9 March 2009 – By Steve Wellings
It was cold, dark and I was pretty much lost when searching for Saints ABC, mistaking a social club for my venue, even a well-informed taxi driver couldnt help. Out of the blue I spotted a huddled group of youngsters jogging through the streets of Twinbrook and realised my trek was over; two gravel car parks and a grassy incline later I heard the familiar pounding of leather.
Coach Patsy McCartan greeted me at the door and I was quickly directed over to the large ring, surrounded by finely painted murals of local boxing heroes past and present, where my first point of contact, Harry Cunningham took young hopefuls on the pads. There was a noticeable buzz around this club and a real atmosphere, with the average age of the protagonists unmistakably low.
Ive been involved here for 25 years, McCartan told me above the racket, my son boxed here and a couple of his mates did too, so I came round to give Harry a hand.
Its a recurring theme from my visits so far that volunteers and coaches are generally here for the long haul as we talk 20 and 30 years service rather than short monthly stints.
When I first came there was just one room with no toilets or running water or heat. We used the youth club (next door, which I had accidentally wandered in to at first) for toilets and changing. It was about 15 years before we got a bit of heat in here! We received a grant off the lottery [sports council] and got showers in, plus one room knocked into two.
The aforementioned murals that are lined around the amply spaced sparring ring are expertly done and provide a striking decoration that adds character above the usual clippings and cuttings, commonplace in every club.
Some of our boxers are painted on the walls, including two of Harrys sons Liam and Harry Jnr, McCartan explained as he showed me around.
Theyre all Irish champions and Liam won five flyweight titles.
When entering Saints you see a ring directly opposite and a flight of stairs to the right, with a hollowed out fitness room to the left, popular with the keep-fit and weight training enthusiasts. Padraig Baker and first timer Daniel Hudson are part of a group using the dumbbells and creating a communal feeling, while skipping ropes and speed bags are just a right hook away. Patsy introduced me to 39kg expectant Niall McClurkin who had recently participated in an Antrim V Leinster tournament in the Republic.
I finally take Harry Cunningham aside as he leads me on a journey through his 28 years at the club, Weve had Commonwealth games silver medallists, world under-19 silver (son Liam) and European cadets medallists. Two United Kingdom boys club champions and numerous Ulster and County Antrim champions. Its an impressive roster, but sometimes a promising talent can drift away to other pastimes.
A few lads pack the game in at 16 so were starting from scratch again at the moment but hopefully some will stick at it. Two of my sons were heavily involved and also my nephew Danny Cunningham, a great prospect who packed it in for football.
Harry and Patsy share coaching duties with Roland Green and Darren Melville both of whom were absent on the night – whilst Ciaran McAuley takes his son on the pads. Trinidads Melville was a five-year professional fighter from 2000, who won 12 contests out of 15 and mixed with the likes of Steve Murray, Marcus Portman and Nigel Wright. Theyre an eclectic bunch at Saints, with brothers Riccardo and Ludovico Quattromano making for a vibrant international flavour.
Harry Cunningham continues, There are at least 30 or 40 kids packing the floors tonight and three nights every week. At the weekends I take them away different places for sparring sessions and competitions. Its somewhere for them to go as well on those winter nights.
This club does a terrible lot of good for the local community, adds McCartan while we watch Ricky Hatton fan Jonathan Christie pummel a heavy bag, because the kids learn a bit of discipline through attending and then theyre not running around taking their aggression out on others. They dont only box each other but they do other bits of training together, maybe football or a bit of running.
Patsy gathers the enthusiastic youngsters together for a group shot while Harry Cunningham is showing no signs of slowing down and has big aspirations for Saints ABC in the near future.
Weve got a couple of grants so we brought some new bags and a ring to put up with new ropes. Hopefully we can obtain a grant to get this place renovated. Once we get it up to scratch itll be a very modern club and well be thriving.
For photos please visit: www.belfastboxingpics.tk