Jim Gavin on Anto Finnegan: He was a hero of mine
THROUGH the years Jim Gavin and Anto Finnegan shared many conversations about what the future held for Casement Park, and the ex-Dublin boss hopes to see his “hero” recognised when the famous ground finally reopens.
Finnegan passed away on Saturday nine years after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, during which time he founded the deterMND charity to raise awareness and improve research into the condition, enlisting some of the biggest names in Gaelic games – including Gavin and his star-studded Dublin team – to support the cause.
However, another matter close to the former Antrim captain’s heart was Casement Park.
Having graced his own field of dreams many times with club and county, the St Paul’s stalwart wanted others to be able to do the same, speaking regularly about the knock-on effect it had on generations of young Gaels as the county’s Belfast home continued to lie derelict.
At the end of July, eight years after Casement hosted its last game, plans for a new 34,500 capacity stadium were given the go-ahead.
And Gavin insists Anto Finnegan will be “there in spirit” when the redevelopment is complete.
“Anto was so passionate about Antrim GAA, and it’s fantastic news that came in the past couple of months about Casement Park being granted the green light,” said Gavin, who led the Dubs to six All-Ireland titles in seven years during a period of unprecedented success.
“We had spoken about it in the past, about trying to get a Dublin team up there at some stage to play on it. If that ever happens – and, more importantly, when the stadium’s open – he’ll definitely be there in spirit.
“I’m sure Antrim have plans for how to recognise Anto when that stadium is built, because he was just such an inspirational figure.”
The pair got to know each other when Finnegan emailed Dublin County Board chairman John Costello “the day after the 2013 All-Ireland final” about the possibility of Gavin’s men taking on an Irish News Allstars select to raise funds for deterMND.
A lot of hard work went on behind the scenes to pull it all together, not least from the man who got the ball rolling, and on Saturday, November 15 2014 the ‘Game for Anto’ took place before a huge crowd at Ravenhill – the first time in 90 years the home of Ulster Rugby had hosted a GAA match.
From that moment, a firm friendship was born.
Gavin came up to Belfast for the 75th anniversary of St Paul’s in 2016, while Finnegan and his family were guests of honour when the Dublin three in-a-row side were presented with their All-Ireland medals in December 2017.
“We had images of him put up on the screen, from hurling with St Mary’s in school, playing with his club, captaining Antrim to the All-Ireland B Championship in 1999…
“It was a fantastic night, and the Dublin players were just in awe of him. They spoke so highly of him.”
On September 23, 2018 Gavin and then assistant boss Jason Sherlock brought the Sam Maguire up to Falls Park when Antrim GAA organised the successful ‘Run for Anto’. A few weeks earlier Finnegan and his children, Conall and Ava, had posed for a photograph with Gavin and Tyrone boss Mickey Harte on the sideline at Croke Park ahead of the All-Ireland final.
“He can open City Hall, he can open up Ravenhill to two GAA teams, take centre stage on All-Ireland final day with 10 minutes to go until throw-in,” said Gavin, “that’s the respect people had for Anto Finnegan.”
It was with great sadness, therefore, that Gavin learned of his friend’s passing.
“I got a text from Joe Brolly… there’s not many things in life that push me back, but I was really taken aback - very emotional and very sad to hear that Anto had passed.
“Anto was such a big family man, such a humble guy but with a big, courageous heart… he was a hero of mine. One thing Anto always used to say was ‘take one day at a time and enjoy it to the fullest; if you can something for someone, just do it’ - that always resonated with me.
“The adversity he faced, the challenges in his life… many of us would go back and go into our shell but Anto stepped forward to do something positive, and to take the fight against Motor Neurone Disease in a positive way.
“He was getting out there to raise awareness, that’s the type of man he was, and I’m sure Gaels will continue to support that cause.
“I’m deeply saddened that he has passed away, and I’d like to offer my sympathies to Alison, Conall and Ava, and indeed to Cumann Luthchleas Gael and all the Antrim Gaels – you’ll miss him, but I know you’ll remember him in the right way and what an inspirational figure he was for all of us.”