Kingspan 'Game for Anto' latest salvo in Finnegan's MND fight

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI
Anto Finnegan with Ulster players Aaron Findon and Rory Beggan
Anto Finnegan with Ulster players Aaron Findon and Rory Beggan at the launch of the 'Game for Anto'

Anto Finnegan admits that "scary thoughts" can periodically enter his mind no matter how much he attempts to live in the now and the few short weeks ahead.

But this tenacious individual has refused to allow those dark moments to overwhelm him as he resolved to fight the degenerative terminal illness of Motor Neurone Disease with the kind of spirit that he summoned up for Antrim footballers.

The Saffrons may have rarely been at gaelic football's top table during Finnegan's 11-year county career but the St Paul's club-man was always renowned as being a fierce competitor.

That drive which has come to the fore during his battle against MND will have a public expression in Belfast on Saturday when last year's All-Ireland gaelic football champions Dublin take on an Ulster select team in a fund-raising game at the home of Ulster Rugby, Kingspan Stadium.

Anto Finnegan factfile
1994: Antrim senior football debut
1999: Helped the Saffron County win All-Ireland B title
2000: Captained Antrim to first win in an Ulster SFC game in 18 years
2003: Named Antrim captain again
2005: Played final game for Antrim
2012: Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in August
2014: His deterMND trust organises Kingspan Stadium GAA game

The game will see GAA returning to a Ravenhill venue which originally was a camogie ground before it became Ulster rugby's home in the 1920s.

"When I decide to do something, I give it everything that I've got whether that is in a sporting contest or outside sport," said Finnegan.

"The skills and the fitness that you develop from having a sporting background have stood me in good stead over the past couple of years.

"It's just another fight that I have to fight. I don't know any other way but to meet it head on."

The last two weeks must have appeared as one long round of interviews for the 41-year-old as he has made himself available to journalists from all over this island and beyond.

On Friday past, he travelled down to Dublin to meet another sports star who has been afflicted by the condition, former South Africa rugby great Joost van der Westhuizen, who was in the Irish capital to attend the Test match between the Springboks and Ireland.

Anto came away from the Dublin rendezvous reassured that the deterMNDexternal-link trust that he himself founded is working along the right lines.

Anto Finnegan met former Springboks star Joost van der Westhuizen last Friday
Anto Finnegan met last week with former South African rugby star Joost van der Westhuizen who also has MND

After being diagnosed with MND in 2011, Van der Westhuizen set up his own J9 Foundation to raise awareness and funds and the two sports men compared notes last Friday.

"Since he was diagnosed in 2011, Joost's foundation has done a significant amount of work in South Africa and further afield and across the continent of Africa.

"A lot of things that he talked about resonated very strongly with what we are doing."

Finnegan's own diagnosis, after a lengthy period of tests, came in August 2012 some three years after he had first noticed pains in his hands while on holiday in France.

Receiving that devastating news a few months short of his 40th birthday "took the wind out of my sails", admits Finnegan.

"Even now (some 26 months on) I am still trying to come to terms with the diagnosis because you are reminded of it every day.

"My arms are seriously affected now in relation to being able to do things for myself.

"I can't cycle any more or dress myself. From that point of view, it's a constant reminder.

Motor Neurone Disease
• A progressive disease
• Exact cause a mystery
• Commonly attacks nerves that control muscles but brain function is unaffected
• Affects 5,000 people at any one time in the UK, and twice as many men as women
• Symptoms begin with muscle weakness and wasting
• As the disease progresses, speech, swallowing and even breathing may be affected

"The average prognosis is two to five years from diagnosis.

"There are only about 400 people on the island of Ireland who live with the condition at any one time because it's such a quick turnaround for people with the condition.

"I've had the symptoms from 2009 so where I am at the moment is probably a lot further than most people with the condition would be."

Finnegan admits that he has felt moments of anger over the past two and a bit years but that his over-riding emotion has been frustration as some previously routine tasks have become impossible.

"How do we cope? Well I try to take a very practical approach on a day to day basis and not think too far into the future.

"A few months ahead. Look forward to them and plan another few months ahead. That's the way we manage on a day to day basis."

The 'we' refers to his wife Alison and two children, a 14-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter.

His family and many friends from the world of GAA will be there at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening but Finnegan is hoping for a big turnout from many other sporting backgrounds and indeed beyond.

"We're trying to reach out to all kinds of organisations and sport. Not just rugby and not just GAA.

"Other organisations like the Belfast Giants have been keen to support us..

"OK, there is a GAA game and it will be interesting to watch two fantastic teams and it's promising to be a really good game.

"We've already had a lot of interest from rugby clubs and there's a whole raft of people who it wouldn't be the norm for to go along to a GAA game. It's so much more than that.

"The event is about celebrating sport and raising money for a charity."

Dublin's panel is set to include stars such as Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey, Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara while Ulster manager Joe Kernan has said that he could field three teams such is the level of interest from the province's top players.

After putting so much work into the occasion, Finnegan hopes the public will show similar enthusiasm.

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