'Anto Finnegan will never be forgotten because his name will be forever spoken'

“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

In the lead up to the county final of 2018, I did an interview with Brendan Crossan about the loss of our baby son Oisin who died in November 2015. Of all the dozens of heartfelt messages I received there was the one that stood taller than the rest. It came from Anto Finnegan. My team-mate. My captain. My friend. My hero. Here was a man battling with a terminal illness, showing compassion, kindness and reassurance that my baby son would never be forgotten. That meant so much to Maria and I at the time and still does.

A glimmer of light and a sod of comfort in our darkest moments. That’s what Anto did. He had a way with words as a captain but more importantly he led from the front in battle. He never entertained negativity or bullshit and that’s what made him such a brilliant leader and friend.

Deep down in my heart of hearts, I knew if God spared me, the day would probably come that I would be asked to write a tribute to Anto. I cannot lie. My stomach is in knots. I feel physically sick and my eyes are full. Yet here we are.

How could I ever do him justice? Where do you even start? Should it be on the field in the year 2000 when he lead us into uncharted waters? The day he lifted the All-Ireland B title before giving Mickey Linden a hard time in our first Championship win in 18 years. Or maybe those cherished Christmas nights out with Whitey and the lads over the last nine years? Zen, Pizza Express, pint bottles of Peroni, Kelly’s Cellars, the Pot House, the Apartment. Brady guarding the kitty with his life, McGreevy arriving late like clockwork and Whitey leaving early before the carnage. The day big Joe Quinn drove the sunshine bus to Brewster Park for the Together4Sam Sevens when we drank and sang the whole way home was some craic, made even more special by Anto belting out the best version of Spancil Hill you ever did hear. I’ll never forget that, as it wasn’t long after his diagnosis.

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Or what about the night he brought Cluxton to the home of Ulster Rugby in the 'Game for Anto'. Who could ever have imagined the Dubs playing Ulster’s finest in a game of Gaelic football in the heart of east Belfast? Yet that’s what Anto did. An ordinary man, who did extraordinary things.

Never mind all the hundreds of other fundraisers he masterminded to raise serious money to help find a cure for that horrible illness. Should I start there at those memories? Or above all, should I just tell his beloved Alison, his children Conal and Ava, his wee mummy and daddy, his brothers and sisters, just what a hero he was to me and so many countless others? Like they didn’t already know.

A fierce and fiery competitor on the pitch, I never saw Anto Finnegan play a bad game. Yeah yeah, I get you. It almost sounds patronising, but it’s the truth. Did I ever see him get a roasting? Yes I did, but I never played in a game that he wasn’t driving and taking the ball to the opposition. He always came off with his reputation in tact and had more of the ball than anyone else. Break ball, surging runs, playing with the head up, and the early kickpass.

He was handy for a score too off the left peg. I loved playing with him at left half-back and Gearoid at right half as I knew once the run was made, the ball was landing in my lap. No matter what sort of ammunition a team would fire at Anto, he came back at them with something greater. A real battler. In many ways his career and character as a footballer mirrored his personality as a man off the pitch.

In the face of adversity he always came out fighting. After his diagnosis, Anto came out with his fists up and replaced, 'what I cannot do' with 'what can I do?'. He taught his children and the rest of us what it is like to smash adversity into a million tiny little pieces, and in doing so, he created a legacy like no other.

A couple of weeks ago, Anto tweeted from his DeterMND account to mark the nine-year anniversary of his diagnosis. As someone who wouldn’t be renowned for being much of a softy, I felt compelled to tell the Twitter world and more importantly Anto exactly what I thought of him. I just thought what the hell. There’s no point in writing this some day when he’s no longer here. Little did I think that day would come so soon.

“It’s not the cards you're dealt but the way you play the hand. In the face of incredible adversity I cannot even begin to describe what an inspiration Anto is. A warrior on the pitch, a warrior off it. Proud to have played with him but even prouder to call him my friend #deterMND”

I was glad I got to tell Anto what I and the rest of us boys think of him. Small in stature but a colossus of a man on and off the pitch. Words cannot describe how much we will miss that cheeky wee grin. Anto Finnegan will never be forgotten because his name will be forever spoken. Rest easy Sass.

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