GAA Football

Gary Keegan: the man whose plan transformed Irish boxing

Gary Keegan speaking in Belfast as part of the NI Chamber and Electric Ireland’s 'Growing Something Brilliant' leadership series.
Pic: Kelvin Boyes

FROM the shadows of Croke Park – to the shadows inside Croke Park.

A man with little or no GAA background, who prefers to remain in the backroom background, but just happens to have helped Dublin and Tipperary to their All-Ireland Senior Championship triumphs this summer.

The more you learn about Gary Keegan the more there is to learn, which is rather fitting, given his own love of learning.

Like a human version of ‘pass the parcel’, peel away one layer and another interesting aspect appears. Meanwhile he’s in the process of adding another layer.

Apprentice jockey. Boxer. Merchant navy. Army – including Military Police, CSI, photographer. Businessman. Motivational speaker.

That’s before you get to all that he’s achieved as a sports ‘guru’.

A key figure in the transformation of Irish boxing, alongside Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia among others, he has brought his message of mental and physical improvement to Leinster and Ireland rugby, the GAA, cricket, and Irish sport in general.

He probably wouldn’t like that ‘guru’ label, as he talks straight, talks sense, but however you term it, that’s our area of interest.

The first surprise about this international man of mystery is that, given the area he’s from, he didn’t actually have much interest in the GAA growing up.

'Heffo's Army'

From Ballybough, cheek by jowl with Croke Park, the 55-year-old was a member of ‘Heffo’s Army’ – but far from a fully paid-up one.

“Our understanding of GAA was big match-days – selling unofficial programmes, bunking into the games at half-time when Croke Park was a much smaller stadium, less secure,” he recalls with a laugh.

“We loved Croke Park, it was just in the shadow, always there, a focal point.

“One of my memories of people coming up from the country for the big games, All-Ireland Championships, is tweed coats and tweed hats, transistor radios at their ears, hobnail boots.

“We never, as kids, got to play the games because it [GAA] wasn’t in our area.”

Kevin Heffernan inspired a generation of true blue Dubs, from their breakthrough success in 1974, through their jousts with Kerry’s golden greats, to `the Twelve Apostles’ who saw off Galway in the 1983 decider.

Keegan was around then, as a 10-year-old and into his teens, “right through to the early Eighties”, but he doesn’t proclaim himself a dedicated disciple:

“We got into some of those matches, yeah, but never got in for the whole game; we got in at half-time or three-quarters of the way through the game.

“Our focus was on trying to find a chocolate bar that had been dropped on a seat, or whatever, less than on what was happening on the pitch. We had no real understanding of what was happening on the pitch itself.”

Love of boxing

Around the age of 12 his family moved to nearby Coolock, but he stayed in the inner city for his schooling.

Even though that placed him near the Parnell’s club, now made famous by Dublin’s record-breaking captain and long-serving goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton, the GAA still didn’t draw Keegan in:

“At that point boxing was my sphere of influence, that was the sport I attached to. Even in Coolock, soccer was what I was aware of, that mates were involved in, less awareness of guys involved in GAA.”

You think you know his first big life change, having gleaned online that he went off with the merchant navy, but you have to pull on the brakes, or rather reins.

Another chuckle when he’s asked about his lack of formal education: “My education ended at 14-and-a-half when I went to the Curragh as an apprentice jockey.

“I spent six months down there but as they started feeding me I started putting on weight and realised that I could be a little bit bigger, so I wasn’t going to be, size-wise, fit for that sport. I then became an apprentice barman at 15 and then went to the merchant navy.

Life on the oceans

“Joined the merchant navy at 16, travelled the world. It was sold, but it was a good three-and-a-half years. Everywhere, everywhere.”

This interview took place after Keegan spoke as part of the NI Chamber and Electric Ireland 'Growing Something Brilliant' leadership series in Belfast.

The life lessons he has learned, applicable to both sport and business, began to accumulate on-board ship:

“I learned how to work as part of a crew, I learned that you had to pull your own weight, deliver your own part, there was no one to pick up after you. It was a tough, hard environment under tough, hard conditions.

“I learned how to have an impact – I was 16, so you can be pushed around, I was a small enough lad, but if you’ve done your work and you’ve done it well, people respect you for it. So I learned about standards and some of the best merchant seamen in the world were coming out of Ireland at that time.”

The sense that being Irish and being among the world’s best are not mutually exclusive was something that Keegan has carried with him ever since.

For Keegan, it’s clear that what you achieve in life and sport isn’t necessarily about where you’re from, but where you want to get to.

His own journey to the Olympics, to the top echelons of sport, had humble beginnings.

A boxer himself, his time at sea led to him stepping outside the ring, which is where his talents truly lay.

Becoming a coach

“I boxed as a club athlete, not at the standard of the guys that I ultimately ended up working with. I became a coach very young because my boxing career was broken up by the merchant navy stint and if you step out of that window, that opportunity to improve and gain some traction around your performances is limited.

“I came back and tried to box at Junior level but didn’t get to any great standard and got involved in coaching and found that was a place I could actually add value.”

He did more than coach, setting up Glin Boxing Club in Coolock, aged just 18: “We had a bit of a drugs issue in the area, like a lot of areas, and a concerned parents’ group had formed to try to get something for kids to do in the community hall and they felt a boxing club would be ideal.

“So they asked me, put a committee together. I didn’t feel I was old enough, sure enough, or qualified enough to do it, but I did it for a few months until I could find somebody to replace me.

“I got two former internationals, Shay Thompson and Tommy Thompson, to take over the club and Tommy went on to run the club for decades after.”

