Door still open for Dean Gardiner return ahead of Olympic qualifier: Bernard Dunne

Irish Athletic Boxing Association High Performance director Bernard Dunne pictured at the launch of the new ‘Indeed Career Coach’ programme, which aims to tackle the core issues high performance athletes encounter when transitioning to life outside elite sport. Over the coming year, Indeed – a proud partner of Team Ireland - is committed to helping hundreds of amateur Irish high performance athletes, current and retired, unleash their talent by providing them with the career tools and supports needed to plan for a professional career beyond sport. For more information on Indeed Career Coach, visit:
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Neil Loughran

IRISH High Performance director Bernard Dunne has left the door open for Dean Gardiner to return to the fold in time for April’s European Olympic qualifier.

The Clonmel super-heavy - who turns 33 at the end of this month - decided to quit boxing at the end of last year, having welcomed son Michael into the world and returned to full-time education last September.

Gardiner had been due to fight Bulgaria’s Petar Belbarov two days after last year’s European qualifier in London was suspended, and needed just two wins to secure his spot at Tokyo 2020. The fact he didn’t box and wasn’t a seed in the draw means Gardiner can be replaced when the Irish team enter the qualifier fray again, though their options are limited in that regard.

Gardiner has dominated the 91+kg scene domestically during recent years, and his absence leaves the likes of talented but inexperienced international campaigners Gytis Lisinskas and Antoine Griffin among the options to fill his boots.

Dunne, though, insists Gardiner would be welcomed back with open arms if he had a change of heart in the meantime.

“Dean was very honest with me,” said the former World super-bantamweight champion.

“We sat down and had a conversation about it. He wants to focus on those parts of his life now and that’s understandable.

“Dean hasn’t competed yet [at the European qualifier] and he wasn’t a seeded athlete. That allows us to replace the athlete – it’s actually the only weight division where we could have replaced an athlete.

“But Dean knows the door is always open for him and he knows he can come back. I know what it’s like when you step away from sport, the thoughts that go through your head and sometimes you realise you miss it.

“I’ve told him if that feeling happens to not be worried about calling or ringing in, just let us know straight away and we’d have him back and bring him in. He’s been a part of our team for a number of years now, it’s more important to make sure we look after him if he wanted to come in – nothing else.”

Asked whether he felt a return was likely, Dunne replied: “I don’t know, but I want him to know that the offer is there. That’s important.

“I’ve told him, if he needs help with anything, even if it’s college or advice on life in general, if he feels I could be of help in any way he can just call me.”

For Dunne and the Irish coaches, it has been a long wait for a return to the international stage after sport was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Strandja multi-nations tournament in Bulgaria will be the Irish elite team’s first competitive action since London last year, but Dunne feels the real damage has been done at grassroots level where young boxers have been left inactive while clubs are struggling for survival.

“We've tried to focus on what we can control to be honest. The athletes have been kept engaged, they've been training away. That's one of the benefits we have as an elite group, we're able to continue our training, keep moving forward.

“Our preparations haven't really been impacted upon. What has been impacted upon is clubs all over the country and younger athletes who are not part of the programme - not being able to train and not being able to access clubs, work with their coach, not being able to spar.

“All these things kind of throw roadblocks in the way in just engaging young people, giving that opportunity to have an outlet, a physical outlet, a mental outlet but also giving them an opportunity to develop forward. Guys looking towards 2024 and 2028, they're being stopped at this moment in time because everything is shut down.

“And I understand the government is in a tricky situation because of what is going on but it's trying to get that balance.”

Brendan Irvine was the one Irish boxer who managed to seal his qualification for Tokyo 2020 before the London qualifier was suspended last year – and Dunne believes the extra time to prepare has stood to the Belfast flyweight.

Irvine, who also competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics, came back from 18 months of injury hell to book his spot at a second consecutive Games. And when asked which athletes had made further strides since the Olympics were postponed, Dunne highlighted the 24-year-old.

“Interestingly, Brendan Irvine - and he's the one that has qualified. But I think he has benefited hugely because Brendan had been inactive before that qualifier for nearly two years.

“He had no competitive bouts going on, he was exceptional in qualifying but I think the extra 12 months has greatly benefited him and allowed him to physically get back to where he wants to be.”

* Watch Bernard Dunne discuss his transition from the ring to retirement in this video...

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