Belfast Telegraph

We must unite for brave Anto Finnegan

Forget the politics and sporting allegiances... let's rally together in support of Finnegan

By Declan Bogue

The first time I met Anto Finnegan in person, I didn't quite know what I was doing. And he knew even less.

As the sole employee of a now-defunct Ulster GAA magazine in 2002, we had concocted a monthly kit give-away and north Belfast club Pearses were the first recipients. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to ask then-Antrim captain Finnegan if he would present it on our behalf.

It turned out to be a ropey operation. We were due to meet club representatives at what is known as the 'Cricky', a scrap of public land that was something approximating three-quarters of a Gaelic football pitch, directly opposite Cliftonville's home ground, Solitude.

Nowadays it is a fine, all-weather facility. Back then, not so much.

I reminded Finnegan of this episode yesterday when we met and he soon jogged my memory, reminding me that the gates were locked and we were forced into climbing over the barbed wire, encouraged by some Pearses clubmen who said it was a nightly occurrence.

Several underage players were hanging about, swapping banter in that natural, forceful way that comes so easily to some Belfast children. Another asked his mate who the man in the Antrim fleece was before one of the bigger boys dressed him down for not knowing who the Antrim captain was.

No, there wasn't much glamour involved in being an Antrim player then. But still, he spelt out what his service of over a decade to his county meant to him.

"There are so many who give up their weekends to help out, to volunteer and give their time to stage the games. I was no different," he said yesterday.

"I just see it as something I would have done anyway. I thought it was a privilege to play for my county no matter what my county achieved. To me, that's a side issue."

They had their own victories along the way, such as that glorious summer of 2000 when anything in the world seemed possible to the footballers of Antrim as they were denied passage to an Ulster final by 'The Swatragh Skyscraper' Anthony Tohill clawing a Sheeny McQuillan free down from the crossbar.

There was the 1999 All-Ireland B final as well, when they beat Fermanagh in front of their own supporters in Casement Park. And don't forget a shock win over Cavan in the 2003 Championship.

Last year, I was part of an organising committee that hosted a Sevens tournament between each Ulster county, with the aim of raising funds for the sick son of former Fermanagh player, Colm Bradley.

Of all the teams that arrived, Antrim gave the least hassle, although their journey was more than most. Kevin Madden assured me they would be there and they travelled in numbers.

They showed up as potential winners, most of their players remaining in impressive shape. However, it seemed odd to notice that Finnegan, their warrior with aggressive energy, was alongside manager Brian White on the sideline.

He fielded questions all day about his non-participation with a smile and a funny remark. Nine weeks later, he revealed his diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

Most people wondered if he would pull through. Surely he would, because isn't he healthy and wasn't he full of courage as a footballer?

Sadly, as he had to inform people, there is no pulling through. It's a condition that just gets worse and worse.

Around 150 people in Northern Ireland have the condition. Finnegan has been the driving force in establishing deterMND, a foundation with the aim of raising awareness of MND and of researching the causes and possible cures.

A number of different fundraisers have already been staged, but this Saturday is the grandest in ambition as Dublin come to Belfast to play an Ulster selection made of great players from the past and present.

Let's not be coy. There are a number of people from the Unionist tradition who are uncomfortable about the trappings of Gaelic games.

The anthem of Amhrán na bhFiann. The flying of an Irish tricolour. The names of certain clubs.

Saturday night's game is an opportunity to see a game of Gaelic football at the home of Ulster Rugby, at the Kingspan Stadium. It carries no other agenda, other than being a fantastic cause.

If you are wavering about going, don't. Just get along. You will surprise yourself. Just like Antrim back in 2000.

Belfast Telegraph

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