Eddie ready to ignite fire in the bellies of German boxers
WEXFORD MAN Eddie Bolger takes up the reins as top boxing coach in Germany this week having been denied a promotion by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA).
Eddie was headhunted by the German Boxing Federation and offered a lucrative two-year deal - with the option of a further two years - in February, but insists he, like Billy Walsh before him, would have stayed within the Irish camp if his hard work had been recognised by an improved financial package and a new role by the IABA.
Having worked as a coach for two decades he said he did not hesitate to make the move of his life, which will see him take charge of the German boxing team for the world championships, which take place in Germany this autumn.
Eddie, 47, grew up in Liam Mellows Park, Wexford, the son of Nancy and Billy Bolger.
He was born into a boxing family. Many of his uncles boxed, and his grandfather Tom O'Connor won a welterweight all-Ireland title with the army.
Eddie recalls cleaning his grandfather's trophies and his plaque, which hung on the wall of his grandmother's house.
'That is what inspired me on my journey into boxing. I joined Wexford CBS boxing club, which had a fantastic tradition in the town going back to Jimmy Meyler, Brendan Kelly, Mick Cullen, Aidan O'Sullivan and latterly Billy Walsh,' Eddie said.
Eddie joined the club when he was eight and reached the Irish boxing final when he was 12.
'It was very tough getting out of Wexford. Liam Walsh guided me through my boxing training. He was very regimental and he didn't take any crap. He instilled a good culture and was a great man-to-man coach. He'd give you a pat on the back but wouldn't hesitate to put you in your place.'
Describing boxing as his whole life when he was a teenager, Eddie said it was fantastic to see Billy Walsh reach great heights at national level.
'It was fantastic to see Billy and Mick Cullen on the back pages of the papers.'
Eddie won the national youth title he was 15.
'What that alowed me to do was I could represent Ireland at multi nations tournaments like the Celtic Youths, which was a big deal. Featherweight was my ideal weight. I won that title and had the Irish title for the highest accolade an Irish boxer can achieve.'
When he left secondary school, Eddie studied engineering at Waterford Institute of Technology.
He kept boxing and trained with St Paul's club in Waterford, while still boxing for the CBS boxing club.
'I completed college and went on to work for a few Wexford companies including Fergusson Engineering and ABS Pumps. It was the managers at these companies who allowed me time off to go box.'
Eddie said he never made it to world-class level, despite having that ambition.
He was dealt a devastating blow when his coach died in a car accident when he was 24. 'He was like a father figure to me. Another club boxer Louis Furlong helped to fill the void and eventually I switched from boxing to coaching.'
This was around the time Eddie and his partner Julie O'Leary from Wexford town had a baby daughter, Yasmine.
'The club was still going well as we always had a good pool of talent but Louis had moved away and it needed someone to take over. My heart was in the club and still is to this day, so I was happy to take over the coaching.'
Eddie worked with the schoolboys and admits it was a big role to take on. 'Coaching 12- and 13-year-olds is a huge role. You are coaching them, you are their psychologist, their physio. You give them advice and help them through things.'
Around this time Billy Walsh's old coach Eddie Byrne returned from England to Wexford and the two men coached rising stars like brothers Gary and Eddie Byrne, Seamus King and Anthony Furlong.
Following the phenomenal success of the Byrne brothers, Eddie was invited to join Irish boxing's elite high performance team in 2008. 'The Byrne brothers had consistently won national youth titles for years up until 2008 and the club got stronger. When I got into the High Performance unit I was able to concentrate on the boxing. A lot of other countries had these units in place but it was definitely groundbreaking what we were doing.'
Eddie worked in a voluntary capacity and during this time he identified the High Performance Unit as a place where he could make a career for himself.
'I treated it like a college course and said if I didn't get a job out of it after four years I'd pack it in. It almost took the four years for me to get offered the role. It was fantastic to be afforded the chance to upskill ourselves to work with professionals and to be in a team fighting at major tournaments.'
Eddie was invited by Walsh to train boxers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, having been named the high performance coach meaning he would work closely with Zaur Antia and Walsh and who headed up the unit.
He immediATley made an impact on rising star Joe Ward. 'As that relationship grew, our bond grew. Joe decided to come down to Wexford to train with me and some of the boxers at the CBS. He'd arrive down on a bus every opportunity he would get. He still has a room at the house and he developed a great bond with the Byrne brothers and Anthony.'
Ward won a youth world title when he was 16. 'He came down to Wexford after that for a chat and he wanted to know what I felt about him challenging for a senior Irish title the following year. I thought it might have been a bit soon but he was adamant. Kenny Egan was the man to beat. He was a different weight division but we prepared and both of them reached the final. I don't think I've ever been at a match with that atmosphere. It was an incredible fight which went the three rounds and Joe beat him 15-12. I remember it being very close and Kenny was ahead. The referee helped us a bit by giving Kenny two public warnings and Joe pulled away in the end. That enabled Joe to get the number one spot on the elite team and he went on to win an European gold medal at 17. He held the record of winning two European gold medals and had four world medals.'
