If Ireland loses Billy Walsh’s services it’s a national disgrace

Irish sport, and Irish boxing, should do everything to keep the successful coach

Billy Walsh: has overseen spectacular success for Irish boxers in his years as head coach. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Billy Walsh: has overseen spectacular success for Irish boxers in his years as head coach. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Given how cheaply and meekly the Irish State surrendered its sovereign status in recent years, it really should be no surprise that this sorry mess of a country is now losing its grasp on the man who is an irreplaceable figure in national sport.

Two things jumped out from this week’s news reports about the dismaying but not entirely surprising news that Billy Walsh, the head coach of the high performance unit of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, is set to take up an offer elsewhere.

The first was the IABA was hammering out a new contract with an Olympic coach that is the envy of so many federations just a year before the next Olympic games. The second and more shameful aspect is that the man doesn’t even have a pension scheme built into the terms of his contract. What a bleak and pathetic Irish joke.

Flash back to three summers ago. Few descriptions of London stay in the mind as clearly as Julie Burchill’s tart reference – in explaining why she loved the English capital above all – to “that cold, furious bitch of a city”.

For the duration of the 2012 Olympics, however, London dropped its hauteur: the general mood in the city was of disconcerting friendliness, the sun shone without fail and throughout a series of unforgettable events – the triathlons, Phelps’( supposed) swansong in the pool, Federer at Wimbledon, Kobe Bryant and company, David Rudisha, Bolt – the Irish boxers were among the hottest tickets in town.

That was partly because London was again teeming a generation of young Irish people unable to find work at home. And it was because the fascination with Katie Taylor as an athletic wunderkind had travelled well beyond Ireland. But it also reflected the respect for the Irish boxing team, under the slow, patriarchal stewardship of Walsh, produced a slew of skinny, cocky, tough boxers who kept on winning.

Four medals

John Joe NevinPaddy BarnesMichael Conlan

It is generally acknowledged by the boxers that there would have been no medals without Walsh. And now it emerges the man has been working God knows what hours on the hoof, without a basic pension package.

There is an obvious and horrible irony in that because that word “pension” became a constant source of debate between the Olympic cycles of Beijing and London. With “Ireland Inc”, as the douche-bags used to call it, well and truly sunk, radio and news reports trilled daily about the lavish pension packages and golden handshakes awarded to the great and good as they decided that it was time to bow out of politics and public service. One by one, the Fianna Fáil cabinet took its leave and with them went the coterie of apparatchiks who had manned the various state bodies and organisations.

If you were 21 years old, say, in 2009 and up to your ass in college debt, you might not have felt all that great about Ireland Inc as you read – and you could pick any example here – about the government intervention to increase the pension of its former FAS chief Roddy Molloy by €1.4 million, a heartening boost to the €440,000 handshake he received upon resigning. Now, that’s a pension – and not one familiar to most people.

Try to remember the anger and despair and resignation that informed the national mood during those years – and why the exploits of the Irish boxing team in the summer of 2012 were such a balm to what Gay Byrne described in these pages as a feeling of constant “low grade anxiety”.

I have never met Billy Walsh beyond Olympic press briefings and know only what most people know about him: a Wexford GAA kid turned boxer who fought in Seoul in 1988, worked as a milkman, was taken into the Irish boxing set up by Gary Keegan and has over the past decade since been instrumental in reshaping the national boxing team into an enviable camp of medal-winners.

His boxers are sharp and funny and have attitude. Their set-up is not glamorous. “Our gym is in the car park there,” was Walsh’s memorable depiction of the high-performance gym when he was a guest on Ray D’arcy’s radio show in July. He spoke with characteristic energy about the drive to help more boxers qualify along with Barnes and Conlon for Rio.

Career challenges

It is entirely natural that the Olympic boxing chiefs of a superpower would try to cherry-pick a coach like Walsh, whose success with a peripheral Olympic country has been little short of miraculous. And boxing is a prestige Olympic sport. It is a sport to which he public can easily relate.

Still, Walsh knows that any medals he helps American boxers win won’t mean as much nationally as they do in Ireland. The USA won 103 medals in London. That’s the game for them.

Here, Olympic medals are precious because they are so rarely won. That is what makes Walsh’s contribution to Irish sport – and to the more general sense of what it means to be Irish – priceless.

He was – is – that rarest of creatures: a genuine public servant.

It has been reported that beyond financial concerns, Walsh is frustrated with the IABA’s unwillingness to ratify stipulations already agreed in principle.

It may be already too late but if Billy Walsh has not yet signed for the US team, then it behoves the custodians of Irish boxing – and Irish sport – to do everything possible to prevent that from happening. As a matter of honour, his future contract terms should at least match those of the American offer. The conditions must be met by the IABA. Michael Ring, the Minister for Sport, needs to do more than to express the hope that he stays: everyone hopes that. Of course, the real losers here are the boxers who train under Walsh – and one can only imagine how much of a wrench it would be for him to leave them just as the crucial months of Olympic qualification loom.

But it is hard to argue that Ireland, which has always treated sport as an afterthought, deserves anything else. If Ireland loses Billy Walsh, it goes down as a national disgrace. But unlike Olympic medals, there’s no scarcity of those in this country.

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