Tommy Donnelly was always in my corner: Charlie Nash

DERRY BOXING legend Charlie Nash says he will be forever indebted to the late Tommy Donnelly for his illustrious career, claiming he was ‘always in my corner’ both inside and outside the ring.

The late Tommy Donnelly (left) holds Charlie Nash's arm aloft after his European lightweight title victory in 1979. Trainer John Daly (right) is also pictured.
The late Tommy Donnelly (left) holds Charlie Nash's arm aloft after his European lightweight title victory in 1979. Trainer John Daly (right) is also pictured.

At St Columba’s Church, Long Tower on Friday last, Charlie bid a final farewell to the man who helped shape his career and saved him from taking ‘the wrong path’ in life after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when his brother Willie was tragically shot dead on the streets of Derry.

The hugely popular Tommy sadly passed away aged 84 and left behind a remarkable legacy among the local boxing fraternity and beyond.

The ‘charismatic’ Sloan’s Terrace native spent over 50 years coaching the ‘sweet science’ at St Mary’s Boxing Club, Creggan and later at the Ring Amateur Boxing Club in Rosemount.

A former postman, milkman and volunteer presenter DJ with local radio station ‘Drive 105’, the much-loved Tommy touched the lives of many including the hundreds of young Derry men who crossed the threshold of his boxing gym where he took pride in passing on his expertise.

He left an indelible mark on a remarkable stable of fighters whom he coached to national and international glory and particularly on the life of one of the city’s most famous boxers who credits him with keeping him ‘on the right side of the law’ during the dark days of the Troubles.

The 1972 Olympian, two-time European lightweight champion and world title contender first met Tommy as a curious 11 year-old kid when he walked through the doors of St. Mary’s Boxing Club in Creggan. It turned out to be one of Derry’s great collaborations as Charlie, with Tommy in his corner, went on to claim numerous amateur and professional titles including the accolade of becoming the first Derry boxer to win five national senior titles!

They shared many great memories together including Charlie’s famous EBU European lightweight title victory over Andre Holyk at a packed Templemore Sports Complex in 1979 and his stunning unanimous decision win over ex-world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan in Denmark the same year.

RIGHT HAND MAN . . Tommy Donnelly (right) pictured after Charlie Nash was crowned British lightweight champion.

Paying tribute to Tommy, the ex-Irish, British and European champion described him as a ‘father-figure’ and ‘mentor’, claiming he owes his remarkable success to his former trainer, manager and life-long friend.

“If it hadn’t been for Tommy and the boxing, God knows what way I would’ve turned out because I was so close to going down a different path,” explained the Creggan man. “The boxing, the training and the advice that Tommy and his fellow coach, John Daly, gave me kept me on the right side of the law. Tommy knew what to tell me to do. And whatever he told me to do, I did it.

“He was a great friend and my mentor. Without Tommy’s knowledge and without his dedication to me, I would probably have achieved very little. Tommy and Josie (Tommy’s wife) and their family, they were very much a part of our family and we’re still great friends. We will miss Tommy dearly.”

Recalling his first memories of Tommy, Charlie explained how he was instantly inspired by his coaching methods, words of encouragement and how he taught life-skills and respect to those in the club.

The late Tommy Donnelly pictured with, from left to right, his wife Josie, Charlie and Betty Nash.

“I went into St Mary’s at the age of 11 and Tommy was there. I told him I would just watch for a while but I wanted to join so he told me to come back the next night and he was there and got me involved. The training and coaching Tommy was doing which was very good even then. He always made sure if any of his boxers had a fight coming up that we would be really, really fit.

“As an amateur, when I was 19, I won the Irish Senior title and went to the European Championships in Madrid which was a big thing for anybody in Derry in boxing at the time. That was the start of my career and he was always in my corner in more ways than one.

“I went on to the Olympic Games in Munich and the ‘73 Europeans in Yugoslavia and the ‘75 Europeans in Poland. I was in the Irish national boxing team and had nearly 35 to 40 fights as an international boxer as well as going to those various championships.

“I got to the stage when I came back from the Europeans and I was married to Betty, we just had our first child and I told Tommy; ‘That’s me finished, I’m going to retire’. Tommy convinced me to become a professional boxer and I’m grateful to Tommy for helping me make that choice. Everything I did in my career and a lot of things outside the ring, I owe to Tommy. He wasn’t just my coach, he was more like a father figure.

CORNER MAN . . . Charlie Nash enters the ring at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow for his world title challenge against Jim Watt as Tommy Donnelly prepares his corner.

“One of my highlights with Tommy was winning the European title in Derry at the Sports Complex. It was all because of his training. I boxed an undefeated fighter who was the European champion. Tommy just told me, ‘Just go out and box and keep boxing. Don’t get involved in a punch up and take no chances’. John (Daly) was always there too and added a bit extra when I needed it.

“Never once did they give me anything to do that I wasn’t fit to do or that I didn’t want to do. Everything they told me to do, I did. I had great confidence in Tommy and John.”

The Nash and Donnelly families formed a strong relationship outside the sport and would go on regular holidays together, a bond which remains strong to this day.

“Tommy’s wife, Josie and my wife, Betty actually worked together in the shirt factory years ago,” explained Charlie. “His two daughters, Lorraine and Bernadette and his young fella Brian, we all went to holidays together,” he recalls fondly.

“Not only was he my coach and manager, he was also a great friend and Josie is a great friend of my wife. The two families grew up together and they were very enjoyable times with Tommy and his family.”

Former world middleweight title contender John Duddy, his father Micky, former Irish senior bantamweight champion Damien McDermott, Paddy Ferguson and Mark Owens were among the conveyor belt of talent which emerged from Tommy’s stable of boxers and Charlie reckons Tommy set many young Derry men on the right path during a difficult time in the city’s history.

The late Tommy Donnelly was a long time volunteer on Drive 105.

“A lot of the boxers that Tommy produced went on to become international boxers. We had some great fighters. There’s quite a few boxers who came through the Ring Boxing Club who would tell you that everything they achieved as a boxer and a lot of things in life outside of boxing was because they listened to Tommy’s advice. He has produced some fine champions and I think he would be proud of the work he’s done and the work that’s been carried on by myself, Damien McDermott and Mark Owens at Ring Boxing Club.

“It’s just very sad now that Tommy’s not here anymore because I would’ve loved him to be here to see our boxing club now and how it’s going up in Brooke Park where he kept it going for many years. Tommy gathered up a lot of knowledge of boxing and kept passing that on. He passed it on to me as a coach and I’ve been coaching now since 1984 since I retired as a boxer.

“If it hadn’t been for Tommy, my boxing career wouldn’t have been the same.”