09 December 2009 – By Steve Wellings
The head of St Agnes BC, Irish boxing impresario Sean Canavan, sees the Andersonstown Road outfit as a friendly club, embracing the community ethos whilst producing a steady stream of championship level fighters.
“Our list of champions underlines the strong boxing tradition here, and we would be known as a friendly club more than anything else,” Sean explained, on my first visit in late May. “In fact, a while ago we had seats running down the side of the ring and the old timers would come and have a good yarn with each other. The kids were good competitors and boxed well; they were disciplined and we were strict enough, but with a friendly atmosphere at the same time.”
The primitive appearance of St. Agnes belies the quality contribution that goes on inside the small hut, with corrugated iron door, sandwiched between a petrol station and supermarket in West Belfast. Like many clubs I have encountered, St. Agnes has experienced a mixed history of success and disappointment during its near-40 year existence.
Canavan continues, “I came here in 1970 and the club was already up and running as the Dominic Savio same club, same building. The parish owned the property and after about seven years they decided to change the name to St. Agnes, so it had the same name as the youth club. There was nothing we could do other than go along with it.
“Patsy McAllister [Oliver Plunkett] was a coach here, prior to my involvement. One of Irelands most famous boxers, Terry Milligan, was one of Savios very first coaches and I got involved 39 years ago and have been here ever since. Like every club, in that time period, there have been highs and lows, good times and bad. One of the high spots was a seven years period when we had 43 Irish champions which is something of a record. 20 of the titles came from four boys: Paul McDermott, Michael McComb, Francis McClurkin and Paddy Taylor. Also we had a run of senior boxers like Tony Curry, Tony Williamson, Ciaran Loughlin and Gerard McKenna who all won Ulster and Irish titles.”
Not only does Canavan boast vast experience on the domestic front, but this is a man who has been present, on an official capacity, at Olympic Games and seen the evolution of the amateur code, for good and bad. “There have been big changes in the whole game of boxing since I started, especially after the 1988 computer controversy in the Seoul Olympics involving Roy Jones.
“The worst thing that can happen to any sport is to be thrown out of the Olympics and that threat was genuinely hanging over amateur boxing. They brought in the computer and not every agrees with it but after such a long time they arent going to replace with it paper again are they?”
It doesnt appear likely and as I have found on my travels, while the computer is not infallible it may be the fairest system around at the moment at least until someone offers a viable alternative.
“Personally I preferred it the way it was, and the reason I would never have become a judge is because of the massive pressures on them now, watching intently: blue, red, blue, red etc. Its a tough job and how can you enjoy something like that? I prefer the full picture and, in my opinion, at the end of a round if you cant tell who won that round then you shouldnt be about. Thats the way we have always read it as coaches and I admit it can be frustrating.”
Sean has been around a long time and tells me in depth about Don King and his money making relationship with the AIBA, which certainly opens my eyes.
“Kids will never know how good it was to box without those head guards on because no matter what sort of head guard is introduced, there will be a blind spot somewhere.”
Grass roots opinion on the overall vision of Irish amateur boxing, as it moves towards London 2012, is intriguing, so Sean offers his view on the subject: “The Irish team has a five-year plan and the reason it is moving in the right direction is simple: like in every sport, you need to be professional to compete successfully at the Olympics. We have five guys on big money and fair play to them; they could never be on enough as far as Im concerned. Then theres another group of five on good money too, which will at least keep them on a living income.
“Theyre called high performance boxers and most of those guys in Dublin, and beyond, would be on better money than the professionals in Belfast.”
Club coach Joe Pollock weighs in with a similar view, “The high performance unit in Dublin is pushing our team in the right direction for London 2012 and by training the kids for computer scoring means their punches are straight and correct. Hopefully we can gather together a good squad for the Olympics.
“I dont have a problem with the amateur system; in fact I actually think its a pretty good system,” adds Joe, “even though there are a lot of people who dont like it but it seems to me to be a good job.”
Head coach Seamus Deeds [since departed] is busy taking young prospects on the pads but weighs in on the debate. “As a boxing judge I can see that the computer system has its faults but we arent going to change that and I think its okay because you cant knowingly cheat the computer.
“Back in the old days there were dodgy decisions and I think the computer system cleans that up and because its relatively new, people are still learning from it. With the computer there are no personalities as in who the judges like or who they dont like; it makes it straighter down the line. Theres a good judge and a bad judge. Until they come up with something else then the computer systems pretty good and there will always be conflict whatever it used.
“I think the high performance is paying off and with a good haul of medals in Beijing were expecting even bigger things next time. Paddy Barnes made the last Olympics and hopefully there will be more Ulster boxers involved in London and lads like Eamonn Finnegan and Tommy McCarthy can make it along with others from the North. Im speaking ahead of myself a bit as they still have to qualify but hopefully we can be well represented. Stephen Donnelly and Marc McCullough are promising fighters coming on the block and theyre senior champions too.”
Amidst talk of Dublin high performance units, Sean Canavan reminds me that we are moving a long way down the M1 away from St. Agnes club and offers me a more localised vision for the future.
