Boxing champion Daryl Clarke barely mentions his impressive success in the ring as he talks about his beloved Monkstown Boxing Club.
Instead, the 24-year-old business graduate and boxing contender from the Commonwealth Games is excited about the training outside the ring that completely changed his life.
And he largely thanks one man, coach Paul Johnston, for giving them opportunities he says he never would have had without the guidance and support he found at the club.
Daryl is so indebted to Paul that he is now determined to follow in his footsteps in his role as a youth worker at the Newtownabbey gym.
“I fell in love with everything Paul and the club do with young people and to now be able to help others reach their potential in the way the club has helped me is really rewarding,” he said.
Daryl’s coach and mentor Paul (51) is no ordinary boxing club manager.
His incredible work with underprivileged children at the Newtownabbey club was recognized this month when he was awarded an MBE on the New Year Honors list.
A past winner of the Sunday Life Spirit of Sport award, he has helped hundreds of children like Daryl transform their lives.
The father of two girls, married to Kelly and living in Monkstown, has been a volunteer coach at the club for 34 years and gives free time to children in the evenings.
Nine years ago, he took on the role of project manager and introduced BoxClever, a program to build trust and improve the quality of life for young people in his community.
In particular, he wanted to address the high underachievement among schoolchildren in the area.
Paul introduced homework and breakfast clubs, sports-related internships and coaching sessions for children from Monkstown, Rathcoole and the surrounding areas.
Since its introduction in 2012, more than 1,000 young people have made use of the scheme.
And his protégé Daryl was one of the first kids to get through the plan, emerging as a shining example of the positive impact it has on young lives.
Daryl joined the club at age 13 as a child who was already abusing alcohol and struggling with anger issues.
He grew up in the Woodburn loyalist estate in Carrickfergus, where he said paramilitary influence on youth, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, was rife.
As the third child of four, he never believed that anyone around him could go to university.
His low self esteem changed when he joined the Monkstown Boxing Club.
He explains: “I had a lot of anger outbursts and my mother wanted me to get out and thought boxing would be a liberation.
“When I joined the club Stephen Ward had just won the Irish Championships and the training was world class and I have never looked back.
“Paul’s attitude from the start was to see how he could help with things that were going on in your personal life; it was just not all about the boxing.
“In the estate I came from, there was a lot of drug and alcohol use and paramilitary influence and I think the fact that I was always around there caused my anger because deep down I knew I didn’t want to.
“Many of my friends experimented with drugs and I drank alcohol on the weekends.
“I had no positive role models. Being surrounded by positive role models at the club, including people like Carl Frampton, who still drop by from time to time, really motivated me to leave the estate and change things.”
Daryl was one of the first children to participate in the new self-improvement classes introduced by Paul.
After training in the stake, he and a group of other children went to a nearby community center where they were mentored in self-development.
He says: “We’ve also done homes that really pushed us out of our comfort zones, things like climbing mountains and outdoor activities that are 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 because I never really believed in myself.”
With Paul’s encouragement, Daryl became the first in his family to attend college.
He completed his business studies at Ulster University and is now pursuing a master’s degree in youth studies, thanks to Paul’s support, while working full time with young people at the gym.
He says: “Growing up in my community you looked at either unemployment, cash or a profession, nobody thought they were smart enough to go to college.
“Paul taught me how important education was and he really pushed me. It was huge to be the first person in my family to go to university.”
Now as a youth leader at the gym, he is thrilled to be able to pass on what he has learned to children who come after him.
Daryl is part of a youthful team of eight at the club that now leads the youth classes.
He says: “This is such a positive place to be and when you come in it’s all about improving yourself and there are so many people supporting you to do that.
“The kids that come in have a lot of issues that I faced when I was younger and I can really empathize with them and it’s great to be able to pass on what I’ve learned.”
In addition to his youth work, 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 see if he has been selected to compete in this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
He adds: “My ambition is to make it to the Games and get a medal. I’m on the shortlist and if I’m elected it’s a great achievement.”
Like everyone at the club, Daryl is overjoyed that Paul has been awarded an MBE.
Paul did not hesitate to dedicate the credit 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 are doing at the club and the team I have around me who are doing this do a lot for the local community.
“My name may be on it, but it’s recognition of their hard work and I’m proud of the work we do at Monkstown.”
He added: “We would not be able to achieve what we are doing without the support of the National Lottery which has funded our work with young people.”