| 13.7°C Dublin

Living in the moment - Finnegan's fight against MND

Close

South Africa rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen, right, chats with fellow MND campaigner and former Antrim football captain Anto Finnegan, whose 'Game ForAnto' takes place at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on Saturday next. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE

South Africa rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen, right, chats with fellow MND campaigner and former Antrim football captain Anto Finnegan, whose 'Game ForAnto' takes place at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on Saturday next. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Anto Finnegan: 'For me, it's trying to make sure there are more good days, focusing on the short term, the next couple of months, what the plans are rather then look to far into the future'. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE.

Anto Finnegan: 'For me, it's trying to make sure there are more good days, focusing on the short term, the next couple of months, what the plans are rather then look to far into the future'. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE.

/

South Africa rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen, right, chats with fellow MND campaigner and former Antrim football captain Anto Finnegan, whose 'Game ForAnto' takes place at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on Saturday next. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE

Anto FINNEGAN lives his life now by a simple guiding principle. His view of the road ahead must be myopic.

Look too far into the distance and he risks the prospect of losing focus on short-term goals that frame his everyday routines. So he keeps his mind firmly on what is just around the corner to safeguard a sense of normality.

More than two years ago, the former Antrim football captain was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, the progressive neurological disorder that destroys the controls over voluntary muscle activity such as walking and speaking, a disorder that still has far too many questions and not enough answers.

Sometimes it leaves him "frustrated" at the ordinary things he can no longer do.

But when Anto decided to go public with his condition last year, it opened him to a world of positivity that has allowed the good days to outweigh the bad ones by a greater ratio than he could have imagined when he got the diagnosis in the summer of 2012, three years after first feeling an unusual sensation in his hands while on a family holiday to Disneyland Paris.

Using the platform of more than a decade of service to Antrim football, he has sought to create greater awareness through his DeterMND trust across the island and on Saturday night next a first GAA match in the Ulster rugby's Kingspan Stadium in Belfast, formerly Ravenhill, for more than 100 years will provide the pinnacle of that effort when an Ulster selection play Dublin.

Planning for this match has allowed Anto to take the "short steps" that he needs to take to deal with what he has, allows him to have more good days than bad.

NORMALITY

A good day brings normality. He is still working full-time with BT in Belfast, still driving, still coaching at his west Belfast club St Paul's.

On the day that we meet, he was planning to attend the acclaimed play 'The Holy Holy Bus' in the Belfast's Waterfront that evening.

The bad days obviously come when he dwells too much on what he has and where it will lead him.

"When you think over what could come," he says. "Reflecting on the condition and reflecting on the things that you can't do any more.

"Doing things with the kids, swimming or taking them out on the bikes, playing football or hurling with Cathal (his son), just things you can't physically do any more.

"Those are the things that probably trip me up the most so when I dwell on those things it can be difficult.

"For me, it's trying to make sure there are more good days, focusing on the short term, the next couple of months, what the plans are rather than look to far into the future," Finnegan explains. "By doing that I seem to be able to cope and manage the bad days when they come. It allows me to have more good than bad.

"I have two children, it's important that the time at home isn't wasted. We are keen to keep a sense of normality as much as we can. They are at school and they need to keep routine and all that stuff that children thrive on.

"I think by doing these things my wife and I tend to have better days. It seems to work for us. I can still take them to football, to swimming, to the park. It is changing my perspective of what a day entails. But when there are difficult days there is good support there from my wife and kids."

Awareness of MND has been growing steadily through the publicity around those who have suffered from the condition, among them the late RTE broadcaster Colm Murray on whom a moving documentary was made, the late Paul Magee, son of Murray's former RTE colleague Jimmy who has spoken so openly about it, and the former South African Rugby World Cup winner rugby Joost van der Westhuizen.

Anto digested the diagnosis he got for a few months before deciding to make it public.

"One of the key things from very early on, when I was diagnosed, was the lack of understanding about the condition, the lack of awareness, the lack of funding.

"There were just so many things. It wasn't a decision that was taken lightly, it took us a few months to come to terms with the diagnosis first of all and then another few months to decide was it something I wanted to do to go public and put ourselves out there.

"Then I asked myself, in the condition that I am in, if I don't do it with the platform that I have through the GAA, who is going to do it?" he recalls.

"I could easily leave it to someone else who comes behind.

"Am I really doing myself any favours in doing that?

"Is that really the best way to fight the condition, to live the rest of my life coping or do I spend the rest of life trying to do something positive which will hopefully move the fight against MND on in a positive way, even if it's only a small bit.

"We really struggled with that decision for a while. Then I saw Colm's documentary and read the piece about Jimmy Magee's son, both of them came to the conclusion that they were, by pushing the condition and pushing the research, even if it was just a small bit, they were doing something positive. That made the decision for me.

"I just felt it was the right thing to do. I'm not sure being mentally strong should be one of the definitive factors in going public. Once you step over that line and put yourself up there there is no going back. By dealing with it this way I actually think it helps. It works for me. It gives me a sense of something positive."

He played for Antrim for more than a decade and was a dual player at one stage earlier in his career.

The highlight came in 1999 when they beat Fermanagh in an All-Ireland 'B' final when he was captain and that gave them the bounce to go on and win a rare championship game against Down the following June.

They were within seconds and inches of reaching the Ulster final that year but for Anthony Tohill's leap and fetch as Sheeny McQuillan's 60-metre free appeared to be dropping over Derry's crossbar.

Derry won the replay easily and with it went Anto's best chance of playing in a provincial decider.

He still speaks of Antrim's failure to make a more sustained breakthrough with a degree of frustration, how a county of its size and resources hasn't done more.

"We're missing a trick somewhere, I'm just not sure what it is," he says.

But witnessing the work being done at development level and the skill sets of some of the underage players convinces him that they have the capacity to match any other county.

He studies the effects of MND around the world (two in every 100,000 people have the condition) and is taken by what he believes is a high percentage of sports people who suffer from it.

LINK

In the US it was originally known as 'Lou Gehrig disease' after the famous New York Yankees baseball player was diagnosed with it.

He has read about a study among Italian soccer players that is pointing to a higher-than-normal rate of suffering among a particular group.

"I'm not saying there is a sporting link but I have seen a lot of sporting aspects to it. Could it be environmental factors, could it be lifestyle? That's really why I felt it was important to do my bit."

He knows the pathway ahead an the various stages of such a progressive and terminal condition. The prognosis for many of those with it is to live for somewhere between two to five years. If he takes that sensation felt in Paris in 2009 as a starting point, he is already outside that window but feeling relatively good.

"It is more important for me to continue to reassure myself that I am not at that advanced stage and to live in the moment and accept that I can still get up in the morning, drive to work and walk around for the day, albeit with some support that I need for my arms," he says.

"I'm not angry but I do find myself from time to time getting frustrated. Anybody who knows me outside football, hurling or cycling would know me as a relaxed, laid-back person who wouldn't get that frustrated or flustered too easily.

"That's something that is there now that wasn't there before but, on the flip side of that, there will be people there to help, support take up the baton. That's a real plus."

The 'Game for Anto' between the Ulster All Stars and Dublin will take place at 6pm on Saturday, November 15 in aid of deterMND. Tickets £10 available from ticketmaster.co.uk or group bookings at www.deterMND

Irish Independent