GAA Football

Anto Finnegan was 'Mr Antrim' says former team-mate Seán McGreevy

Antrim captain Anto Finnegan in Ulster SFC action against Down in Casement Park in May 2000 Picture by Ann McManus

ANTO Finnegan has been described as ‘Mr Antrim’ by his friend and former team-mate Seán McGreevy as tributes flooded in for the Belfast Gael following his passing at the weekend.

Since his diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease in 2013, former Antrim football captain Finnegan spent his time campaigning for greater awareness of the condition, founding the deterMND charity and enlisting some of the biggest names in Gaelic games in support of his cause.

McGreevy was on the same county championship winning St Paul’s team as Finnegan in 1997 and the two served on the Antrim panel together when the Saffrons broke their long Ulster SFC duck by beating Down in May 2000 and bringing Derry to a replay in that year’s provincial semi-final.

“I remember thinking when Anto came down to St Paul’s from Lámh Dhearg that he was a God send,” the former Antrim net-minder said last night.

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“We knew already that he was a quality player, that he was dogged, that he had a never say die attitude. He went straight into the team at half-back and he demonstrated all that right away.

“He had an incredible ability to communicate with players, he was calm and very, very intelligent. He wasn’t made captain straight away when he came to St Paul’s but he was one of our leaders on the pitch right from the off.”

McGreevy spent many years with Finnegan on the Antrim panel, the two coming in at a time when the county footballers had been in the doldrums for more than a decade, and he got to witness first-hand the impact Finnegan had.

“Our breakthrough, if you like, was the 1999 All-Ireland B final win over Fermanagh,” McGreevy added.

“That was a massive, massive moment when Anto captained us to the final win. I think ‘Mr Antrim’ would be an apt way to describe his dedication to the county; while we were all committed to the cause, Anto was hardcore. He would have done anything to make sure we were winning.

“Put it like this, you never left a changing room with Anto as captain and thought you couldn’t win a match. His team talks were so passionate, so honest and I have so many memories of Anto standing in the middle of the changing room with a clenched fist. Certain boys, no matter how you are in yourself confidence wise or physically, make you want to die on the pitch, to leave everything there.”

If Finnegan was well regarded in GAA circles before his diagnosis with Motor Neuron Disease in 2013, the manner in which he battled his illness and the way in which he used it as an opportunity to campaign for the wellbeing of others served as an inspiration to countless Gaels.

In November 2014, then All-Ireland champions Dublin arrived at the Ravenhill home of Ulster rugby to take on an Ulster select in a ‘Game for Anto’, while Jim Gavin and Jason Sherlock were among the large crowds at the 2018 ‘Run for Anto’ at west Belfast’s Falls Park.

“The way he threw himself into campaigning for others with the illness, he was brilliant – he always had great ideas,” McGreevy added.

“A group of us would have been meeting nearly every week at that stage, the likes of Kevin Brady, Joe Quinn, Gearóid Adams, Brian Whyte and we saw this guy who was struggling in so many ways demonstrating so much selflessness, it took you off your feet. We just said at that point ‘Whatever he wants, we try to get him’. And anything that was asked of Gaels on Anto’s behalf was done.

“He leaves such a massive legacy – the time he put in with kids coaching, his passion for Gaelic Games, for people, for wanting to put a smile on their faces. He was full of beans, full of life, full of craic but then he had that ability to go to war on the pitch. Anto’s story has spread far and wide, you talk to people who know nothing about football and they know Anto Finnegan and that’s down to his special personality.”

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