He is also proud of his role in progressing David Oliver Joyce's career.
'He qualified in Turkey. His dream from when he was a boy was to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio. He travelled to Wexford and got over the line and qualified. It was a real fairytale success story.'
Eddie wasn't accredited to travel to the London Olympics, but was very much a part of the team which qualified for the tournament.
'London was fantastic. I enjoyed every moment of it. I knew it was going to be very difficult for us but when you're there watching it and its unveiling, none of the success came as a surprise. John Joe against the Cuban was probably the stand out fight. Nobody had beaten that guy and nobody has beaten him since.'
Eddie said the crowd of Irish supporters was a big factor in the team's success, especially in Katie Taylor's fight for gold.
Eddie struck up a good working relationship with Taylor who invited him to be in her corner for the world championships last year in Turkey. He said referee decisions went against the Wicklow woman, adding: 'Two minute rounds are a sprint and it's very difficult to put daylight between world class boxers in four two-minute rounds.'
Eddie said it wasn't all hard work in the High Performance Unit.
'Billy and me have the same accent so we had a good laugh around Zaur. The boxers trained hard and laughed hard. There was no drink culture but it was still good fun.'
Eddie humbly attributes being chosen to lead the German boxing team to 'divine intervention'.
'I knew my contract was going to expire on February 28 so ten weeks prior to that I sent an email to the CEO of the IABA, Fergal Carruth.'
In the email, Eddie pointed out all the work he had carried out over the previous 18 months, his workload having been ramped up following the departure of Walsh to head up American boxing.
Seeking an assistant coach role behind Zaur, Eddie said: 'With Billy gone there was a vacuum and no one was hired to take his place. The explanation I was given was that they wanted to keep going with the same structure.'
Following the disappointing results at Rio, Eddie said the atmosphere in the High Performance Unit was uncertain and flat.
'The Billy controversy didn't really affect us. In hindsight we were going well and boxers were achieving success. It was a 24/7 job. I was out of Ireland seven months in 2016 at every single qualifying tournament. I was the only Irish coach to do this. My CEO knew what role I was looking for. I wanted to support Zaur from underneath as an assistant coach and to be presented with a package that fitted that role.'
He welcomed the fact that the IABA are hiring a high performance director, stressing the huge workload involved in the role.
'Anyone who is going to step into my place needs to be very aware about what they are taking on. They will be out of the country around 200 days per year.
'When based in Dublin you are expected to share a room with coaches and fighters in hotels. You are responsible for the boxers. I have been around the world three times but you don't see anything. It's a constant cycle of airport to venue to accommodation.'
He was advised by Carruth to hold on to his present role until the new director gets up to speed. 'He said it would be in my best interest if I waited for the High Performance director to come on board. I asked them to draw up a proposal and send it to me and the night of the meeting with Fergal I was back in Wexford and I got contacted by the German operation's manager who had been trying to contact me since early January.'
On February 10 he informed Carruth that he had another interested party and that he would be pursuing the job offer. 'I did not resign as the IABA said. My contract expired.'
He told Antia who was shocked by the news, while acknowledging that it was a fantastic opportunity for the Wexford man. Eddie was flown to a new centre of excellence in Hiedelberg the following week. Following a five hour interview he was offered the job.
'They've developed a centre at the university there which cost €4.5m to build. I never thought of going away to work but they asked me if I was interested and there was no-one else in for the job. The terms of the contract were very accommodating. Both their management and their coaching staff had identified me as a possible head coach for the centre.'
Eddie will work with head coaches from three other centres of excellence in Germany.
'Hiedelberg is at the top of the pyramid. It's exciting because Germany is a sleeping giant in the boxing world and their boxers are not performing to their potential. I am familiar with the German fighters. The big advantage they have is that they are hosting the world boxing championships in Hamburg in August.'
Eddie is in Berlin at a training camp preparing for the Chemistry Cup. He said: 'I asked to go in an observatory capacity.'
He will return to Wexford later this month before starting training in early April for the world championships in August.
'The European championships take place in June. All other countries will have to qualify but there are ten automatic places for German fighters. The Germans are a decent team and a fresh voice will help. Ireland has a proven track record. It's about adapting.
'I've a little bit of anxeity. It will be so busy but at the end of the day once I am on the floor, interacting with a team and having the autonomy to implement the system I am used to, there is nothing going to be alien to me and there is a lot of scope for improvement.
'I am very lucky to get this opportunity and I am very honoured to get it. It's a great opportunity for me to develop as a coach. I had no sleepless nights as I think I am very lucky. I am relishing the prospect.'
Eddie lamented the IABA's approach to his contract, while acknowledging that Ireland cannot compete with larger countries when it comes to paying coaches.
'If there had been a little bit of reward and a pat on the back I probably would not have gone,' he said.