'I'll miss the club. I'm in the club every night… I have to be in the club': Coaches on adapting to new normal as second wave hits boxing

Gerard McParland brushes the ring at the Immaculata club in west Belfast yesterday morning - weeks after the 'Mac', and clubs across Ireland, closed their doors for the second time in seven months as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

TO every generation, it means something. No words on printed paper could do justice to the sadness in Patsy McAllister’s voice as he described locking the doors of his beloved Oliver Plunkett for another prolonged period earlier this month.

Twice he was the man left to pick up the pieces when previous club buildings were razed to the ground during dark days of the past, and it’ll be the 84-year-old trainer who welcomes boxers back when the time comes.

When that will be, though, no-one can be completely sure as a sport that matters so much to so many faces a future filled with uncertainty in the midst of this Covid-19 second wave.

“All the clubs are in the same boat; there’ll be nothing until after Christmas at least,” said McAllister who - like amateur coaches across the country - had to stop again on October 17, just weeks after being given the green light to restart.

“I’ll miss the club. I’m in the club every night… I have to be in the club. I surprised myself how good a painter and decorator I was during the first lockdown.

“But it’s just that awful feeling where you haven’t got anything to do.”

At the opposite end of the scale, a growing pool of talented young boxers used to fill Belfast’s St George’s club throughout the week, each eagerly awaiting the next step on their own personal journey.

Now, with all the fixtures for the rest of the year cancelled and concerns over where Irish boxing will be able to turn in 2021, the challenge is keeping the future Carl Framptons and Katies Taylors focused.

“We opened up again at the start of August, we had a few boys in training away, but we’d hardly any of the wee ones,” says coach Danny Boyd.

“We had two slots for them originally but ended up taking it down to one because there wasn’t enough of them. There was nothing for them you see - wee lads were asking ‘when am I fighting?’ and there’s nothing you can tell them. It’s very frustrating.

“We had a couple of lads, 15 or 16, from around the Short Strand. They haven’t come back, and they were looking good. They might have just lost interest after not being anywhere near the place for so long, I don’t know.

“And then there’s nothing to keep the bigger ones motivated at the minute either, the likes of Colm Murphy. A lot of weeks ago, before wee Harry Cunningham passed away, he was talking about sending ‘Murph’ to Belgium and then there one to Cyprus Jack McGivern and ‘Murph’ were meant to be going on, but you sort of knew they weren’t going to happen.

“It’s hard to see when it’s ever going to get back going normally.”

McGivern and Murphy, both Ulster Elite finalists back in February, are expected to be among the entrants for the next Irish Elites – provisionally, and optimistically, scheduled for January 11-15.

Boyd, though, is unsure how boxers are expected to compete at that level with so little preparation, and such limited access to sparring.

“The ones who would have an advantage in those championships are the ones who are training for the Olympic qualifier, or who are part of the elite squad, because they’re the only ones who have been able to train and spar regularly.

“For the like of Jack and ‘Murph’, they were only just allowed to start sparring before the plug was pulled again. ‘Murph’ trains like a madman all the time anyway so there’s no problem there, but it’s the spars and the actual boxing work that they’re missing, and that’s the most important part.

“It’s hard to ask lads to go from basically no preparation to an Irish elites. If things keep going the way they’re going at the minute, though, those championships won’t be in January anyway. Not unless something changes dramatically in the next month here.”

Boyd admits St George’s were happy to be able to open again in the first place, with some clubs unable to get back up and running even for the short time restrictions permitted them to do so.

The St John’s club in Swatragh waited until the traditional season start at the beginning of September to kick back into gear, but coach Ciaran Quinn shares Boyd’s fears that it is the grassroots level of the sport that will suffer most at the hands of the pandemic.

“It’s tough with the younger age groups, and they could end up turning to something else because we don’t know when this will be over,” he said.

“Boxing could lose a good few kids because of this. Even coaches, you could see clubs losing some of them too because they’re there used to going two or three nights a week, now they haven’t been in a long time.

“As a sport, boxing is about being at your peak at the right time - you don’t get a second chance when you go into a championships. It’s a difficult thing to maintain when there’s nothing there to work towards.”

Before the first restart Quinn’s 18-year-old son Eoghan, an Irish champion through the age groups, “didn’t pick up a boxing glove for four months – that hadn’t happened from he was seven years of age.”

The club’s super-heavyweight, Paddy Rogers, enjoyed the best night of his career back in February when he defeated Denis Boroskins at the Ulster Hall, but has hardly been able to throw a punch in anger since.

With no defined end date in sight, coaches know it is only a matter of time before the constant pleading for patience begins to wear thin.

“Somebody like Paddy there, he was still coming into the club and training away after it reopened but he was wanting to kick on and work towards the Commonwealth Games.

“What can you do but wait? We are where we are and there’s nothing we can do about it for the time being.”

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