Interview: Glasgow 2014 boxer Charlie Flynn

Charlie Flynn came to the attention of the world during the Commonwealth Games. Picture: Robert Perry
Charlie Flynn came to the attention of the world during the Commonwealth Games. Picture: Robert Perry
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One of Scotland’s brightest stars of Glasgow 2014 has a big decision to make

One of the major surprises of the Commonwealth Games afterglow, as Scotland wore a great big smile on its face and congratulated itself that none of the cheap jokes about gruff old Glasgow acting as hosts had even remotely come to pass, was that Charlie Flynn wasn’t offered a big, fat contract to be the face of a well-known washing-up powder.

I suppose this was because no one’s the face of even obscure washing-up powders any more, soapsuds commercials having lost the potency they enjoyed back when a washing-machine was such a coveted mod con. Young Charles – he of the unforgettable gold-medal slogan: “And thanks to ma maw for daein’ ma wah-shin’” - was simply born half a century too late.

But you won’t find the boxing champ complaining about the fame his triumph has brought him. He hasn’t fought since that 2 August victory and has cut his hours at the Royal Mail – “The mailman always delivers” was another memorable one-liner – to two days a week. He’s simply too busy being Charlie Flynn.

“It’s been hectic – mental,” he says. “I’ve opened community fairs, done loads of stuff. Loads of public speaking – schools, sporty things. The schoolkids always want to know if I’ve ever bitten anyone in a fight.

“The first time I did the speaking was for Scotland’s rowing team. I didn’t prepare anything – I never do – but yakked for 45 minutes. It was like Braveheart minus the facepaint. The rowers hadn’t beaten England for a while but did the next day. So I’ve just kept yakking. I charge for it – not the schools, obviously – and I love it.”

A lot of the events are black tie, which initially posed a problem for the 20-year-old. “I didn’t own a suit of any kind. So I went to [leading Glasgow tin-flute emporium] Slaters and Paul Slater, the big boss, said: ‘Get that young man fitted out.’ That was nice of him.”

People like meeting Flynn and always want selfies. In his native Lanarkshire, between his home in Newarthill, the sorting office in Wishaw and swinging, downtown Motherwell, he’s famous enough to move around unfettered. The taxi driver ferrying me to our rendezvous was behind him on the road the previous day – Flynn in his Audi A3 with its “TKO” numberplate, standing for technical knockout – while the cabbie for the return journey to the train station told me that one of his uncles, an accountant, was a big character in the area, looking after most of the local taxi trade. “Kind of like Jimmy Cagney,” my driver added, “so maybe that’s where Charlie gets his patter from.”

Colourful characters abound in our tale. I’m not sure whether Flynn’s father Tommy is a teacher, a joiner, a guitarist or that he works in IT and maybe he’s all of these things, along with being the laddie’s mentor. And in the narration of the story, Flynn is as friendly, funny and unvarnished as you’d expect of someone who once described himself, self-mockingly, as “skipping like a nugget”. On that occasion, he was recounting a training routine. Yes, yes, the peerless Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, but could he skip like a nugget?

Our boy is wearing jeans and a hoodie, which seems yet more freshly-pressed evidence of his mother Mary’s mixed-fabrics prowess. “It’s funny you say that about soap-powder adverts,” he says, “because I was kidding her on the other day saying she was going to get given a brand new washer as her one was playing up. She’d have hated that kind of fuss.

“No offence, but she’d have hated you coming to the hoose to interview me. My big sister Claire’s the same. One morning she came downstairs in a daft onesie, her hair a riot and a slice of toast in her mouth and there really were reporters at the door. She ran a mile!” We meet in the impressive Ravenscraig Regional Sports Facility, built on the site of the emblematic steelworks, more than 48 hours after the appointed time. I should stress I haven’t been waiting here for two whole days as a consequence of diva-ish behaviour that even the fashionably late supermodel Naomi Campbell would deem too chancey. Our first attempt at the interview was cancelled when, at the last minute, Flynn had to be whisked through to a secret Glasgow location to ponder his future.

Pro or Rio? This is the choice facing him. Does he stay amateur for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil or turn professional? There’s no decision yet. “I’ve had four or five offers to turn pro, two of which I’m thinking about right now. I don’t want to say who they’re with but they’re decent.” And the Olympics? “They haven’t been in touch,” he says, meaning boxing officialdom for Team GB. “That’s a bit disappointing.” Dad Tommy uses stronger words and is upset his laddie – who, in the past couple of years, has beaten a number of Englishman in the GB ranks and stands as current British champion – has been “snubbed”.

Flynn admits he has a problem with the way Team GB operates for boxers. “You have to be based in Sheffield; I don’t know why I can’t train up here,” says this self-confessed homeboy. “Plus it’s kind of military and I can’t handle anything like that. I’m late for everything, as you’ve found out. On trial down there before I got into trouble for that.”

Sounds like his mind is pretty much made up, I say. “Not absolutely. Maybe it’s 55-45 in favour of going pro but I’m not saying Rio wouldn’t be brilliant. I’ve spoken to loads of managers and they have their own agendas. The big temptation would be the money. You can get stacks of it. That would allow me to can the work and spend the time I’m at the depot resting so I could progress as a boxer. But am I getting truthful statements? It’s all so confusing and it’s frustrating. I just want to get fighting again.”

