Stephen Ward Irish title win will be half the battle
While winning the Irish heavyweight title for the first time tonight in Dublin's National Stadium means everything to Stephen Ward and his coach Paul Johnston, ring success is just one element of a much bigger project at Monkstown Amateur Boxing Club.
Coach Johnston (pictured) has been meticulously preparing Ward for his clash with Gary Sweeney in the evenings, while by day he is engaged in Box Clever – a £400,000 funded programme to change the lives of many young people in the Newtownabbey area.
The project is in two parts with one part of the scheme dealing with 11-16 year-olds who have been referred from local schools in the area because they are at risk of dropping out and 16-20 year-olds who have been referred to the project by the likes of Probation Board and Youth Justice organisations.
Johnston, who has taken a career break from his Sport NI post, said: "It's about using boxing to transform the community around us. A study showed that one in 10 working class protestants go to university in contrast to one in five catholics and that there is a high percentage of young men and women on benefits in our area.
"We are going into schools, we have set up a homework club in the gym and for the older ones we are getting them to study for vocational qualifications which will allow them to work as fitness instructors for example. These are guys for whom the formal educational pathway just doesn't work.
"In Northern Ireland there are 25,000 16 to 20-year-olds not in work so it's a big issue and for me personally it's great to have an opportunity to do something like this because this is my passion – trying to make a difference through boxing – with the backing of the Big Lottery – for guys who would normally just hit a dead end.
"We have had great feedback, Carl Frampton is an advocate and he has helped us with going into schools," said Johnston.
Tonight, at the Irish Elite finals, Johnston's full focus will be on masterminding title glory for Ward, a silver medallist at the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
"Stephen is in great shape and after two weekends in Dublin with the quarter-finals and semis his confidence is high and he's ready to go and win his first Irish senior title. I think this is is going to be his year," added Johnston.
"In the past he has only lost to world class boxers like Tommy McCarthy and Kenny Egan.
"He's won under-21 and Irish intermediate titles and he has learned from those defeats to Tommy and Kenny and he's ready for the fight with Gary Sweeney.
"It's a big year for Stephen with the Commonwealth Games coming up, though I must say it's very disappointing that after receiving funding from Sport NI for a year after winning the silver medal he hasn't received any funding since. Now, some will say that's because he hasn't had the results but Ireland only take the number ones to multi nations and that was Tommy McCarthy – Ulster could have done a lot more.
Ward also feels that the experience of tangling with friend and rival McCarthy – now a professional – will stand to him against Sweeney.
"Tommy and I had some good rumbles, he always had the edge but that experience will make a difference on Friday night," said Ward.