GAA Football

Anto Finnegan remembers the day Antrim toppled Down to end 18 years of hurt

Antrim captain Anto Finnegan played the shirt off his back when the Saffrons beat Down in 2000

‘ANTO, it’s 14 years since Antrim last won an Ulster Championship match…’

‘Anto, it’s 15 years since Antrim won an Ulster Championship game. Could this be the year?’

‘Anto, it’s now 16 years since…’

‘It has been 17 years…’

Anto Finnegan remembers Antrim’s Championship press nights. They were like Groundhog Day.

The press guys would turn up at Casement Park a week or two before Antrim entered the Ulster Championship and ask the same question year after year.

On June 20, 1999 Antrim had lost yet another first round game in the Ulster Championship, this time to Down in Newry. Finnegan had been part of the Antrim panel since 1994 and just about had his fill of first round defeats.

“From my own personal point of view, at the end of ’99, I was thinking of jacking it in,” he says.

“I was 27. I just felt as if I had more to give at club level. For a couple of years there didn’t seem to be that commitment [in Antrim] that I wanted to see.

“Alison and I had just got married, we had a baby on the way, I was going back to university as a mature student to do a masters degree. I’d just so much going on and Antrim was slipping down my list of priorities.

“When you’re going to watch Antrim from a very young age and you’re going to Championship matches every year and they’re not getting past the first round, and then you start playing and the same thing is happening…”

Losing to Down at the Marshes in ’99 was another one of those games that “got away”.

A moment of indecision in the seventh minute between Antrim defenders Martin Mulholland and Finnegan allowed the great Mickey Linden to nip in to tuck the ball past Donard Shannon in goal.

The visitors rallied in the second half and put the Mournemen under pressure but they couldn’t quite reel in the 1994 All-Ireland champions.

Around October ’99, Finnegan had one foot out the door when he got a call from former minor manager Brian White.

The charismatic O’Donovan Rossa man was asked to pull the county seniors out of a hole and manage the team for the upcoming ‘B’ Championship campaign that ran up until early December.

‘Whitey’ could charm the birds from the trees and managed to persuade Finnegan to give him a few more months.

“Okay Brian, I’ll give you a couple of months,’ said Finnegan.

A short time passed and after discussing it with his side-kicks JC Devlin and Hugh McGettigan, White handed Finnegan the captaincy.

Just when he thought he was getting out, they pulled him back in again.

It was clear the all-action St Paul’s defender wouldn’t be retiring in December after all.

The Saffrons put a run together in the All-Ireland ‘B’ and on December 5 they defeated Fermanagh to lift the title at a rainy Casement Park.

The light-footed Kevin Madden bagged 1-4 and big midfielder Joe Quinn hit the other goal for Antrim as they held out to win 2-10 to 1-10.

In those bitter winter months, White and his management team had dug the foundations that would lead to them beating Down in the Ulster Championship seven months later.

Eleven of the Antrim team that lifted the ‘B’ Championship faced Down in front of 18,000 supporters at Casement Park on June 20.

“That winning habit we’d built up before December in winning the ‘B’ Championship and then we’d a strong National League that season compared to previous years put us in a good frame of mind,” Finnegan recalls.

“And there was good harmony in the panel and that was all down to Brian and the backroom staff.

“We’d no injuries going into the Down game. It was the perfect storm, really.”

It was during that time the Ulster Council decided to pair the same teams for two years running. Finnegan would again be tasked with shadowing Linden.

“Although Mickey was one of the elder statesmen of the Down team he was still pivotal in their play.

“So, Brian asked me would I pick him up. He says: ‘Wherever he goes just follow him’. Mickey was an exceptional footballer. He was one of the best I ever seen never mind play against, a phenomenal footballer. It was a privilege to be asked to mark him.”

Finnegan was used to being given onerous man-marking assignments at club and county level.

When St Paul’s reached the Ulster Club Championship in ’97, he shadowed Ballyshannon and Donegal ace Brian Roper before marking Dungiven and Derry star Joe Brolly in the semi-finals.

“I’d done it before. At the end of the day, you play football to test yourself against the best.”

Dessie Reynolds was an Antrim stalwart and larger than life itself. Everybody around Casement knew Dessie. He’d helped Brian White with the county minors and supported Antrim through thick and thin.

Dessie was diagnosed with a terminal illness and only had a few months to live in 2000. It wasn’t planned but Dessie had asked to address the players in the changing room before they emerged to face Down.

“I always remember seeing Dessie around Casement at games,” Finnegan says.

“You always heard him. He’d a big presence. I remember him coming into the changing rooms and I hadn’t seen him in a while.

“I thought to myself: ‘That’s not the Dessie I remember’. It’s hard to remember every detail when you’re going out to the pitch, but I remember as a team when Dessie walked out of the changing room there was a silence among us as players and we sort of looked across the room at each other and we thought today is the day that we wanted to do something for Dessie and people in the county like Dessie, who’d supported us through thick and thin. It would be beautiful to be able to do something on that day and give him the win.”

By 2000, Pete McGrath’s Down team were past their best – but they were still expected to outclass the gutsy Saffrons.

For Antrim it was, quite literally, the perfect storm at Casement Park.

“My abiding memory was the adverse weather,” says Finnegan.

“We did our warm-up at Lamh Dhearg and Hugh McGettigan was going around putting sun cream on people in case we got dehydrated. Then it got overcast just before the game and just before half-time there was thunder and lightning and hail stones, which I think worked to our advantage on the day because Down played some really nice football.

