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Interview: Barry O'Dowd

3 May 13 photos: Dave Goodwin
interview: Joe Sharratt

Barry O’Dowd teaches kids to box. The former army champion founded Bulwell Hall Amateur Boxing Club in 2004 and has spent almost a decade suppor ting young people in his community. Last year he picked up the title of Coach of the Year at the Nottingham Sports Awards and rubbed shoulders with Torvill and Dean at the Olympics. We popped along to the club to see what he’s all a-bout...

What was it that first drew you to boxing?
Boxing has always been in my family; both my Dad and my elder brother used to do it. I was a sickly child, believe it or not, I was always ill. But then my Dad said,“do you want to do some boxing?” and I started doing the training. I wasn’t very strong at first, but I joined the army at sixteen and then took it up seriously.

You won the Junior Army Boxing Championship back then. That must be something you’re still proud of?
I’m proud and honoured. It’s something I’ve achieved, but as life has gone on I’ve achieved more with the coaching than I ever did as a fighter myself. My club is not in a particularly prosperous area, but some kids have got jobs just from being members of the club. They learn to respect themselves and others and it opens up other doors for them.

How did setting up Bulwell Amateur Boxing Club come about?
Before this I ran the Scots Grey club with Mick McPhilbin for a few years. Then I got married and moved to Bulwell Hall, and there were no facilities there. I went looking for premises and found a pub. It wasn’t really suitable but it was a start. Eventually we were forced to move again and I came across this old community centre earmarked for demolition. It was wrecked; there were no ceilings or wiring, basically nothing inside. But I went to the council and rang around and eventually got toilets, sinks, showers and urinals. Then I got some guys to give me a hand getting it done and that was the birth of the club as we know it.

Take us through your average day at the club?
I’m the head coach. So I teach kids how to box to competition level and I work with some that are on a wayward track. It’s not just a boxing club, we help them with other things too. They bring kids with problems to us and I see what I can do to help.

Are there any young boxers at the club with the potential for a big career in the ring?
Kieran Pickard has been with me since he was ten. He’s nineteen now and recently won the Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire ABA Welterweight Challenge Belt. He’s a very good boxer.

You’ve had quite a bit of success with the ladies class as well. Nationally women’s boxing is on the up. Why do think women are now embracing boxing?
I think they’ve been watching Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams at the Olympics and been thinking, “Wow!” Women are actually a lot easier to teach too, they pick it up much quicker.

How has the boxing scene changed in Nottingham since you first took up the sport as a teenager?
It’s safer for a start, there are far more rules and regulations. But I think it’s actually improved as a sport too, because if you get two good boxers nowadays it’s like watching dancers. It’s something special, not just two people slugging it out.

How did it feel to win the Coach of the Year at the Nottingham Sports Awards last year?
It was fantastic. I do this because I love boxing and love watching the kids improve. I wasn’t looking for an accolade, but when it came along I was really chuffed.

Did you know anything about it?
I didn’t at first, but there were little whispers going round the club and nodding and winking, and I thought, “What’s going on?” Then when I got the email saying I’d been nominated I thought, “Oh, nice one.”

Were you surprised to win it?
Yeah I was, I took my son Andrew down to the ceremony for the evening and he said, “Look who you’re up against, you haven’t got a chance here Dad.” Then when they called my name I just thought… “What?”

You passed the Olympic torch to Nottingham sporting greats Torvill and Dean last year. What was that experience like?
I got a phone call about running the relay, but I thought it was a wind-up so I just laughed and put the phone down. They had to ring me back. Then I had to keep it a secret from everybody, including my family, for about six or seven months for security reasons. I was dying to tell someone. The day itself was just brilliant. I felt eighteen again and was over the moon.

We can’t talk about boxing and Nottingham without mentioning Carl Froch. Have you had much contact with him over the years?
When we first got the new building up and running in 2010 we invited him down for the opening ceremony and he loved it. We had three young lads boxing in a show once, and they had the privilege of carrying his belt into the ring.

Will he go down in history as a proper great of the sport and a Nottingham legend?
Definitely, because he’s a lovely chap. People think he’s a bit stand-offish, but when he’s been down to this club he’s been fantastic with the kids. He walks around, talks to them, signs gloves and shows them different things on the bags. I’ve got a lot of time for Carl.

Do you think there’s anything about Nottingham in particular that has made Froch as good as he is?
I think it might just be the enthusiasm. It’s not like London where you’ve got coaches from all over the world with different ideas and styles. But I think Nottingham does hold its own for coaches. The ones I work with, not just at my club but at others too, are fantastic. They’d bend over backwards to help the lads, teaching and training them.

Do you think it’s important for the young fighters to see someone like Froch?
Without a doubt. They aspire to be like him. I’ve got photos of Carl with the youngsters in the club here now, and when the kids are waiting to come in they look at the photos and their little faces are thinking, “will I be like that one day?” They do look up to him.

Have you seen more local youngsters taking up boxing since his rise to the top?
I think so. Years ago kids used to do it in school, but they’ve banned all that because of health and safety. But I think it is a good sport, and I get kids who are never gonna be boxers but they love taking part in it and the training. The discipline is good for them, I don’t let them mess about and I don’t take no prisoners. But I think that’s what they like, and a lot of young ‘uns don’t get that at home. Boxing is a healthy sport for them.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in taking it up?
Get yourself associated with a boxing club, see what it entails. Then get yourself on a coaching course through the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA), and go from there.

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