WHEN Frank Delaney reflects on the engineering apprenticeship he undertook with the National Coal Board’s Scottish division he refers to it as his “14 years at the coalface”.
Mining metaphors are never far away in a place like Shotts but, in Delaney’s case, they are unavoidable – he has been coaching boxers here for 35 years in the hope of striking gold.
A tour of Springhill Boxing Club yields an immediate insight into a life’s work that makes the 65-year-old flush with pride, particularly because he can see today that all the years of toil and struggle and trouble were worthwhile.
In April 2012, the club moved into its current premises, a well-lit old schoolhouse that had been lying vacant after temporary stints as a nursery and then an addiction centre. A wonderful spirit of collaboration between local boxing nuts who doubled as plumbers, blacksmiths and carpenters has led to the inexpensive construction of a high-class boxing gym, with a weights room funded by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and a Lottery grant doing the rest. When Delaney was young they used to train by “punching the wall” of a prefab hall up the road.
If you build it, success will come. By the end of 2012 Springhill BC had produced a World Youth Championships silver medal, courtesy of 18-year-old light-heavyweight Scott Forrest. And now Delaney is confident that he can send three boxers to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which happen to be taking place down the road in Glasgow. The timing could not have been sweeter and there is the beautiful sense that the veteran coach’s efforts are culminating all at once.
“When we came in this was an empty shell. I could show you pictures. But the good thing about it is that in the gym we’ve got guys who are blacksmiths, welders and joiners, and they all mucked in. We did it all ourselves,” says Delaney. “We got rubber flooring down which is good for their feet. Before it was just hard floor. We used to have a ring but it was just on the floor, a wee training ring, so we got it raised. It was actually a bit too high and we couldn’t use our mirrors, so we dropped it down a bit.
“I’ve been involved with Springhill for about 35 years. But we have waited for a long time for a really good facility like this. It’s night and day in terms of what we can do.
“We’ve got a good reputation now, in this club. Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve always had champions. But I think it’s the old cliche – success breeds success.
“I’ve said it for a long time, and especially around this area, the potential is there. It’s just that they don’t get the opportunities.”
Qualifying a boxer for the Commonwealth Games would not be a first for Delaney and Springhill. Super-heavyweight Ross Henderson competed in Delhi in 2010 and, in his part-time role of performance director for Boxing Scotland, Delaney travelled as a consultant.
Henderson is the blacksmith referred to above and, some mornings when he is waiting for paint to dry, he will ask his coach for a 9am session. “I don’t mind doing that because Ross is a gentleman. He’d do anything for you,” says Delaney, who hopes that Forrest and middleweight Kieran Smith will box with the big man for Team Scotland next summer.
Through bloody-minded perseverance and decades of self-education, Delaney has been able to get his charges this far. He is glad to report that his current crop have the attitude they need to go further, taking the fight to peers from England, Ireland and Eastern Europe who box full-time.
“These boys that I’ve got here now, they’re absolutely no problem at all. They’re first class in the training that they do, and the effort they put in, and you can depend on them. Kieran comes in here and he weighs himself and he gets himself spot-on every time,” he says. “They never cease to amaze me, especially Kieran and young Scott. There are times they go to tournaments and I think ‘that’s good, they are doing well, as long as they don’t get hurt and maybe win a couple of fights’. The next thing, they’re in the final. And the next thing, they win it.
“I’m thinking, ‘to be honest, I didn’t think you could have done that’. I didn’t think Scott would have got to the final of the World Championships. I thought he would have done well in it, but to win silver was a remarkable achievement. Kieran went to Russia and beat two Russians to win a gold medal. I can’t remember any Scottish boxers doing that before.”
Delaney has a lot of pictures on his wall at Springhill and some of the faces are famous: Dame Kelly Holmes, Joe Bugner, a youthful Ricky Burns.
They mingle with the faces of numerous prodigies who didn’t make it. Delaney tells three stories of young would-be champions who died about five decades too early. And it is because of Frank Delaney, and this club, that the more recent photographs feature boxers who can balance their talent with their ambition and the honest living they make.
The last of Shotts’ 22 coal mines was closed in the 1960s. Next year, Delaney might finally be granted his wish that the town cease to be known as a mining town and become synonymous with boxing.