“But once it got a bit wet and slippery, it suited us because we played in a lot of games that year in Division Four, all over the country and through the winter, we played the All-Ireland ‘B’ up to December, and it was a case of dragging results out in not great conditions.

“In the second half there was a lot of missed catches and breaking balls and they just came our way. Maybe it was because we were working that wee bit harder.

“I think we just outplayed them in the second half and then Sean McGreevy saved Gregory McCartan’s penalty which was a key moment in the game.”

The tension was palpable in Casement. Could Antrim get over the line and finally win a Championship match?

In those final, nerve-shredding minutes, Finnegan never had any doubts.

“I certainly didn’t feel nervous. I can’t speak for the other members of the panel. From a fan’s point of view – and I’ve been there as a fan – you were always thinking: ‘Antrim have been here before’, and they’ve been let down before. And that’s probably what some of the crowd were feeling.

“But coming into the last 10 minutes of the game, and seeing the way the team was playing and our energy levels, I didn’t think the game was in any doubt. I was confident we were going to get over the line.”

Madden, who missed Antrim’s finest hour due to a broken jaw he sustained a few weeks earlier in a National League game against Westmeath, watched the final minutes through clasped hands.

“Anto did an absolutely brilliant job on Mickey Linden,” says the former forward.

“There were other days when he was being given a tough time by opponents but the one thing you could always be sure of Anto was that you were getting his absolute best.

“He would still go right to the end, he would get a block in or he would come out of a ruck with the ball. He would do something inspirational for the team. He brought so many things to our game.”

Antrim couldn’t put Derry away in the semi-final and were well beaten in the replay. But 2000 was still a huge success for Antrim football. No longer would the press guys turn up on the eve of the Championship and ask about Antrim ending their hoodoo.

The months between October 1999 and July 2000 were special days for Brian White’s crew. The Antrim players were more than team-mates – they were best friends.

Madden says: “You see other teams that have won All-Ireland titles but I honestly don’t think the bond [we have] could be any stronger. We still meet up every Christmas, we meet up for social events, some of us are trying to play a bit of Masters together.”

For Finnegan, beating Down was special, but the St Paul’s man got more enjoyment out of the day they beat Fermanagh to lift the ‘B’ Championship seven months earlier.

“The most memorable day for me was when we won the ‘B’ Championship at Casement Park. I actually enjoyed that day more.

“At that stage, I was with the county for six years. I’d made my Championship debut in ’94. We’d won four or five games in a row and we just felt something was coming right. Going into the Down game there was probably a sense of expectation among the group of players.”

Brian White, he says, had that intangible quality of getting the best out of people.

“You can coach all you want and Brian and Hugh [McGettigan] were very competent coaches but you need something else, call it charisma… Brian just draws people to him.

“You’ve 25 players trying to get 15 places in the team… Between the team that played in December against Fermanagh and the team that played Down there were about five or six changes. And to be able to manage that and all the personalities and to keep the cohesion, you’re not just a coach in that regard.”

Finnegan played on until 2004 but changes were afoot. A hugely talented St Gall’s team was beginning to ripen. Mickey Culbert had moved from the Milltown club to the county set-up and knew the talent that was coming down the tracks.

The likes of Finnegan, Gearoid Adams and others had enjoyed their time wearing the county jersey but nothing lasts forever.

“I totally respect Mickey’s decision,” says Finnegan.

“He was the manager of the county. It was hard to take because it wasn’t the way I wanted to finish my inter-county career. Very few of us get the send-off that we want. We’re not all Brian O’Driscoll.”

He played another year-and-a-half with his club before hanging up his boots.

Alison, Finnegan’s wife, was expecting their second child and he finished his Masters in Business Improvement. What spare time he had, he threw his energies into St Paul’s U6s and took them right through to U16 level.

In 2012, Finnegan was diagnosed with the life-limiting condition of Motor Neurone Disease.

It’s no exaggeration to say Finnegan inspired a generation of Antrim footballers - and he definitely inspired those he shared a changing room with.

“I had a career that a lot of people would loved to have had. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.”

Madden says: “When I think of Anto – it’s a bit like Brian White’s quote - “He has a smile that reaches his eyes” - he’s always grinning.

“There is that poem of Kipling’s about triumph and disaster – with Anto it wouldn’t matter what the circumstances were, he treated those two imposters exactly the same.

“He’s just a very balanced guy. When we played together, Anto was such an energy-giver. We’ve all played with players who were positive and others who would sap the life out of you.

“I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time but you could see why Whitey put so much faith in him as captain. He had so much energy and positivity…”

Finnegan established DeterMND which has helped raise in the region of £250,000 over the last six years.

“From the amount of awareness that he’s created about MND and the number of projects he’s got involved in is incredible,” Madden adds.

“He’s created a legacy and taught his children [Conall and Ava] so much about what it’s like to be a good person and what it’s like to live life to the full. I think Anto’s seen more of the world in the last four or five years than the rest of us.

“As a footballer, Anto always played with his head up. He’d a lovely left foot and once I ran into space I knew Anto would pass me the ball.”

If courage is anything, it is holding no fear of the consequences.

On a football field, Anto Finnegan would stare down adversity.

As Madden says, regardless of the circumstances, he would always go “right to the end of a game”.

There was no braver heart and no better man that wore the Antrim jersey.

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