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Anto Finnegan set a new benchmark with Saffrons

Anto led by example for Antrim, but is now serving as an inspirational figure for us all

By Declan Bogue

Anto Finnegan flies in through the door of the BT Tower, all business. He smiles, greets you and asks if you can wait there until he throws in a few tickets to some workmates for tonight's 'Game for Anto', between Dublin and an Ulster selection.

He's still smiling. Five years after the diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease and the only physical manifestation of the ailment is a slight loss of function with his arms, although he manages most things.

Unfair, all the same.

When he was winding down his football career with Antrim and St Paul's, his wife bought him a touring bike. He started a running club in BT. Every Monday they would cover eight miles at lunchtime, flying their way up to Belvoir Park and beyond.

"The guys were all tri-athletes. That would have been the natural progression," he says softly.

Fate dealt him a different hand, and by the time he went public last year with his MND he had everything in place with his deterMND foundation, designed in order to raise awareness of the condition which gradually robs the sufferer of all muscle function.

By this stage, Finnegan has outlasted the prognosis of five years, having first noticed symptoms in 2009.

"I think my level of fitness has stood by me," he says in the lobby of the nearby Hilton Hotel. The year his symptoms first appeared, he underwent a cycle to Donegal, 135 miles over two days. Even last year after he went public, he completed it.

As a young man he played everything. An English PE teacher at his Christian Brothers School introduced him to the delights of rugby. He loved Friday nights in the hall playing badminton, the sharpness and alertness of it all.

In soccer, he played in the Irish League for Omagh Town and Ballyclare Comrades. He hurled for Antrim.

But it was as a forceful back for Lamh Dearg, St Paul's and Antrim that made him famous, or rather infamous as his generation sought to arrest a losing streak in the Ulster Championship that went back to a one-point win over Cavan in 1981.

"You know yourself as a reporter," he smiles, "Press nights are held two or three weeks beforehand and the same questions were being asked year on year, the only thing different was the numbers. 'It's been 16 years since a win… 17 years… 18 years…' I used to answer that every year!

"But it was a common question and as a player there were two ways to look at it; there was a frustration in that. The players were working as hard as in other counties so it wasn't through a lack of trying that we were in that position."

Under Brian White and Hugh McGettigan they finished the tail end of 1999 with an All-Ireland B. That campaign began with a win over Leitrim and an unexpected responsibility for Finnegan.

He recalls: "Brian had called the squad together. At that stage the squad were allowed to gather and the All-Ireland B was played through November and December. I remember my wife was pregnant with our son, so we were in Sligo for the weekend and we were playing Leitrim in the first round.

"Anyway, when I met up with them, Brian spoke to me and asked me would I take on the role as captain of the team for that year. That was my first time captaining Antrim and I accepted it right away."

They would go on to beat Fermanagh - previous winners two years before - in the final in Casement. For once, an Antrim captain got to hoist a piece of silverware to the sky. Fitting that it was Finnegan.

"As a team afterwards in the changing rooms, we looked around the players in our team and felt it was an opportunity for us to be much better," he says.

But the message from White and McGettigan was that it was all about June with Ulster finalists Down coming to Casement for the Ulster Championship quarter-final.

"When it happened it was just a great relief," recalls Finnegan of the win. "That I was captain, you actually felt privileged to be in that position."

A few seasons later, they turned over Cavan in another shock, and that was important for them not to let another rot set in.

He explains: "Nine years on from beating Down, Antrim were in an Ulster final. No matter what way you look at it, that's progress. I would like to think that era of players in 2009, we were a sort of catalyst for them."

That team from a generation ago still keep in close contact. Last year, they made it to the final of a charity sevens tournament in Brewster Park and knocked serious fun out of it. White was manager, assisted by Anto on the sidelines.

Every Christmas, they still meet up for drinks, closer than many more illustrious county teams would ever hope to be.

"It's probably just having that shared experiences of what the team achieved in their own small way over those two or three years when they were together as a group," Finnegan reflects.

They will be there tonight in the Kingspan as well. Old friends and opponents such as Joe Brolly, Ross Carr, Shane King and all the others. The Down team of 1994 will mark 20 years since their All-Ireland triumph by being introduced to the crowd.

Lamh Dearg - his original club - will play a mini-sevens game against St Paul's. There will also be the equivalent in the rugby code. It's an evening for everyone.

"We have cross-community schools, we have rugby clubs, we have a raft of people from all parts of society coming along to support an event that I see as something much, much bigger than a GAA game. There's so much more to it than that, it's the Northern Ireland community coming together in support of a condition that is terminable," he says.

The workload for such events is manic, but Anto hasn't allowed it to take over at home. The 41-year-old says: "I believe in keeping as much a sense of normality as possible. My wife and I would never really set out plans in that regard.

"In relation to how I think and how I deal with stuff, nothing has changed too much. We enjoy our holidays with our children and then the activities that we want to do with the trust, so that it has minimal impact on home life."

Last weekend, he got along to the Waterfront for the 'Holy Holy Bus' play, by his neighbour Pearse Elliott. Life just continues as normal.

He adds: "In relation to clarity, it's probably focused me a bit more than I was before but not to the point where it has become an obsession.

"The small things become really, really insignificant now. I just don't waste any time on them."

There is an old proverb that says, 'It is in the shelter of each other that people live.' Never will it be more apt than tonight in east Belfast.

The 'Game for Anto' between the Ulster All Stars and Dublin will take place at 6pm on Saturday, November 15 in aid of deterMND. Tickets £10 available from ticketmaster.co.uk or group bookings at www.deterMND

Belfast Telegraph

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