Two men I richly admired died last weekend. They had no obvious connection other than I was lucky enough to meet both of them twice. John Challis played Boycie in Only Fools and Horses and Anto Finnegan played Down off the field in Casement Park.
I remember being there that championship Sunday. I was fuelled with red and black pride, confident of another victory over Antrim, but Anto had other ideas. He starred and his team won.
Anto was a born leader. He was fit, confident and intelligent. John Challis was a born comedian. He was witty, confident and intelligent.
A perfect blend of confidence and cleverness gives everyone a head start in life.
It doesn’t matter whether you are an athlete or an actor, a banker or a builder, you need confidence to be good at what you do and the intelligence to know that people you meet will only be impressed if you’re smart enough not to be a smart Alec.
John and Anto were like that. Anto was a much better footballer than me, but when we met he wanted to talk about the club I played for, the medals I won and the players I played with.
He was generous with his time and it was obvious he knew how the game should be played.
He was as gifted and stylish as he was solid and strong. For such an athlete to be struck by motor neurone disease is cruel in the extreme.
Most people quite understandably would find it difficult to cope, but Anto took on the challenge and lived his years fighting the disease helping others in the same situation. It’s an overused word, but he was inspirational. The loss to his family and his community at just 48 is immense.
Unlike Anto, John lived well beyond his three score years and ten. A number of months ago in his late 70s, he sadly took ill and in the end died sooner than his friends expected. He was a regular visitor to Belfast and away from the on air chats and chuckles in the TV and radio studios he was a modest and friendly man.
He too had the good grace to show an interest in those less successful than himself and he never lost patience with fans asking for a display of the machine gun guffaw we associate with Boycie. He would throw his head back, laugh at absolutely nothing and leave us all in stitches.
As a fan, I was in awe of him. The sitcom is my unrivalled favourite television programme.
There is no doubt the main stars are Sir David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, but John Challis played a vital role in the success of Del Boy and Rodney.
You could argue a case for Trigger, Grandad, Uncle Albert, Cassandra or Raquel as the third in line, but for me it’s Boycie.
That may be because I met and spent time with John, or maybe it’s simply because I realise we have lost one of the best comic actors to grace our screens.
As for Anto, I know why I’m in awe of the life he lived. The strength and courage which made him an outstanding sportsman were the main features in how he coped with his illness.
He was a giant of generosity and positivity. It must have been so difficult for him at times, but his public face never showed anything other than hope and encouragement. His social media posts were concise and constructive.
He had the talent to strike the balance on a range of sometimes sensitive issues without causing controversy. If you’re ever asked to name an ideal sporting role model, it would do no harm to suggest Anto Finnegan.
I’m not sure if he liked Only Fools and Horses, but I try to imagine himself and John sharing a laugh as they met last weekend.
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