Top talent like Dylan Eagleson could walk away from amateur game unless Ireland up its game warns coach Ralph McKay

Dylan Eagleson, pictured jumping for joy after clinching Commonwealth Games gold last summer, still hopes to have a say in selection for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Picture by PA
Dylan Eagleson faces an uncertain future in the amateur ranks as featherweight rival Jude Gallagher prepares to go to next month's Olympic qualifier in Italy. Picture by PA

MORE of Ireland’s top talent will drift away from the amateur scene unless a long-term approach is adopted to incentivise their future, according to respected coach Ralph McKay.

The St Paul’s stalwart pointed to the likes of emerging pro stars Paddy Donovan, Kieran Molloy and Aaron McKenna as examples of boxers who could have made a major impact for Ireland had they seen a pathway in place.

Instead, they opted to turn over to the paid ranks, McKenna while still in his teenage years, leaving the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) to hope that the country’s conveyor belt of talent would keep on turning from one Olympic cycle to the next.

But McKay has seen at first hand the damaging effects of the current system.

His boxer, Dylan Eagleson, had been talked about for years before bursting onto the elite scene in impressive style less than two years ago.

Although yet to box at elite level in Ireland, the Bangor teenager brought home silver from the 2022 European Championships and, three months later, added Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham.

A shake-up in the Olympic weight categories ultimately forced Eagleson to move up from 54kg to 57kg to pursue his Paris ambitions but, after losing out to Jude Gallagher in October’s Irish elite final, it is the Newtownstewart man who is in the box seat for next month’s first World qualifier in Italy.

That has left Eagleson in limbo. Although he attended a recent elite training camp in Tenerife, he was informed by the IABA that no assessment would take place at featherweight.

Indeed, the only male weight to be assessed is 71kg, where current champion Dean Walsh is in the mix with Aidan Walsh and Eugene McKeever.

And McKay admits it has been difficult to keep his charge focused amid such uncertainty.

“Before the elites, Dylan was at a camp in Jordanstown and we were told he had been outstanding - that he was the most impressive against different opponents.

“At the elites, the first fight he got was last year’s elite champion, Paul Loonam, and he beat him quite well. Obviously 57 was a very tough division, a lot of lads with international experience, and then Dylan fought Jude in the final.

“To be honest, it wasn’t a one way street the way some people made out. The two year difference in physicality was maybe a bit of a factor, Jude’s in a good position now and fair play to him, he’s a good lad, very dedicated to the sport.

“This will be Jude’s second qualifier, because he went to the European Games last summer. If he doesn’t qualify, maybe the door opens again but that’s a difficult position to be in. Dylan has to be focused enough to get into that assessment and show what he has if that happens.

“It shouldn’t be forgotten that Dylan went to his first major competition and won a silver medal. His physicality wasn’t there yet but he was able to do what he does well, hitting and moving, not falling into traps, keeping his focus and concentration.

“He has that Olympic style of boxing.”

Dylan Eagleson with St Paul's coaches, from left, Bogdan Alin Tudoran, Ralph McKay and Robbie Barr
Ralph McKay (second left) with Dylan Eagleson

Going forward though, McKay feels the IABA and Sport Ireland must come up with a less short-sighted financial plan that keeps young boxers engaged for more than one Olympic cycle.

“There’s something wrong with this whole system,” he said.

“I’m not talking about the High Performance system in general, but they need to try and keep those young boxers operating at a high level.

“Take someone like Dylan, if he misses the first chance to get to an Olympics, then make sure he’s ready for the next one. But so much of it comes down to money and funding. They came back to Dylan about financing him under a future athletes fund, but it works out at about £166 a week.

“With the cost of living crisis, that’s not nearly enough to live on. So does he join the likes of Kieran Molloy, Paddy Donovan, Aaron McKenna in terms of the boxers lost to Irish amateur boxing too soon?

“These kids are coming out of school and straight into being full-time athletes, yet they’re also expected to get a car on the road, pay their rent back home along with everything else.

“These kids need to have a carrot in front of them to work towards, otherwise you lose them.”


CLONARD will be hoping their fab five can do the business at the upcoming Irish U18 Championships.

The west Belfast club has a long history of producing talented boxers, and the current crew is no different having already proved their quality on the way through the ranks at Antrim and Ulster level.

Hannah Masterson (54kg), Chelsea Coiley (57kg), Jamie Graham (57kg), Darragh Smyth (71kg) and Brandon McKelvie (92kg) have all entered, and will find out their fate in Tuesday’s draw, with action getting under way at the National Stadium on Thursday.

There is plenty more Ulster interest outside of Clonard too, with Ciar Mavkin (Bryansford, 48kg), Aoife Dougan (Armagh, 54kg) and Lani Lafferty (Twintowns, 66kg) in the female draw.

Entering the male draw are Scott Thompson (Spartans, 48kg), Martin Browne (Emerald, 51kg), John Joe Boyle (St John Bosco, Belfast, 51kg), Saul Brown (Cairn Lodge, 54kg), Matthew McDonagh (Duke’s, 54kg), Ryley Doherty (Raphoe, 57kg), Conor Durning (Dunfanaghy, 57kg), Danny O’Neill (St John Bosco, Newry, 60kg), Jake Daly (DBox, 60kg), Fionn Duffy (St Joseph’s, Derry, 60kg), Nojus Samatakus (Portadown, 60kg), Aodhan Scott (Glengormley, 60kg), Jack McElroy (Raphoe, 63.5kg), Aaron Foster (Cairn Lodge, 67kg), Kieran Cunningham (Carndonagh, 71kg), Joey O’Hora (Twintowns, 75kg), Danny Tsui (Star of the Sea, Faughanvale, 75kg), John Donaghy (Star of the Sea, Faughanvale, 80kg) and Joshua Muckian (Silverbridge, 80kg).

The Irish U18s will form part of any potential selection process in anticipation of competing at the EUBC Youth Championships, which take place in Porec, Croatia from April 2-15.

Meanwhile, the draw for the Ulster Elite Championships will take place after Sunday’s weigh-in at Belfast’s Balmoral Hotel – with some big names, including two-time Commonwealth Games silver medallist Carly McNaul, European silver medallist Caitlin Fryers, as well as defending champions Jon McConnell and JP Hale, expected to be in the mix.

Preliminaries will take place at Girdwood Community Hub on Wednesday, January 17, with the semi-finals the following night and finals on Friday, January 19.