Historic Sheffield boxing club fighting for survival after becoming ‘caretakers’ of crumbling building

One of the city’s oldest boxing clubs is fighting for survival after Sheffield Council made it “caretakers” of a crumbling building and “put one obstacle in front of another”.

Paul Watson, head coach of St Vincent’s Boxing Club, is guiding us through the derelict former Victorian school building on 217 Crookesmoor Road he dreamed would one day be a thriving hub of opportunity for some of the most disadvantaged people in Sheffield.

As we walk through corridors with peeling and cracked walls to ruined rooms scattered with rubbish he paints a picture of how things could have been here.

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Trade professionals and teachers were lined up to teach new skills and educate people. Plans were also in place for coffee mornings for mental health at its own cafe, counselling, elderly activities and childcare. They had financial backing from Sport England, too.

St Vincent\'s Boxing Club on Crookesmoor Road St Vincent\'s Boxing Club on Crookesmoor Road
St Vincent\'s Boxing Club on Crookesmoor Road

These initiatives and more would have helped hundreds of people and made the club millions of pounds to invest back into the community, Paul said.

But after more than a decade of obstacles it still sits in a dilapidated state only made better than before by the club giving it everything.

The ordeal nearly cost Paul his life multiple times, he said as he held back tears.

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“What this could have been here doesn’t bear thinking about and what [the council] has done to Sheffield is take away something that would have been really good,” he said. “It would have changed this whole community. It’s ridiculous.”

The saga has also gutted the club of its funds. The club estimates it left them hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket and cost Sport England tens of thousands of pounds.

Paul said: “We would have been one of the only ones in the country to do this and now it’s just gone to pot. There is nothing left. [The council] has ruined the place. All the great ideas and everything that I had are just gone.”

More than boxing

St Vincent’s Boxing Club saw decades of success at its previous home above St Vincent’s Catholic Men’s Club on Solly Street, West Bar, until it was forced to move due to redevelopment in the area in 2013.

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It has trained champions since the 1800s but only had two fights in the past three years because they have nowhere to train properly.

Although boxing is at the heart of what the club does, it is only one part of it.

Paul, who has coached since he was 17 and took over running the club from his father, has given everything to it – even taking kids from low income backgrounds for trips to watch football and providing them with food and kit.

“It’s not just about boxing, it’s about being part of their lives,” he said.

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The club is like a second home for those who train there, many of whom come from deprived areas such as Parson’s Cross, Manor, Upperthorpe, Broomhall and Pitsmoor.

Former councillor John Booker, who has long been involved with the club, said: “Boxing is a universal language and an extended family. People don’t realise that. It’s not about sparring, if people want to do that they can later on. It’s about exercise, teaching what is right and wrong, respecting each other – it’s a family. People hear boxing and they think it’s people fighting.”

Richard Schenk, a former boxer at the gym, said: “Paul would often go above and beyond the norm for a coach; his whole life would revolve around the boxers he trained. He would use his own money to make nutritious meals for me, drive me up and down the country to boxing shows no matter how far or at what time. His home was always open; if I or any of the other boxers needed somewhere to go he would always be there for us.

“He made us all a family of sorts, St. Vincent’s meant something more than a gym to us because of Paul’s hard work.”

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Journalist Danny Armstrong, who became Yorkshire Champion under Paul’s tutelage, said Paul gave the utmost support to his boxing and university studies and he owes his success to him.

He said: “Sheffield needs people like Paul and his gym, which are hubs he creates for people of all ages to learn and grow and only charging basic subs and putting in petrol and often food money from his own pocket.

“It’s a shame Sheffield Council doesn’t match Paul’s investment by investing in the gym which has been a home from home for students and city kids alike.”

What went wrong

The club kept a list of what went wrong since it moved into 217 Crookesmoor Road which included problems with doors and windows, gas and electric getting turned off, water and asbestos, among others.

“From day one we have had nothing but hassle,” Paul said.

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Early on there was misunderstanding over asbestos in the building. The club said the council did not give them a clear answer on whether there was asbestos but after six months of using the site, they discovered there was. It cost them around £17,000 to remove it. Paul said it would have cost the council £60,000.

In another case, a couple of weeks after telling the council they intended to leave they found the building professionally broken into and things like flooring, electric, cables, copper, plugs and a boiler system stripped out. There was no mess made and valuables like metal were left. They suspected the council was involved, although the council neither confirmed nor denied this.

The club said it was promised help by the council including a no interest £150,000 loan and £60,000 in compensation but it never received a penny. Instead, it feels the council cost it money.

At one point the council encouraged the club to move to Shiregreen to save the working men’s club featured in the Full Monty film. They estimated the costs to total around £40,000 a year.

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“How could we afford that? When I said no to that it just got worse again,” Paul said. “It’s been never ending since day one, they have made my life hell.

“The [council] has done nothing but put one obstacle in front of another, then when they get to the end of it, they start again – to the point where it nearly cost me my life.

“All they cared about was ‘we’ll have them as caretakers for free then we’ll knock it down and turn it into flats’.”

Responding to the allegations, councillor Zahira Naz, chair of the council’s policy committee, said: “We know that St Vincent’s Boxing Club strives to deliver benefits within the local community and that it has an important role to play.

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“We have been having discussions with the club for some time. We acknowledge that the complaints are serious in nature, and we will investigate them fully.

“To carry out our duties in relation to the building and the club, we will continue to discuss all of the property and asset matters with them to resolve this situation as quickly as possible.”

Three weeks after making this statement, the council confirmed there were still no updates.

The club feels it has reached an impasse with the Crookesmoor Road building and there is talk of developers turning it into flats, although no planning application for this appears on the council’s planning portal yet.

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Appetite for what St Vincent’s offers remains strong and the club continues to run sessions at a new site in High Green with more than 100 people signed up but the saga of Crookesmoor Road still hangs over the team’s heads.

Going forward, Paul wants the council to deliver on its promises and pay up.

He said: “I want Sheffield Council to do what they said they would do and fulfil their promises. They promised to pay us time and time again and we haven’t heard from them for over a year and they haven’t given us a penny. It’s disgusting.”