Paddy Barnes: ‘I would have quit boxing if it hadn’t been for Jimmy Linden’

Olympic medallist pays tribute to late coach

The late Jimmy Linden, who passed away on Saturday
The late Jimmy Linden, who passed away on Saturday

FROM an old shed in Ballyhornan to bronze in Beijing and London, Paddy Barnes knows his rise to the Olympic stage might never have happened had it not been for first coach Jimmy Linden.

Linden - who ran the East Coast Boxing Club - passed away on Saturday, and will be laid to rest at St Joseph’s Church, Killough on Tuesday.

But Barnes will never forget those early days when his fighter’s spirit was harnessed and craft honed ahead of a journey that would take him to the very top of amateur boxing.

Jimmy Linden wasn’t just his coach but his uncle, and father to Barnes’s cousins Jimmy jr, Francis and Kristofer - that quartet eventually proving inseparable during summer days in Ardglass.

Having spent some of his early years living in nearby Coney Island, it is an area that has always been close to the north Belfast man’s heart. Yet boxing didn’t feature until much later.

A decent footballer, Barnes had little interest in trading leather until his cousins convinced him to come to the club.

“I was down there every single weekend, and just started going along with them when I was 11.

“Jimmy was the only coach, we probably only had five boxers altogether. My da would’ve played golf down there so I went to the club, and I was with East Coast until I was 15.”

Some of the toughest lessons learned across the next few decades in the sport came in that disused fish factory in Ballyhornan.

Linden, originally from Divis in west Belfast before moving to the county Down coast, was a charismatic figure who soon saw something a bit special in his red-haired nephew.

And, looking back now, Barnes believes the mental toughness instilled then would stand to him as he progressed on the national, then international, stage.

“I used to spar my cousin Francis, and my eyes would always be watering because I had hay fever – so I used to cry during sparring and pretend it was hay fever. That was every single week!

“Francis was a bit bigger and a bit better than me, he wasn’t even going hard... I must be a maniac for even sticking it out because every Saturday and Sunday I was crying.

“But Jimmy was a character – we always used to get robbed in the Ulsters and he’d go mental at the judges!

“The training we did was seriously tough... I hated it at the time, but it was really good, the attitude was good, because at a lot of clubs kids are let off with a lot of stuff – we were let off with nothing.

“Jimmy knew his stuff, and he knew how hard to push you.”

The recent Tokyo 2020 Olympics was the first Games that haven't featured Paddy Barnes since Athens '04 - but the two-time bronze medallists insists he has adapted well to life after boxing
Two-time Olympic bronze medallist Paddy Barnes has paid tribute to his first boxing coach, Jimmy Linden

Still, results proved hard to come by in those early days.

Much is made of the fact three-time Olympian Barnes lost his first 12 fights, but much of that was a result of boxing for such a small club, rather than one of the big-hitters in the city.

“I wasn’t getting hammered like,” he says, “they were all very close fights and a right few of them I should’ve won – East Down was probably one of the smallest clubs in Ireland, so that doesn’t help when it comes to tight decisions.”

After Linden and dad Paddy sr saw to it that Belfast-based Barnes trained with clubs like Newington, Belfast Kronk and Saints during the week before continuing with East Coast at the weekend, his first amateur contest was actually in the colours of the Kronk.

Allied to regular club shows all across the north, progress was made slowly but surely, until Barnes became the club’s first - and last - Irish champion when claiming the national youth 2 crown.

A few weeks later he shone at a four nations tournament with England, Scotland and Wales, not long before East Coast BC closed its doors for good – leading Barnes to join forces with the legendary Gerry Storey at Holy Family, and the next stage on a journey that would lead him to the sport’s greatest stage.

But, had it not been for the drive of Jimmy Linden, and those first steps between the ropes, life could have taken Barnes in an entirely different direction.

“Honestly, if Jimmy wasn’t my uncle, I probably would’ve knocked it on the head.

“Sometimes he would’ve fallen out with my cousins and it would only be me training, so you sort of felt that you didn’t want to let him down.

“He really pushed me, I came through a lot of adversity at times, and you had to tough it out. From a young age then, I had that mental toughness, and I really do think that was massive as my career went on.”