Mick Delaney has been saving souls at Grenfell Tower for nearly 20 years.
Last Tuesday Delaney locked the doors at the Dale Youth boxing club after a session with the senior boxers at the gym inside the block just before ten at night, drove home and found out at five in the morning that it was all gone.
At 3am last Wednesday Gary McGuinness walked from his home to stand and stare and watch the tower block burn, listening to the screams and he knew instantly the Dale Youth gym was gone and he needed to find a new home for the club. "We lost it all."
Delaney has been at the club nearly 30 years, McGuinness for the last 13 and between the two boxing coaches they have worked with dozens of champions at all levels including Olympic gold medal winner James DeGale and current world champion George Groves.
However, the real story is not the famous fighters, the millionaires now living a safe distance from the streets near the gym, but the thousands of boxers they worked with in obscurity long before the fire damned the tower to a blackened tomb. One or two old boxers came out from flats and stood with McGuinness; they all knew they were watching people they knew die. "It's sick, it's sick any way you look at it," said McGuinness.
A week on and in Wednesday's fading sun a hundred or so local residents, current Dale Youth boxers and a few professional boxers gathered on a green to talk, hit the pads and see with their own eyes the boys and men they had been with in the gym just the week before. The charred block, no longer a tourist curiosity but now an agonising reminder of increasing loss, was a distant backdrop to the happy mood on the green at White City.
Dale Youth moved back into Grenfell Tower last November after a two-year break for refurbishment. "They tarted it up, stuck the cladding on, but there were pipes everywhere," said one of the dads on the green. He was a plumber, he knew his gas pipes. The club had moved from a local hall dubbed the "morgue" into a ground floor space at Grenfell Tower in 1999 or possibly 2000. Nobody seemed to know for certain - it's a boxing club and not a records office.
Delaney had champions straight away, a mix of kids of all sizes, quality and colours, from the traveller site under the West Way to the blocks and low-level flats on the estate. This was not a leafy extension of the surrounding grand gardens and five nights each week Delaney and McGuinness grafted to make the club one of the best in Britain. Delaney liked to sweep it clean before and after sessions. "I bought him a massive, fancy broom," joked Groves. The broom, the ring, the bags, the gloves and fifty years of memorabilia vanished within the flames last week. "Let's be honest, that's nothing compared to what other people lost," said Delaney.
There is a plan now to move back to their old temporary home - a converted segment of an underground car park - for the start of the next boxing season. It's not a disaster, but it is not ideal and various luminaries from inside the amateur sport are looking at kinder, more permanent premises for the great club.
The club lost a great supporter in Tony Disson, whose three sons - Harry, Alfie and Charlie - went through the gym. Tony died in his flat on the 22nd floor. He's the man that broke so many trampled hearts last week when he called a friend from inside his burning flat and told him: "Tell my boys that I love them." The fighting Disson boys, for a variety of reasons, were missing from the green.
The gathering on Wednesday evening, outdoors and without a ring was perfect in many ways and reminded me of something Groves had said at last year's opening of the new gym. "Men like Mick Delaney can train fighters on a bit of wasteland - they don't need fancy bags and new rings." A man called Lee Easton, who organised the event, told me that he had collected about 40 sets of gloves. It's a start for the men that are now homeless like the hundreds of others that survived.
"You know the sort of people they were?" A woman with a son at the gym asked me as I left. "They were the kind of people who don't fucking complain. Not a word, poor fuckers." I did know that and I also knew that Mick and Gary, and other coaches over the decades, had taken in a few lost souls and helped them find a voice. Hopefully, they will get a chance soon to start again and Groves has promised to give Delaney a new broom.
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