Kathy Sheridan: Why Billy Walsh leaving is a serious matter for Irish sport

To the young men and women in Ireland’s 375 amateur boxing clubs, example is important

Former Ireland Boxing Head Coach Billy Walsh makes his way through the departures of Dublin Airport last Thursday. Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Former Ireland Boxing Head Coach Billy Walsh makes his way through the departures of Dublin Airport last Thursday. Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

 

Up to a week ago, most people couldn’t have picked Billy Walsh out in a crowd. Then suddenly he was the lead item on RTÉ One’s Six One News, as heads popped up to give their analysis of his resignation, all agreeing sagely that no, indeed, this was definitely not about money.

So what was it about? It took about 25 minutes for this viewer to go from mild surprise that a sports coach’s departure was leading on a flagship news show to roaring at the television: “SO WHY IS HE LEAVING?”

It was the air of mystery that reeled people in: the querulous presenters, the experts with zero information, the usually genial industrial-relations troubleshooter Kieran Mulvey, who was clearly incandescent. Plus the sad pictures of Walsh, presenting his boarding card at Dublin airport en route to work for Team USA.

At one level, sport exceeds its entertainment brief by a mile. Saipan was so absorbing that aliens could have staged a coup, unnoticed, during the ensuing civil war. John Delaney’s demand that Fifa add the Republic as the 33rd World Cup team to compensate for the Hand of Thierry was another. Delaney’s self-reported repartee with the famously virtuous Sepp Blatter has the bones of a sitcom.

But the point about soccer is that we can laugh at its absurdities, mainly because those involved at national level are so preposterously well rewarded. Delaney was on a salary of more than €400,000 during much of the recession; he still pulls in €370,000. The national team manager was on around €1.5 million. Even now, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, between them, are hauling in about €2 million.

Boxing, by contrast, is no laughing matter at all. It’s a violent sport, where inflicting injury is the point. The target is your opponent’s brain. Whether it’s even a sport at all is arguable.

But those who support it talk about focus and discipline, skill and endurance, courage and redemption. It’s no coincidence that many of our best boxers come from marginalised areas, where volunteers head out on winter nights for 375 boxing clubs affiliated to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA), north and south, to help young people find those qualities in themselves.

This is why even people who are squeamish about the sport have spent hours searching for clues about the departure of Billy Walsh and the dynamics of Irish boxing . The Sunday Business Post did a runthrough of recent IABA head-coach history. Nicolas Cruz, a Cuban brought in to drive a new professional approach in 1988 – which helped Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough to gold and silver respectively at the Barcelona Olympics – worked for £15,000 a year and lived in a “makeshift shack” where he briefly contemplated suicide. Next up was Gary Keegan, who was left in his Beijing hotel room during the 2008 Olympics, given no access to his fighters in the stadium or the Olympic village and had to buy his own bout tickets. After him came Billy Walsh. Under his watch, Ireland won a haul of medals unprecedented in any Irish sport. As of last week, his salary was €77,000.

Read together, these stories are baffling and deeply sad. Sporting great Eamon Coghlan told the Post he believed the Walsh fiasco was all about jealousy. “As Billy became one of the most successful boxing coaches in the world, there were those in the boxing community asking who the hell he thought he was. ‘He’s getting all the kudos – what about us?’”

That’s just one man’s view, of course, and Coghlan happened to be one of the few prepared to put his name to an opinion. But even if Walsh was a glory-hogger, that’s hardly unique in the workplace. Most workers have toiled in conditions where the team leader routinely hogs the credit. This is where the blazers step up to earn their titles and perks, keep the peace and never lose sight of the big picture.

Amateur sport is ripe territory for such bad feeling. Anonymous briefings against a head coach, mutterings that he failed to give credit to coaches below him, allegations that senior blazers even wanted the team to fail to make him look bad – that was British amateur boxing at Beijing 2008 and that poisonous atmosphere, too, was put down to jealousy. Ireland is not unique despite the self-flagellating “only in Ireland” commentary on the Walsh case.

Either way, this one goes beyond the routine small-sports drama turned into a crisis. Although certain aficionados and below-the-line commentators find the notion boring, example really matters here. In 375 clubs on this island, volunteers work hard week after week to provide role models to young men and women. What exactly have those young people learned from the Billy Walsh debacle?

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