Belfast Telegraph

Boxing coach's anguish at sectarian vitriol at Avoniel Leisure Centre

'They were Protestants abusing Protestants, it made no sense at all'

By John Porter

A veteran Belfast boxing coach said he never felt intimidation like what he experienced at a kids' boxing competition this week.

Tommy Kelly, a coach at the Dockers Club in north Belfast, took three fighters aged between 13 and 14, along with family and supporters, to an event in Avoniel Leisure Centre on Thursday.

It was organised as part of Belfast City Council's Day of Boxing event aimed at trying to get more young people involved in the sport.

Tommy said that after the end of the last fight tensions in the crowd became heightened and sectarian abuse was hurled at his group.

He said: "They were Protestants abusing Protestants, it made no sense at all.

"At the Dockers Club we are a totally mixed club and religion never comes into it.

"In the whole of the sport, there is no mention of religion to anyone, it just doesn't happen.

"But the level of abuse that was directed at us was frightening.

"I have never been intimidated in all my life until this - it was that bad.

"I have been everywhere; in the worst of the Troubles I could go to boxing clubs anywhere and you were always welcomed.

"But this was scary.

"It was adults acting like kids."

After the last fight finished the group of around 15 people left the venue together. Tommy said they were again subjected to abuse.

Sabrina Haslen was one of the mothers at the event.

She was there to support her son in his first ever fight.

The 38-year-old said: "My nerves were bad enough watching my son fight for the first time.

"Now I don't know if I want him to ever fight again."

Sabrina said the trouble erupted when supporters of one of the fighters disagreed with the judges' decision to award the bout to his opponent.

She added: "One of the women there was actually screaming abuse and I said to her to calm down, and that's when they turned on us in the crowd.

"I actually felt sorry for the wee fella in the ring, if that is the reaction to him losing.

"You have to support them whether they win or lose."

She went on: "When we left the building a crowd of them had gathered and as well as shouting at us they threw sticks and stones.

"They were shouting 'Fenian this' and 'Fenian that' at us.

"I'm a Protestant - so it shows you how stupid it was.

"It was very frightening and, a day after it, I am still very upset.

"I don't know if I would ever want my son to visit another club if that is the type of abuse he is going to get.

"And he absolutely loves boxing and going to his club." Tommy started boxing at the age of 15 and has been a coach for more than 10 years.

"It is the best thing I've ever done," he said.

"Boxing brings everyone together. There is no religion."

Belfast City Council said it supported the event, which was organised by the County Antrim Boxing Board.

The board refused to comment on the incident.

A council spokeswoman added: "Belfast City Council is aware of an incident at Avoniel Leisure Centre, it was reported to the police but the complainant decided not to proceed as it was dealt with by staff on site and quickly resolved."

Police said an initial complaint was made and later withdrawn.

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