Interview: Philip McCullough on Graeme Irwin’s retirement

Team Ireland MXoN manager Philip McCullough has been a key part of Graeme Irwin’s career with the former multi-time Irish and Ulster champ bringing Irwin into his Moto One KTM team at the age of 15 and guiding him to his first adult championship in Ireland as well as the British MXY2 title.

From there Philip kept a keen interest in Graeme’s career as Irwin moved full-time to England and then the MXGP world championship. Then, in the last couple of years Philip was team manager for Irwin again, this time for team Ireland, giving McCullough extra insight into Irwin in the prime of his motocross career and a great perspective on the journey Irwin went on from schoolboy talent to Irish then British champion and eventually a world championship rider.

We spoke with Philip to get his view on what Graeme Irwin achieved in his career and how hard he worked to make it happen.

Philip what were your thoughts on hearing the official news of Graeme retiring from motocross, both as a friend of Graemes but also as Ireland team manager?

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Rumour had it that this might be happening but I kept hoping for Graeme’s sake as a racer and a really good friend that this wouldn’t be the case. But as news broke yesterday, the day came and he had to make the decision that his career in motocross is over. It was a very sad day for Irish motocross, British motocross and world motocross.

Obviously he is the best we have in Northern Ireland at the minute, it is a massive blow for himself and his family. I know the work he has put in to get where he is today and my thoughts are with Graeme and his family.

It almost felt like a bereavement, I was really gunked and really disappointed for Graeme. His motocross career might be finished but I would say there is still a lot more to come from Graeme Irwin.

You brought him into your team out of the schoolboys in 2007 into the Ulster and Irish championships when he was 15 and he was challenging his teammate Wayne Garrett for race wins by the end of the year! What did you see in him at that age to sign him and how was he to work with?

I retired from racing in 2006 and I wanted to get somebody that could take over the mantle that I was leaving. I had Wayne Garrett in the team and he was very successful, I think Wayne was 22 or 23 at that time, then I got Graeme onboard when he was 15. The work ethic I saw from him as a 15 year old, I’ve yet to see anything close to it. He used to cycle 18 or 20 miles to my house ( on a mountain bike) almost every day to go to the gym, now there’s not many 15 year olds with a work ethic like that! The determination he had, his ability on the bike was never questioned, obviously there were a few sharp corners that we needed to round off for him.

Irwin on the gas at just 15 years old riding for McCullough’s Moto One KTM team Pic: Paul McCready

But the work ethic, determination, ability on the bike and the character he is, Graeme Irwin has so much charisma about him. He has an aura and a personality about him that epitomises everything that is needed to become a world class motocross rider and that’s been evident in the last few years when he really shone.

In 2007 he started in Grade B and by the end of that season he was winning grade A races, and he won the British MXY2 championship for me in 2007. We then switched to TAS Suzuki where again Graeme excelled in the Ulster motocross (wining the Ulster championship), he cut his teeth in the British championship scene and the big teams came knocking at the door and he went there.

It took him a few years, he was maybe in the wilderness for a few years, but he was very young and it was a learning curve, within a few years he was at the top in the British championships, he wasn’t British champion then but he was at the top of the game and challenging for race wins, he maybe had a bit of inconsistency but that came with age.

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One thing I admire, Graeme Irwin wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He wasn’t one of these young kids whose family were multi-millionaires and could just do what he wanted to do. Graeme worked his butt off, his mother and father supported him as much as possible and at that time Graeme actually lived with me (07/08) for a few years and I looked after him like son.

Even me talking about it now, it’s quite emotional. I have had a great relationship with Graeme, we have had our differences but everybody does in this sport, but he is a true gentleman and a great family man also. I can only wish Graeme all the best in his future.

I remember you saying in his first or second year on your team that he rode a 450 on your track and you said he was going to be a better 450 rider than a 250 rider, and that’s where he ultimately won his British championship and ran in the top 15 at world level, what did you see that made you think he would be better on the 450?

I think the ability and his fitness. His fitness was going to make him head and shoulders above everyone else, the work he put into his riding, his preparation was second to none. I worked hard, very hard but I didn’t have the ability Graeme Irwin had, I worked hard to achieve to what I achieved in my career but that is nothing to what Graeme has achieved.

I believe the move to Dave Thorpe was a massive influence on his career, there still were a few rough edges with Graeme but when he switched to Dave Thorpe’s team I really saw Graeme Irwin flourish under Dave’s wing and that’s where he really set himself alight. He made himself available and then made the switch to KTM because Dave wasn’t running a Grand Prix team.

I believe one of his biggest influences has to be Dave Thorpe because there was only a little tuning needed to be done when Dave got Graeme. It was Dave who did the ultimate job when he got Graeme and made Graeme great and that little bit special compared to anyone else in the paddock.

Irwin riding for team Ireland in 2017 as the new British champ on the Buildbase Honda

From a team Ireland manager’s perspective it’s not an ideal situation you are in without Graeme, I guess it gives a lot of guys a lot of motivation but they have big boots to fill now!

No one in this country is guaranteed a spot on the Motocross of Nations team but a fit Graeme Irwin would always ultimately be my first name on the list when it comes to selecting my three riders. But again, I spoke to Graeme at the Belfast Arenacross last month and I got few thoughts together with him. Graeme will still be a massive part of the team Ireland Motocross of Nations team, not as a rider but Graeme’s influence and personality, that was missed quite badly by myself and the team in Red Bud this year.

At Maggoria and Matterley Basin, the influence he has with the other riders and people around him, the charisma he brings is amazing and testimony to the human being he is. I have no doubt Graeme will play quite a big part, I have a few ideas this year, and I hope to have Graeme on-board to help. With the ideas I have in my head I think Graeme will be a great influence on making this happen. Hopefully Graeme will take me up on the offer and I have no doubt if his diary is free he will be in Assen, Holland with team Ireland, maybe not as a rider unfortunately but he will play a part within the team.