requesting a specific three for spars. "I want you, you and you," he said, pointing to Michael Carruth, Wayne McCullough and Paul Griffin. They were being asked to go nine minutes with three of Germany's hottest juniors.

Carruth remembers only disdain on the young German faces as he climbed between the ropes. "They were looking at us as if we were three Irish farmers," he recalled recently. "But we went in and boxed the heads off them!"

Afterwards, the coach sat his boxers down, told them to be quiet and, one after another, introduced the Irish spars. Griffin and McCullough were European and Commonwealth champions respectively. Carruth had a bronze medal from the '89 World Championships. Then the coach said something in German before wheeling away, clearly angry.

"What did he just say?" Carruth asked an official, watching.

"He told them to never again judge a book by its cover!"

The cover, in question, was one that invited cheap parody. Irish boxers, at the time, had a name for bad-living, sloppiness. They weren't welcomed into certain training camps because it was felt that their their presence might infect the place with contrariness and broken curfews. The Irish could always box. But they liked to drink too.

The High Performance Programme responsible for the four boxing medals that, today, arrive back in Dublin was instigated, essentially, as an attempt to decommission that caricature. It set out nine years ago with the objective of grabbing Irish boxing by the ear and dragging it from its world of whimsy into a place where people simply asked harder things of one another.

As the media's questions ran dry late last Saturday night, in the same room Katie Taylor brought her gold medal to two days earlier, Billy Walsh was invited to say something on behalf of our Olympic boxers. The invitation hadn't been planned and, momentarily, Billy looked a little thrown. But then he delivered maybe a half-minute of perfection.

Thoughtful, generous, respectful, Walsh thanked people for their courtesy towards his team, for promoting their sport, then finished by expressing a hope they would all adapt to reality again, having taken their leave of "this fantasy island".

Maybe half an hour earlier, John Joe Nevin came through the ExCel Arena mixed zone with his silver medal around his neck and, unsolicited, expressed sympathy for the families of those killed in the horrific car accident in Tullamore. "I'm here standing with a silver medal and those poor families are arranging funerals, my heart goes out to them," he said.

John Joe is 23.

There is an ethos running through boxing's High Performance programme today that gives it a specific personality. It isn't just the medal-wing of an Irish Olympics, it is also invariably the most grounded, the one that feels most sane. Boxing, by its nature, cultivates respect. But the programme run by Billy Walsh takes things to a higher realm.

He is the kind of man people are drawn to because he couldn't be self-important if he tried. And, in Zaur Antia, he has, perhaps, the perfect human foil, someone with an eye for technical detail that can break any boxer down into a single-page solution.

On Saturday night, this newspaper's story about the uncertainty hanging over the futures of Walsh, Antia and, indeed, Pete Taylor, blew through the ExCel like a serrated wind. How could Irish boxing not be desperately ring-fencing the services of men who are, palpably, world class at what they do?

All three have been approached by other federations this week and, in the absence of any tangible, long-term security in their current contracts with the IABA, all might easily be lost. Perhaps Billy muddied the water a little on Saturday by referencing the salaries of Declan Kidney and Giovanni Trapattoni as counter-notes to how the boxing association treats its coaches.

His point was not that he expected to be paid to the same level as Kidney or Trapattoni, merely that it would be nice to encounter a comparable climate of support. Walsh is the lowest paid manager of a High Performance programme in Ireland and, frankly, the public would probably be startled to hear the modesty of his salary. In April of 2010, the IABA's decision to overlook him for the post director of High Performance disgusted those who knew it as the job he was already doing in everything but name.

The Irish Sports Council, who bankroll the IABA, indicated their displeasure by announcing they would not be funding the post or indeed that of the association's new chief executive officer. It was a fight the Sports Council was right to pick at the time, but one that it simply hasn't chosen to sustain.

Perhaps their previous experience of going to war with a national federation -- they got their fingers badly burned by Athletics Ireland -- has made John Treacy and Co squeamish about picking the wrong fight again. But, for the future of Irish boxing, it is time to grow cojones.

Walsh's technical title in London was head coach. This was his role when Gary Keegan was HP director. But Keegan's departure to the Irish Institute of Sport post-Beijing meant that Billy, effectively, had to do two jobs as one. This he is still doing four years later.

It isn't that the Sports Council isn't funding boxing well. Talk to Walsh, Antia or their boxers and they, consistently, reiterate how it is the ISC that keeps that little academy on the South Circular Road above water. Trouble is, the Council will not dictate to the IABA the specifics of how to use that funding.

So, for all its medals, Irish boxing still has this strange tinnitus in its ears.

The High Performance staff feel grossly under-appreciated by the boxing association and, in the absence of any real job security, they could now depart en bloc. To the boxers, this would constitute a scenario from hell.

On Saturday, silver-medallist Nevin, described his own club coach Brian McKeown as "a legend". But it was an act of absolute trust when McKeown put his protege in the care of Walsh and Antia, a trust that has now been vindicated.

Nevin explained: "Brian told me 'stick with Billy and Zaur and you'll go great'. He knew they're tremendous coaches and you can't go wrong if you have them on your side. You don't want to get rid of them two. They mean everything to (Irish) boxing. You're not going to get anyone in the world as good.

"Like Brian took me so far, he's a top-class coach who believed in me all along. But he passed me over to High Performance then, because he knew Billy and Zaur are just out of this world. You can't let them go. If they want to make Irish boxing get better, and it is growing, it's them two people making it happen."

Asked if Walsh or Antia were sufficiently appreciated, Nevin was unequivocal. "They're not getting the recognition and I'd love to see them get it," he reflected. "As it said in the paper (Irish Independent) today, they're the least-paid coaches of all (High Performance) sports in Ireland. That's ridiculous. I think they should be getting more than Trapattoni!

"Trapattoni's a great manager but they are after bringing back four medals again. It's unbelievable.'

It was interesting to hear the take of Ireland's other athletes this past fortnight on our country's boxers. If Katie Taylor came across as the perfect Olympic role model, the behaviour of Nevin, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Adam Nolan and, team captain Darren O'Neill, drew endless bouquets. Wonder was routinely expressed at their humility, the palpable absence of ego.

All eventually lost in the ring, yet not one of them ducked the responsibility of facing the world when it happened. Barnes' grace, especially, after an agonising countback defeat to China's Shiming Zou, will forever ennoble the Belfast light-fly's career.

On Saturday, after his medal presentation, Barnes was asked how vital it was that the futures of Walsh and Antia be secured. "Well they're the two coaches that have been with High Performance from the start," he said. "Without them, there would be no High Performance." There were so many emblematic moments of our boxing people being the country's most impressive emissaries in London, that team manager Des Donnelly's gentle reminder to media on Saturday night that there was a showjumping medal going home too, just seemed to strike a perfectly natural tone .

But this story may be about to unravel rapidly now, unless those who have scripted it are suitably acknowledged.

As Walsh himself put it: "It's important that we hold onto this team and that we hold all the staff together as well. We have all the knowledge here now. We have great experience. The fact that we have repeatedly done it shows that we're world class. We need to hold on to all those people and respect them and treat them as they are, world-class people."

A book of a very different cover.

Irish Independent

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