“You always hope that one day a kid will walk in the main door thats ‘the goods’. But if even if he isnt the best boxer in the world yet tries his best then well welcome him,” says Canavan. “In fact, we had a kid who came in and only had one arm the left- and the thing was he enjoyed being here and liked the place.
“What we are trying to do at the present time is get into the schools and a guy called Quinton Shillingford [ABA manager] from England already has 3,000 tutor coaches to teach non-contact routines to interest the kids and get them into the boxing gyms. Theres no punching involved, just training, and they get a certificate or medal at the end for participation. By the time the programme has finished and the kids involved are about ten they may never want to see a boxing ring again! But they may like it and want to carry on and stay interested. For me thats definitely the right way to go; getting the youngsters enjoying the sport again.
“You have to let kids grow and if a kid is only half a pound over the weight then its best to keep them at that weight and help them boil down that small amount. Issues of child protection and so forth have to be taken into account at all times well; remember, the reason we are all here is because of the youngsters wanting to box. If there are 50 kids and not an Irish champion amongst them, so what? As long as they are enjoying themselves then better to have them in here than running around outside.”
Seamus Deeds agrees and lets us in on where the next haul of world medals may come from: “Eamonn Finnegan is a name for the future and he lost in the 2009 Ulster Finals to Anthony Cacace, but everybody in the hall that night myself included- thought he won that fight. Were looking for a Commonwealth games medal and the Olympics with this lad, hes that good.”
Joe Pollock adds his picks: “Darren Pollock, Sean Higginson, Manuel Cadell are all stars of the future from St. Agnes; Conol Hall is a promising novice, but to be honest all of our lads are good standard. I would love to see every one of them excel and live up to their potential. Outside of St.Agnes theres a mountain of talent around Belfast, you couldnt even pick just one.
“My role is working alongside Seamus and Gerard [Murphy] with the championship boxers, making sure they are training, hitting the bags right, stance and punches are correct plenty of technical work. They need to put the time in if theyre going to succeed,” admits Pollock.
“We normally run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but when were coming up to major competitions it expands to five days a week and even a Saturday morning or afternoon. At the minute we have 15 championship boxers and 40 kids from nine to eleven years old, so the place is actually full at peak times. You can see the room we have here, so it can be two to a bag and a load down the back of the club [weights area] doing different things; on average we can total 60 or 70 kids full-time.
“Ive been involved roughly four and a half years, mainly because my wee lad got interested and hes been running in and out since he was eight and hes 13 now. I didnt box though,” Joe laughs, realising, like myself, which side of the ropes is the safest to be.
St. Agnes has been taken over by an enthusiastic, talented breed of new coaches, eager to nurture the talent and drive it in the right direction. Deeds attitude is refreshing in respect of his willingness to take on new initiatives and remain open minded to unconventional ideas.
“We have aggressive-combat, keep-fit enthusiasts and football players coming here to train and Im not afraid to branch out; we even have Irish dancers using the club. There are experts in conditioning, body building and circuit training coming in, so were more than just a boxing club. Sean Connolly does psychology with the kids my mind is open to all sorts of new ideas and well give things a go. We have all new coaches in and a fresh start for St. Agnes, with organisation and dedicated volunteers, working hard for a bright future. This is a club that you have been, and will be, hearing about a lot more.
“We have nine current champions here at the moment and Ulster Intermediate champion Padraig McCrory [formerly with the now defunct St. Johns club] has just started training with us as well,” continues Seamus. “Im hoping Eamonn Finnegan will go on to win the All-Ireland seniors next year, so theres a solid base for success and if you came in here during the season you really couldnt move. Eamonn Finnegan and Ciaran Bates had a great fight not so long back and the two of them tore each other apart; it was a great fight.
“Ive been involved in boxing for a number of years, three of them with St. Agnes and Im the head coach and run the club. Ive been working with the high performance in Dublin so Ive been able to bring the experience up with me and into this club. Were all new coaches in this club and these lads have come from other clubs to coach here so weve basically started from scratch on the coaching front.”
Before my visit ended, Sean Canavan extolled the virtues of our beloved sport and its undoubtedly positive impact upon the youth of Belfast – on both sides of the political spectrum. I referred to the recent cross-community initiative between two local clubs. “The greatest clich is cross-community which should be spelled B.O.X.I.N.G. because this sport has been like that all the time,” Sean argued.
“Youre in Andersonstown at the moment which is a predominantly Catholic area, and we get local Catholic kids because geography dictates that you cant bus kids over from the other side of town every night. You then get clubs like Monkstown that have Protestant kids using the club ever night and the two come together, always have done, so call that cross-community if you will.”
On my second visit to St. Agnes I spotted amongst the Gaelic football and Celtic shirts, a solitary figure using a skipping rope in his Northern Ireland football jersey an image in itself of the cross-community spirit Sean referred to.
“Weve always been able to take our kids anywhere in Belfast, from all sides of the community, and never had any problems. On any particular night, whether it was a show in a pub, club or whatever we would have been respected and no issue made with who we were and where we were from.
“It doesnt matter where a kid in Belfast is from, whenever they go down to Dublin then kids from the North shout and support one another no matter what their religious background.
“Truthfully, in all my time around the sport, Ive never encountered bigotry in boxing.”