‘The old Aidan’s still there’: Irish coach Kennedy delighted to have Olympic medallist Walsh back in the mix ahead of World qualifier

A chest infection has ruled Aidan Walsh out of this week's tournament in Poland. Picture by PA
Aidan Walsh will have a keen eye on Saturday's World Olympic qualifier draw in Busto Arsizio. Picture by PA

AFTER over a year out of the ring, Aidan Walsh will be among the almost 700 boxers eagerly awaiting Saturday’s World Olympic qualifier draw.

The 26-year-old has been in and out of the Irish set-up since taking home bronze from the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics – held in the summer of 2021 – with the Strandja tournament in February 2023 his last taste of competitive action.

However, after being called for a series of behind-closed-door assessments alongside Irish light-middleweight champion Dean Walsh and beaten finalist Eugene McKeever, it was the west Belfast man who got the nod for the qualifier in Busto Arsizio.

Irish coach Damian Kennedy knows Walsh well, having been head coach when he won gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – and the Toome man was impressed with Walsh’s performances during an international sparring camp in Assisi.

“It’s brilliant to see him there, and he deserves to be there,” said Kennedy.

“He’s very professional in his approach to everything, that’s one thing that everybody can say about Aidan. He’s the ultimate high performer, quietly goes about his work, and he’s been brilliant since he’s come back in.

“That camp probably set Aidan in the right direction because he was getting better with each spar – as they all were, to be honest. He finished his sparring in a three-way with Belgium and Finland and he absolutely dominated them, so he left there in a real good headspace, and knows exactly what he needs to do when we get to Milan.”

A year out of the ring may not be ideal preparation heading to such a major competition, with Walsh bidding to join big sister Michaela at a second consecutive Olympic Games by sealing his place in Paris.

But Kennedy is confident that Walsh is starting to come to the boil at just the right time.

“He didn’t show me anything to be worried about during that sparring camp.

“Aidan has the ability to slow fights down to his pace, or raise the intensity when he needs to, whether that’s in sparring, or in fights.

“In the Commonwealth Games final, he dictated exactly what way that fight went. Whatever Aidan wants to do, he has that ability to dictate, and that’s what he showed me when we were in Assisi... the old Aidan’s still there. It’s not a building of a new character.

“He seems to have really enjoyed that camp, he’s been happy, performing well and consistently getting better. Everything’s heading in the right direction for him. Aidan’s in a brilliant place.”

The Irish team had a training camp in Assisi ahead of the World qualifier
The Irish team had a training camp in Assisi ahead of the World qualifier

And while Walsh may be the big name on the Irish side in Italy, the other eight will also be hoping for a favourable ahead of the start of the action on Sunday.

Tyrone’s Jude Gallagher, Kelyn Cassidy and Daina Moorehouse can all call upon the experience of last year’s European Olympic qualifier, when they missed the cut while Kellie Harrington, Michaela Walsh, Aoife O’Rourke, Dean Clancy and Jack Marley all claimed their quota spot.

And that trio, alongside Sean Mari, Martin McDonagh, Grainne Walsh and Jennifer Lehane, will all be determined to get the job done this time around.

“Jude’s determined to right the wrongs from the last qualifier. His preparation has gone really well, no stone left unturned, and he’s eager to get going in Milan.

“The girls were flying, Daina Moorehouse was exceptional, Jennifer Lehane had quality sparring, she performed fantastically. Grainne Walsh was in against Cape Verde and Colombia the first day, two heavy hitters, two tall, lanky girls and she coped really well with both them. Kelyn Cassidy got better and better with each spar.

“The approach from them all has been nothing short of fantastic. They’re all laser-focused, they all know exactly what they want.”