The furore around the departure of our greatest boxing coach Billy Walsh could set a dangerous precedent as another Irish talent is forced into exile, writes Michael Clifford
At the time of writing, it looks like Ireland has definitely lost Billy Walsh. The greatest boxing coach the country has ever known trods a well-beaten path.
He may reflect on the words of another who fled small mindedness on this small island, one James Joyce, who described Ireland as “the sow that eats its farrow”.
It certainly isn’t the first time that a talented individual has felt it necessary to go elsewhere in order to pursue excellence. However, the furore around the departure of Billy Walsh has given rise to what might well be a dangerous precedent.
All within and without boxing acknowledge Walsh is a first-class coach who will be irreplaceable. Since the inception of the High Performance programme in boxing 13 years ago, Ireland has punched above its weight.
Of nine Olympic medals won since 2000, seven have been in boxing. Walsh’s talents in coaching and motivating is referenced by boxers with reverence. If Billy Walsh didn’t exist, the playwright and fellow Co Wexford man Billy Roche would have had to invent him.
What adds greatly to the frustration at his departure is the circumstances. By all accounts, Billy Walsh does not want to leave. His disposition is not one of the man pursuing a challenge that is not available to him within the confines of his native country.
Neither is money the issue. The lure of big bucks could naturally hold sway over a professional coach. Commitments and the insecure nature of a career in sports would prompt most to follow the money at some stage in their career. But again, this is not what is dragging him away.
It would all appear to boil down to control and autonomy. Despite overseeing the High Performance unit in boxing since the Beijing games in 2008, Walsh was still working under the title “head coach”. He did not have autonomy to pick the boxing teams, but had to run everything by a sub-committee of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.
Once more, the suits are the problem. Once more in an Irish sporting context, excellence is expected to be subservient to a body’s democratic forum. Only a fool believes that elite sport and democracy are comfortable bed fellows in this day and age.
Can you imagine Martin O’Neill having to appear before an FAI committee to justify his team selection? Well, that’s exactly what his predecessors had to do up, certainly up until 40 years ago. In his memoir, The Rocky Road, Eamon Dunphy outlined how the blazers ran the international team, right down to selecting the destination for friendlies based on their desire for a jaunt to a particular country.
Today, we live in a different world, but apparently boxing is caught in a time warp. The fact that the IABA quite obviously did not see fit to move mountains in order to retain Walsh suggests an outlook in which priorities are completely out of sync with high performance sports.
One individual who probably best summed up the emotion of Ireland’s sporting public was the chairman of the Irish sports council, Kieran Mulvey.
On Prime Time he was downright angry, which was unusual for somebody who is normally as cool as a cucumber. This, after all, is an industrial relations troubleshooter who is probably as elite in his field as Walsh is in boxing.
Mulvey has been responsible for burrowing routes out of industrial trouble right across the economy and society over the last two decades. Through the darkest days of the recent recession, he was on the frontline ensuring that the country would not face mass strikes. He did overstretch himself once in thinking he could resolve the Cork hurling strike, but the man is only human.
His frustration about the country losing Walsh is entirely understandable. Last August, he was part of a delegation from the council that came to an agreement with the IABA on a package to retain Walsh’s services. The council provided the funding for Walsh’s salary.
Then, pretty quickly it became obvious that the IABA had further problems, unrelated to the finances. The chief executive of the IABA Fergal Carruth contacted the council to say there was an outstanding issue. That ultimately led to Walsh’s departure.
On Tuesday, Mulvey referred to the arrangement. “What was so unacceptable about the agreement of August 22 that it was never put to the board and never put to Billy Walsh even though it was agreed by him — what’s the problem? I don’t know what the problem is?” Yesterday, at the Oireachtas sports committee he was equally forthright.
“I will come back within the week and see how our funding is given and establish from the latest set of accounts how it is spent,” he said.
“We pay the chief executive, we pay other administrative staff and I’m not happy. I’m not happy how the chief executive has performed on this matter and I’m saying it bluntly here and that will be reviewed. Imagine Joe Schmidt being told he had to contact Philip Browne (IRFU chief executive) every time he selected a team or made a decision or talked to the media,” he said.
These are sentiments that would find widespread favour. But look beyond the emotion of the immediate crisis. Is it correct that the council — a funding agent for the government — should use its position to decide on matters internal to a sports body?
Whatever one may think about how the IABA handled this issue, it is still the body that organises and promotes boxing the length and breadth of the country. Is it proper that an agent of the government should decide who exactly should be in charge and how precisely they should select their coaches?
Denis O’Brien has said he wants no influence in picking the manager of Ireland’s soccer team despite funding half the salary. But what if the next private citizen to stump up decided he or she wanted a say on the basis that the Government does likewise in other sports?
Right now the IABA is unlikely to be on anybody Christmas card list. Practically everybody outside the sport — and most apparently within it — believes the executive has acted contrary to the best interests of high performance boxing in failing to retain Walsh.
But boxing, like all other sports, is about more than high performance. Those who administer the sport tend to be in situ on the basis that a large cohort of those involved in the sport, from the smallest club to the most elite forum, believe they are best equipped to do the job.
At a time like this, that reality sticks in the craw. But for somebody of Mulvey’s stature to set a precedent by interfering in the running of the sport in such a heavy handed manner would be in nobody’s interests.
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