Tuesday 20 March 2018

Vincent Hogan on Billy Walsh: Lamentable loss of a good man will hurt Irish boxing

Billy Walsh celebrates with Michael Conlan after the Belfast boxer’s victory in the final at the European Championships earlier this month
Billy Walsh celebrates with Michael Conlan after the Belfast boxer’s victory in the final at the European Championships earlier this month
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

After Ireland's boxers finished fifth in the London Olympics medals table, Billy Walsh set about stepping things up for Rio.

He came up with the slogan 'Five to One'. His plan was to challenge himself and everybody else in High Performance to find a way of propelling Ireland from fifth best in the world to top of the tree.

This might have sounded conceited and ever so slightly dizzy-headed to previous generations of Irish boxing.

But Billy Walsh's 12 years working as a coach in that remarkable boxing Academy beside the National Stadium have brought a profound shift in how Irish amateur boxers conduct themselves and the targets they now come to consider reachable.

He and Zaur Antia have been the coaching constants of a programme that delivered Kenneth Egan, Paddy Barnes (twice), the late Darren Sutherland, John Joe Nevin, Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor to Olympic podiums.

So news of Walsh's imminent departure to a new post in America will surely swing like a wrecking ball through the sport today.

The 52-year-old is expected to oversee the US women's programme in a long-term project that will, I understand, lead to him also taking charge of their troubled men's programme further down the line.

Walsh's organisational gifts are no international secret these days and it is known that the Wexford man has previously been head-hunted by the English and Australian boxing federations.

Yet he has remained faithful to the Irish programme despite evidence that the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, the sport's governing body here (and, accordingly, his direct employers) , have consistently treated him with the most abject disrespect.

There is a long-term history of mistrust between High Performance and the IABA, one that has long since created an atmosphere of tension in their relationship.

I understand that the salary Walsh will receive in America dwarfs his present one, hardly a surprise given that he is currently one of the lowest paid Directors of High Performance in Irish sport.

Then again, the IABA has resolutely refused to afford him any title beyond 'head coach' despite the fact that Walsh has been running boxing's High Performance programme since Gary Keegan's move to the Institute of Sport after the Beijing Games.

So there is a context to this week's news and it is one that, frankly, brings little credit upon the IABA.

Walsh informed them of the US approach as far back as last February, yet all indications are that he might have been happy to stay had certain fundamentals been changed in the relationship between High Performance and the sport's governing body. As things stand, he does not have the power to pick Irish teams for competition.

The issues most pressing to him were not, I believe, related to money. They were matters of autonomy.

Last Saturday, an Irish Sports Council delegation including Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, met representatives of the IABA in a bid to ensure that Walsh would not be lost to Irish boxing.

They believed leaving that meeting that a package had been agreed and that it would be presented for ratification to an IABA board meeting on Tuesday night. That package was to be funded entirely by the Sports Council.

Yet, on Tuesday, they received en email from IABA chief executive Fergal Carruth, which - in their eyes - sought "a complete re-drafting of the proposal".

The Sports Council will not, I understand, be issuing a formal statement until Walsh's future is secured but they are known to be aghast at this week's developments.

I believe that Walsh, meanwhile, has already secured a work visa for America.

His loss to Irish boxing, one year out from the Rio Games, represents a lamentably reckless aberration by the guardians of the sport here.

Irish Independent

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