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Ian Young: 'I won as part of a team in football but in kickboxing it was a completely new experience'

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Big adventure: Ian Young

Big adventure: Ian Young

Stephen Hamilton

Ian Young during his Crues days

Ian Young during his Crues days

Leah McCourt

Leah McCourt

Glenn Irwin

Glenn Irwin

Andrew Irwin

Andrew Irwin

Big adventure: Ian Young

Ian Young has a unique story to tell. This is a guy who won multiple Irish League titles with Crusaders and Linfield before quitting football at just 26. The Saintfield man then turned his hand - and feet - to kickboxing and became champion of the world.

All the while he did it with a strong work ethic and honesty that exemplifies his nature.

Hard as nails on the pitch and in the ring, there was a softer and selfless side to Young away from fierce competition.

He remains a genuine soul striving to bring the best out of those around him in his business as a fitness instructor, with a growing client list that includes highly-rated MMA fighter Leah McCourt and British Superbike stars Glenn and Andrew Irwin.

Young is 43. It's a quarter of a century since he started making waves in the Irish League with Crusaders.

"The older you become, the more nostalgic you are when you look back. Winning league titles with both Crusaders and Linfield was amazing," recalls Young, husband to Debbie and dad to eight-year-old Jude.

"Being involved in that Crusaders team when I was so young was an incredible experience.

"I went there when I was 16. At 18 I was in the first team playing with Glen Dunlop, Aaron Callaghan, Kirk Hunter, Liam Dunne, Sid Burrows and Stephen Baxter - big, big characters in the game. They all had this desire to win and nurtured the youngsters at the club.

"I feel fortunate to have been around Crusaders then with the fabulous atmosphere and team spirit.

"To be honest, I wouldn't have left had Roy Walker stayed on as manager. I remember Roy played a game of five-a-side in training with no football. It was mayhem, and everyone had a laugh, but it worked and we were successful. I look back on my time there with fond memories and love the family spirit that is still at the club.

"I always played centre-back for the Crues. In my last game for them I was sent off against Glenavon. Ironically, the next match was against Linfield but I was suspended.

"Then I signed for Linfield and made my debut at Windsor Park in central midfield a few days later. I played the majority of my games there for the Blues beside Tony Gorman, Stephen Beatty and Ian McCoosh.

"That was a great squad with players like Tony, Stephen, Glenn Ferguson, Noel Bailie, William Murphy, Tommy McDonald, Pat McShane and John Easton.

"Crusaders was like a family. At Linfield you had really good friends but their professionalism was a step above behind the scenes with everything that was done for you. It was the biggest club in Northern Ireland and Ireland and still is.

"I wasn't a skilful player. I was a fit player and a hard player and broke the play up. The easiest thing for me was to give the ball to Tony Gorman. That worked well. We were a successful team."

As well as winning a host of honours, Young is also a history maker. For Crusaders in a 1997 County Antrim Shield tie, he became the first Irish League player to score a Golden Goal, and in 1999 Ian netted Linfield's first winning goal at Solitude in 29 years.

During the Troubles, the Blues were not allowed to play at Cliftonville's home ground due to security issues. In their first match back at the north Belfast venue since 1970 in 1998, a league game ended in a 1-1 draw. In Linfield's next fixture at Solitude, Young was the hero in a 1-0 victory.

"In the first game, Winkie Murphy scored for us in a 1-1 draw, and then when we went back we won the second game and I scored the winner. It was Linfield's first winning goal at Solitude in 29 years and it was fantastic to create a little bit of history," says Young with a smile.

"The atmosphere was incredible. We were limited to 500 fans. At that stage we were getting bussed up to Solitude and there were two police landrovers in front of us, two behind and army and policemen on every doorstep on the Cliftonville Road the whole way up.

"A lot of that was sadly to do with the Troubles and religion, which somehow attaches itself to sport when it shouldn't. You could feel the tension in the match. To score the goal in such a big game was a special moment."

Young went on to play for Ards, Newry, where his grandfather had played in 1927, and Crusaders for a second time. He openly admits his passion and enjoyment for the game was no longer there when he hung up his boots earlier than anyone could have predicted.

Within weeks he was on his way to becoming a world champion in another field - or ring to be more precise.

"I literally stopped playing one Saturday and the next Saturday I was in at Billy Murray's Kickboxing gym in Belfast," says Young.

"It had always been an interest of mine. I walked in and spoke to Billy and had my first fight within a few months in Aberdeen. From there everything snowballed and I was fighting all over Europe over the next six or seven years."

Young won British and European titles prior to being crowned world champion on an emotional night in Belfast.

"I fought in the Waterfront Hall and it was absolutely packed to the rafters," he remembers.

"The atmosphere was brilliant. I knew I had the fight won in the first round having hurt my opponent early on. I knocked him out in three rounds. It was a dream to win it in Belfast. I had won leagues and cups in football when it was a team effort, and while you still have coaches with you, in kickboxing you are the only one in the ring fighting, so it is a very different experience."

Incredibly, Young's final fight was at the home of Benfica, who he once played against for Linfield in a friendly at Windsor Park, keeping ex-Celtic striker Pierre van Hooijdonk quiet in the process.

"My last ever fight was at the Stadium of Light in Portugal at Benfica's ground in a European Grand Prix. I was world champion and they invited guys from all over Europe to the event," he says.

"Under the main pitch Benfica have a stadium which holds about 8,000 people and that's where the fight was. For me, my sporting career had gone full circle. I started with football and it was ironic my last fight was in a football stadium.

"I fought at 10 stone 10. My natural weight is just over 13 stone so it was hard to make weight.

"I wasn't a great person to live with for probably a large portion of the year because it is a hard, hard life. It was taking its toll on everything in my life including family and I knew I had to quit. That was in 2011 when I was 34.

"Billy Murray was a fantastic coach and mentor, as was Roy Walker at Crusaders and David Jeffrey at Linfield. I use a lot of what they taught me in what I do. I'm thankful to have had people like that in my sporting life."

Young is now a leading figure in Northern Ireland's health and fitness industry. For almost a decade he has been running one of the most respected training camps in the country, Ian Young Fitness.

"I want my clients to reach their goals and believe in themselves," says Young, who at weekends plays charity matches for the Linfield Legends side and now and again turns out for Saintfield United thirds.

"I love helping people and seeing them progress physically and mentally. The mental aspect is even more important now than ever, with a lot of people struggling with mental health. There is massive benefit from physical exercise, getting fit and healthy. If I can help in any way then great. I'm passionate about that."

Asked about clients McCourt and the Irwin brothers, he says: "Leah is a great girl and has a phenomenal future ahead, and I love working with Andrew and Glenn, who I believe are going to have fantastic seasons.

"I have a variety of clients and my own private studios in Saintfield. I love getting up at 5.15am knowing I have a day at the gym and being involved with so many different people and characters.

"I treat them all as my team and push them, challenge them and hopefully empower and educate them."

No better man to do it.

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