Fighter and university graduate puts his success down to Monkstown boxing coach, now an MBE after a lifetime of bettering people’s lives
BOXING champ Daryl Clarke barely mentions his impressive success in the ring as he chats about his beloved Monkstown Boxing Club.
Instead, the 24-year-old business studies graduate and Commonwealth Games boxing contender, enthuses about the training outside the ring which completely changed his life.
And he largely credits one man, coach Paul Johnston, for giving him opportunities which he says he would never have enjoyed without the mentoring and support he found at the club.
Daryl is so indebted to Paul that is he now determined to follow in his footsteps in his role as a youth worker at the Newtownabbey gym.
“I just fell in love with everything Paul and the club does with young people and to now be able to help others reach their potential the way the club helped me is really rewarding,” he said.
Daryl’s coach and mentor Paul (51) is no ordinary boxing club manager.
His incredible work with disadvantaged kids at the Newtownabbey club was recognised this month when he was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours list.
A past winner of the Sunday Life Spirit of Sport award, he has helped hundreds of kids like Daryl turn their lives around.
The father of two girls, who is married to Kelly and lives in Monkstown, has volunteered as a coach with the club for 34 years and gives up his time freely in the evenings for kids.
Nine years ago he took up the post of project manager which saw him introduce BoxClever, a programme to build confidence and improve the quality of life for young people in his community.
In particular he wanted to tackle the high levels of underachievement among schoolchildren in the area.
Paul introduced homework and breakfast clubs, sport-related work placements and coaching sessions for kids from Monkstown, Rathcoole and the surrounding areas.
Since it was introduced in 2012 over 1,000 young people have benefited from the scheme.
And his protégé Daryl was one of the first kids to come through the scheme, emerging as a shining example of the positive impact it has on young lives.
Daryl joined the club at the age of 13 as a child who was already abusing alcohol and struggling with anger issues.
He grew up in the loyalist Woodburn estate in Carrickfergus where he said paramilitary influence on young people as well as drugs and alcohol abuse was rife.
The third child of four, he never believed that anyone from his area could get to university.
His low self-belief was transformed when he joined Monkstown Boxing Club.
He explains: “I had a lot of anger issues and mum wanted me to get a way out of it and thought boxing would be a release.
“When I joined the club, Stephen Ward had just won the Irish Championships and the training was world class and I never looked back.
“Paul’s attitude from the start was to see how he could help with things going on in your personal life; it just wasn’t all about the boxing.
“In the estate I came from there was a lot of drug and alcohol usage and paramilitary influence and I think being around that all the time caused my anger because deep down I think I knew that’s not what I wanted.
“A lot of my friends were experimenting with drugs and I was drinking alcohol at the weekends.
“I had no positive role models. Then being around positive role models in the club, including people like Carl Frampton, who still pops in from time to time, really motivated me to get out of the estate and change things.”
Daryl was one of the first kids to take part in the new self-improvement classes introduced by Paul.
After training in the ring, he and a group of other kids would go to a nearby community hall where they were mentored in self-development.
He says: “We also did residentials which really pushed us out of our comfort zones, things like climbing mountains and outdoor stuff which is really good for your mental health.
“Paul encouraged me to become the best version of myself. I don’t think I would be the person I am if he hadn’t seen the potential in me as I never really believed in myself.”
With Paul’s encouragement, Daryl became the first person in his family to go to university.
He finished his degree in business studies at the Ulster University and now, thanks to Paul’s support, is undertaking a master’s degree in youth studies as he works full-time in the gym with young people.
He says: “Growing up in my community you either looked at unemployment, working cash in hand or getting a trade, no one thought they were smart enough to go to university.
“Paul instilled in me how important education was and he really pushed me. Being the first person in my family to get to university was massive.”
Now as a youth leader in the gym he is thrilled to be able to pass on what he has learned to kids coming behind him.
Daryl is part of a youthful team of eight at the club who now run the classes for young people.
He says: “This is such a positive place to be and when you come in, it is all about bettering yourself and there are so many people to support you to do that.
“The kids coming in have a lot of issues that I was facing when I was younger and I can really relate to them and it’s great to be able to pass on what I have learned.”
As well as his work for youth, Daryl has been a champion in the ring, winning the Elite Ulster Championship League in 2020, the biggest title in Northern Ireland for amateur boxers.
He is now waiting to find out if he has been selected to take part in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year.
He adds: “My ambition is to make it to the Games and get a medal. I am on the shortlist and if I get picked it will be an amazing achievement.”
Like everyone in the club Daryl is thrilled that Paul was awarded an MBE.
Paul didn’t hesitate in dedicating the honour to the entire team at Monkstown Boxing Club.
He said: “It was a big shock when I found out and while it is something that will be presented to me, it represents so much more in terms of the work we do at the club and the team I have around me who do so much for the local community.
“My name might be on it but it is recognition for their hard work and I am proud of it because of the work we do at Monkstown.”
He added: “We wouldn’t be able to achieve what we do without the support of the National Lottery who has funded our work with young people.”