That was probably the last time Gary Keegan felt that he wasn’t good enough to do something.

In the Army now

Keegan’s next career move was to join the Army – and also to improve his mind.

“When I was in the Army I went back to education, did my Inter Cert, which is now the Junior Cert, I believe, and discovered I had a brain in my head, did pretty well in that test.

“I was thinking about going on and doing the Leaving but it was just too much – I had a young family at that time, spent a lot of time away from them, both training as a recruit and training as young NCO at the Curragh, six months at a time stint.

“I went to Pearse College in Crumlin to do my Junior Cert, which was kind of an eye-opener for me around education. Education was always really important to me, all of my three kids have gone on to college and have come out the other side; it was very important for us as a family that that would happen.”

Into the Army still as a teenager, he spent six years, including serving one tour of duty in the Lebanon.

“I ended up in the Military Police, then ended up in the Special Investigations Unit, trained as a crime scene investigator and photographer. So I was learning, report-writing, improving your skills to do the job.

“Then I realised that the Army, while it was great for me and I enjoyed it, it wasn’t going to allow me to expand my horizons. The career was very linear in terms of rank, very hierarchical, and I wanted to explore, wanted to be curious.

“I was in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Collins Barracks, McKee Barracks, Baldonnel – the Air Corps - the Curragh, so I’d moved around, I was always looking for a role or a place where I could explore and expand myself and I just couldn’t find it, so it was time for me to move.

Work-sport balance

“When I came out from Lebanon I had a few quid in my pocket so the choice was either buy a house or start a business - we started a small transport business. I was 26, 27 at that time, with a young family, two children at that point.”

Having moved to Blanchardstown, he’d got involved with Corduff boxing club, then set up St Mochta’s, which morphed into St Brigid’s.

His commitment to sport in in his blood – but he also made sure it was in ink. Work is important, but he wouldn’t allow it to interfere with his sporting interests:

“It’s just in my DNA – every contract I negotiated for my business had to consider that I needed to be available on Mondays and Thursdays, that I needed to be out of the place by 5 to get to my gym by 7 to put up all of the kit, hang all the bags, put up the ring, etc. I never missed a training night. Ever.

“I took responsibility for stuff, so I was the secretary, the chairman, the coach. I found myself wanting to get at stuff, didn’t want to leave it to someone else.

“Then I got myself involved in [boxing’s] Dublin County Board, vice-president – but I realised I didn’t want to be an administrator in that sense, I wanted to get my hands dirty on the coaching side.

“I set up the squad training for county Dublin for all our youth and junior programmes, got involved in putting the structure around that. I mixed the north clubs with the south clubs.

“I found myself interested, curious. I saw gaps in things, opportunities to put structures in place, and just went at, moved my way up through the ranks of producing guys at a reasonable level, juvenile, youth, and junior.

“I didn’t produce a senior champion but I found myself co-opted onto the National Coaching Committee very young, I think I was the youngest member ever.

“They brought me on because they felt I had a skill-set that I could bring to bear on what they were doing with the national and international programme.”

What a great call that was.

Olympic aims?

Boxing was still regarded as one of Ireland’s more successful sports at the turn of the millennium, but Keegan saw that it was “living off its past”.

One Olympic medal in 1980 (our very own Hugh Russell), then two in 1992, Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough. Then nothing, neither from Atlanta nor Sydney.

The genius of Keegan and Walsh was to recognise that Irish boxing had to set its sights higher and wider.

In 2002 boxing was, recalls Keegan, “still the most successful Olympic sport in this country, with nine medals in 90 years – not a huge amount, but top of the mountain in Ireland.”

Rather than looking down on others, Keegan saw the need to look up, to raise standards.

“People like Mickey Hawkins, Gerry Storey, Austin Carruth were doing some phenomenal stuff, they were the jet-setters of their day.

“But the sport had changed internationally, it had modernised, and the coaching was professionalised – and we were still volunteers and amateurs trying to get in and compete in that space.”

The break-up of the USSR in the early Nineties, leading to an increase in competing countries from that vast region [now 16 nations, 13 competing in Europe], combined with the introduction of qualifying for the Olympics, suddenly made it much harder for Irish boxers to compete on that global stage, never mind win medals.

Only one boxer qualified for Sydney, one for Athens in 2004.

Yet within a decade, Irish boxing had almost doubled its tally of Olympic medals, with three won at Beijing 2008 and four more at London 2012. Multiple medals were also won at European and World Championships.

How was such phenomenal improvement achieved?

Many factors, “multiple people making pretty big contributions”. His own was wide-ranging, and not just with the elite boxers.

Changing mindsets

“I got the responsibility to take over the squad training of the national underage squads. I got access to observe what they were doing at senior level, and at junior and youth level. We could have been a lot better – but we didn’t have any money.”

Irish boxing applied for E1.2m in funding but only received less than one-fifth of that amount, although Keegan still put a positive spin on matters, that it was “up from zero.”

The message to them from the money men was clear: better funding will follow better results.

Keegan’s initial message to the media was slightly more subtle: ‘Judge us on performances, not outcomes’.

However, the really important people he had to persuade were the boxers themselves.

His own education had always continued. Before he got involved with the Irish boxing programme, “I went back to management school at 36 and did an Advanced Leadership programme there. I’m learning all the time, constantly researching and looking forward.”

The leadership he helped bring to Irish boxing took them out of their comfort zones and on the paths to glory. Other sports would come calling on the boy from Ballybough.

Part two tomorrow: Gary Keegan on making boxers better and working with the GAA

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