Many of Scotland’s Commy Games notables were heavily trailed beforehand but Flynn, as far as the wider public were concerned, came from nowhere. And yet – that pint-sized and that carrot-topped – he was exactly what we’d hoped might represents us at a big sports event on home turf: an archetype, a gadgie, a wee brave gallus hero. From his first win in the lightweight division, from his first post-bout reaction-piece, the nation clutched Charlie to its pride-swelling chest. It was like he’d wandered out of the Fun Section of the Sunday Post or a Chewin’ the Fat sketch, maybe the one featuring the icecream van. Or an Oscar Marzaroli photograph of pluckily self-sufficient toerags or a poem by Bud Neill. Wee Charlie’s nose was skintit from his gold-bagging fight, although it wasn’t dripping from melted icicles but with the sweat from all his exertions in that glorious Glesca summer.

Every hook and jab was accompanied by a cracking soundbite. The big crowd crammed inside the Hydro were “like ants up there, man – but ants that sounded like lions”. With the racket his new-found fans made, he thought he was going to “drap deed … it was like a thunda-storm, man”.

He said, as all sportsman do at their moments of triumph, that he couldn’t quite explain the feeling. But then he proceeded to explain it very well: “There’s this burnin’ in your chest, man. It’s like the colosseum, man.” During the medal ceremony he was compelled to belt out the anthem. “You’ve got the fire in your heart. You’ve just got to let it out.” Then, in among all the comedy, there were words which might have mildly stunned some with their thoughtfulness: “Thank God for everything he gave me. In these Games there are other countries who haven’t got much.”

For the one and only time today, the bold Flynn turns coy. Yes, he’s religious but he doesn’t like talking about it. The other stuff about less fortunate nations was probably inspired by conversations in the Games Village sauna with other boxers. “I was there trying to cut my weight. One time this African guy who I’m afraid I didn’t remember fighting as a youth – we swapped shorts, which is the way our sport does it – was telling me: ‘Scotland is so beautiful, you’ve got the health service and you’ve got freedom.’ Another time – again an African – said: ‘Please let me come and work for you. I don’t want to go home.’”

Exposed to Flynn’s fierce wit during the Games, the instant reaction of a whole platoon of sports journos, weary of the anodyne piffle which passes for competitor comment, urged: “Don’t media-train this boy – ever.” And I’m happy to report he hasn’t changed: he’s as natural and spontaneous and, well, as mental as he was when the world first encountered him, down on the banks of the Clyde.

This is Charlie on his schooldays: “I was pretty decent, you know, but I just didnae want to do the work. To be quite honest with you I was a bam.” On his brief football career: “I got in the school team at ten, played one game, scored two OGs and was sent off – never played again.” On his gold medal: “I’m aye losing it. Just the other day, down the back of the seat in the car. Before that I really thought it had gone, then it turned up a week later in one of my boxing gloves.” On his postie pals: “Wee Kevin, Jason and Mark down at the depot, they’re all ridin’ on my fame. This guy wrote a song about me to the tune of the Postman Pat theme and put it on YouTube – they’re all mentioned in it. The lads are always telling me: ‘I just got recognised doon the shops.’” On his post-Games love life: “It’s gone through the roof!”

Interestingly, there have been attempts to teach him standard post-competition responses. Unsurprisingly, the media training has bounced off his tough little frame, unable to penetrate it. “I had some before the Games but kept getting pink elephants.” Come again? “For saying the wrong thing you got a pink elephant. An example would be: ‘Do you drink?’ I’d say ‘I don’t go out at weekends’ when I should have said ‘I stay in at weekends.’ ‘Don’t’ is a negative word, and ‘might’ and ‘maybe’ are thought to be watery ones, taking the confidence away from your comments. So I was given hunners of those pink elephants. I thought I would get them to keep, like I’d just had a great day at the funfair, but at the end of course they had to be returned. Believe it or not, I went back for more media training recently because some of my school visits required it and I’m afraid I fell asleep.”

So Flynn never got his pink elephants. And he’s not getting his Christmas stamp either. “The Royal Mail thought about putting me on one. ‘We’ll fly you to the North Pole for the shoot,’ they said. That would have been amazing – so funny – but I don’t think it’s happening anymore.” But alphabetically, just after Nigel Farage, he’s bound to figure in compilations of the best quotes of 2014. And his invitation to the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year – back at the Hydro, the scene of his greatest nine minutes to date – is surely in the post along with possibly a nomination as well, necessitating yet another outing for that monkey-suit.

It’s easy to forget in all the malarkey that Flynn is a sportsman, a dedicated one, with a burning ambition. His first experience of boxing was aged six, accompanying big brother Daniel to training at a club in Newarthill. Told at the door he was too young to enter the gym, he simply sneaked in the back. “Then I think they realised I was no’ bad and so they let me start sparring.” Willie Downie trained him from the time he was little bigger than a corner stool to his national title, then Peter Harrison took over.

He thanks them both, thanks the Royal Mile for supplying him with his kit, thanks his dad and, of course, his mum, for the laundering of umpteen pieces of training gear, at least seven layers each session and there are three of those every day. “When I talk about ‘wah-shin’, I don’t think folk realise how much there is. It’s brutal, man.”

Another thing that’s “brutal” is the big decision, which way to jump. Maybe it’ll be sorted by his 21st birthday on 6 November. But the burning ambition at least is clear-cut: to become world champion. “That’s what I’ve always said I wanted to be, right from when I was a nipper.” Is it achievable? “Aye, definitely, 100 per cent, no doubt about that.”

And please notice, media-training tutors, the complete absence of mights and maybes in that statement.