Liam Cunningham can hear his dad, only he is the one who is speaking as another gym session takes place in the Saints club.
14 months ago, Liam’s father, Harry, died due to coronavirus. Antrim and Irish boxing lost a man held in the highest esteem and the club were bereft of its anchor.
Liam, a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and Ulster and Irish senior champion, had in recent years been gradually taking up the mantle from his dad, while also a key member of the Irish under-18 squad coaching staff. A civil servant during the day, a great deal of the rest of his time is given over to turning the Twinbrook club into a real force.
“Before my dad died, we had a chat and I told him that I wanted to see the club right back up there with the best clubs, where it was once before. That statement to my dad really drives me on. I want to do justice to what he did for the club and the kids in the area,” said Liam.
“I think recently we turned a corner and the club is starting to thrive. We have kids now who can compete at novice, junior and intermediate level, so we’re moving in the right direction. Hopefully in a few years time, we’ll have guys fighting in the Ulster Elites.
“In 2024, we’ll be 50 years old and I hope to have a good celebration and it’ll be a chance to honour my dad.
“It’s funny because the other night, I was shouting some advice and it dawned on me that I have some of my dad’s traits. It was as if he was giving the instructions.”
At the recent Irish championships in Dublin, Liam and brother, Harry, who also coaches at the club along with Charlie O’Halloran, Sean McGaharan, Paul Bacon and Tony Crowe, shared a special moment when they were in the corner as 12-year-old Owen McCann triumphed in the 40kg final.
It was the club’s first Irish champion in over a decade and it was notable that Saints also had a semi-finalist in 13-year-old Noah Bacon, who lost out narrowly on points. Liam can see the coaching seeds are already starting to bear fruit.
“It was great to see Owen win. It’s been a while since we had a champion and I did think it was such a shame my dad couldn’t have been there. He would have been very proud,” added Liam.
“Owen is a very talented kid and if he really dedicates himself to the sport, he can go a long way. He’s very strong and hits hard. In the Ulster and Antrim championships, he stopped everyone. I liked the fact that Owen understood that despite winning, he had to work on cutting off the ring and that’s something we’re going to address.
“Leading up to the championships, the lads worked very hard and it paid off. I did feel sorry for Noah because I know how much work he put in but he has a bright future, just like Owen.
“We’ve got the Antrim championships next month and we’ll have 10 lads going to them, so things are looking good for the club.
“I’m working on getting more funding and I’m very grateful to the parents of the boxers because they help us out a lot when we have other clubs up for shows and they provide food.
“I know I’ve got big boots to fill after my dad passing away and probably I never will fill them but I’m doing my best.
“My dad was proper old school and some of his old school methods would probably be frowned upon. He was always on my case! But, it was always for the right reasons.
“He knew would it took to be the best, particularly when you’re boxing at elite level. If you don’t do everything right then you get found out.”
One enthusiastic club member just happens to be Liam’s eight-year-old daughter, Ava. He is convinced Ava’s passion flows back to grandfather Harry — just as in the case of his 10-year-old niece, Caoimhe, daughter of brother, Harry. Ava loves the gym, she can’t wait to go but I don’t want to push her too much. I find myself sounding a bit like the way my dad was with Harry and me. Mind you, everybody in the gym will tell you that Harry is the one who is more like my dad because he doesn’t take any nonsense,” says Liam.
“One thing we do explain to the kids is that they will only be entered into championships if they’re prepared to put the work in. That’s non-negotiable. You have to have standards in the club… that’s one thing my dad laid down that will never change.”
The Saints club is in safe hands and Harry’s legacy will live on.