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Anto Finnegan calls for local fans to get shirty

By John Campbell

Former Antrim ace Anto Finnegan wants to see the new Kingspan Stadium in Belfast transformed into a sea of colour tomorrow week - and not just the colour of one team in particular.

The eagerly-awaited 'Match for Anto' which will see a star-studded Ulster XV take on Dublin with all the proceeds going towards helping to fund research into motor-neurone disease, now promises a rare occurrence in the sporting life of the province.

"I want to see people who follow soccer clubs, people who follow Ulster rugby and GAA fans all coming in the jerseys of their beloved teams and standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder at what I feel will be a terrific sporting occasion," states Anto.

"I think this will be a unique event. It is not just a GAA occasion - it is a match of which everyone can feel part and indeed play a part in by their support and enthusiasm. I would just love to see every possible shade of jersey on display - I know that, in the true spirit of the occasion, no one will take exception to what anyone else is wearing."

Cross-fertilisation between the major sports in Ulster has been more pronounced in recent years and major initiatives in this respect have been enthusiastically embraced by the Ulster Branch IRFU, the IFA and the Ulster Council GAA.

Now Anto, who gave magnificent service to Antrim and who, despite his battle with motor neurone disease, still remains a shining light in terms of enthusiasm and passion for the Saffrons, believes that tomorrow week's game can set down a further marker on the road to progress in the province.

"I think sport can be a great unifying influence and I have no doubt that this will be very much in evidence at the Kingspan Stadium. Ulster team manager Joe Kernan is already formulating his team and I can promise that spectators will see the cream of talent from this part of the world on show," he adds.

While some high-profile players will be absent because of the fact that the International Rules squad will depart for Australia next week, confirmation has already been provided that the Ulster side will be particularly strong.

"All the players who have been approached are fully committed to the game and I think it will be a truly awesome spectacle to see the game played out against a backdrop of colour provided by followers of many sporting teams but who for one night will be united under one banner," states Anto.

NEW Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimmons is preparing to make his competitive debut in the forthcoming Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup - and he can hardly believe the level of initial commitment he is getting from his players.

Prior to his appointment, there were indications, including strong anecdotal evidence, that a number of players were unwilling to pledge themselves to the county cause for a variety of reasons.

But Fitzsimmons, who was up until recently the manager of the Lamh Dhearg club, has not only found there is a marked willingness on the part of players to embrace his plans for the future but to share in his belief that Antrim can put recent disappointments firmly behind them.

Fitzsimmons, clearly keen to see a new era dawn for the Saffrons, makes it clear, too, that the door will remain open for players to join his squad up until the start of the Allianz League at the end of January.

"There are still a number of fine footballers in Antrim and the most encouraging factor from our viewpoint as a management team is that no one has turned us down and said they weren't coming on board when we approached them in terms of their availability," points out Fitzsimmons, whose father Frank snr is a former Antrim mentor.

"We are really looking forward to getting to work with them all. It has all been very, very positive from the word go for me and my backroom team. Long may it continue to be so.

"We will be starting our collective training on Saturday week but we have plans to look at a lot more players. We have spoken with various team managers and we have been taking in a number of matches recently including games involving the university sides."

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