O’Neill fighting fit and set for shot at sealing European spot

DARREN O’NEILL has stepped up his preparations as he bids for a place in the Irish team for the European boxing championships following the news that the trials will start on October 3.

“It is much earlier than I had expected — I thought they were to be held at the end of October,” the Paulstown southpaw admitted yesterday.

He is just settling into his teaching post at Mary Queen of Angels school in Ballyfermot and while he recommenced training while his peers were battling for glory at the Beijing Olympics, he had not intended getting down to the serious stuff just yet.

In fact the former Kilkenny hurler, who put his camán aside for the boxing gloves a couple of seasons ago, has not yet decided whether he will ply his trade at middleweight or at light heavyweight.

He lost three senior finals to Olympic silver medallist Kenneth Egan before dropping down to middleweight — first to replace Darren Sutherland when he was out of action with a serious eye injury and then to challenge him for the national senior title and a shot at Olympic qualification.

O’Neill had been thrown a lifeline when Sutherland had missed out on Olympic qualification at the world championships in Chicago — Sutherland would reverse the loss to Alfonso Blanco in a sensational turnaround in Beijing.

His clash with the Dubliner — now poised on the brink of a professional career — in the senior finals in January packed the National Stadium and the atmosphere that night still excites O’Neill.

“I know I lost and all that but the atmosphere that night was just something else,” he said. “I remember going out before the contest and the stadium did not appear to be very full. Then on account of television we were delayed in the tunnel on the way out for the fight and I could hear the crowd just milling in. It was unbelievable.”

After that defeat, O’Neill got a second shot at a place in the Athens qualifier when Sutherland had failed to deliver in Pescara but he came off crutches for that fight and was just a shadow of the challenger who contributed to the New Year thriller two months earlier.

He admitted he lost some of his zest in the interim but he donned his running shoes once again during the Olympics as his fellow members on the High Performance squad did themselves and the nation proud.

“But I had not expected the box-off for the European championships to come around so soon and up to now I have only been doing technical stuff,” he said. “I started my placement at school and that was always going to be another distraction. I am obviously going to have to step it up a bit now.”

The open senior competition which will be used to select the team for Liverpool (November 5-15) begins on the weekend of October 3-4 with the weigh-in between 8.30am and 9.30 am on October 3 and the draw to follow.

Irish boxing and Cork boxing in particular was saddened this week by the passing of Brian Joyce. He was President of Sunnyside boxing club for more than 30 years and three of his sons all won Irish titles at a variety of weights. Kieran, a European bronze medallist in Varna in 1983, boxed in two Olympic Games.

As a supporter of amateur boxing his generosity knew no bounds and his close relationship with the legendary Sunnyside and Irish Olympic coach, Albie Murphy, was the foundation for many of the great moments in Irish boxing. The huge turnout at his funeral on Tuesday bore testament to the esteem in which the family is held.

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