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Paul Kimmage: Good days, bad days and Championship Sundays


Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimons is genuine and fully committed, says former team-mate Anto Finnegan

Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimons is genuine and fully committed, says former team-mate Anto Finnegan


Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimons is genuine and fully committed, says former team-mate Anto Finnegan

We hardly knew him last time and doubted we would see him again because that's the nature of this business. Interviews are like stations on a line, we would stop for Anto Finnegan, tell his story and move on. But here we are, one year later, back in the kitchen of his Belfast home talking Antrim and Fermanagh in the Championship:

"I'm looking forward to it," he says. "Ulster always throws up a few cracking matches."

But that's not what brings us back.

Two weeks ago, he travelled south with his wife, Alison, to the Dublin suburb of Dundrum where his employers, BT, were honouring him with a sponsored bike ride. It was a grey Friday morning and he mingled with the riders wearing a blue tracksuit top adorned with his charities (deterMND) logo.

Some recognised him and tried to shake his hand but that's a struggle for him now. Some didn't know him at all and asked if he was taking part but he hasn't ridden his bike in two years. He smiled and posed for photographs and you watched and marvelled at his dignity and courage as he waved the riders off.

Because you knew, deep down, how much it must have hurt.

"Yeah, difficult," he concurs, "especially at this time of year when you're out and people are coming by on bikes - people you recognise and used to ride with. You think, 'Two years ago that was me!' and it catches in your throat. You're not bitter, you just wish you could do it again and that's the difficulty with this condition - knowing that's not going to happen."

Six years ago, the former Antrim captain was driving the family to Disneyland on a beautiful morning in Paris when he noticed the first symptoms - a fleeting soreness in his hands he couldn't quite fathom. Two years passed and it continued to nag him from time to time, accompanied by a twitching muscle in his right arm.

He was tested for Kennedy's disease and Parkinson's and given no cause for alarm until August 2012 and a family camping trip to Drumshambo when his arm felt so weak he could barely lift it over his head. Four days later he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He had just turned 39.

A year ago, when we met for the first time, he could walk seven miles with the dog in the glen but walking any sort of distance is a challenge now. He served the tea and carried the pot to the front room but now his tea is served to him, and he finds it easier to use a straw than lift a cup.

"The hard part is knowing there's no treatment or cure at this point in time to reverse the condition," he says. "You try to weigh that up in your mind, and process it, and make sense of it and, I'll not lie, it can set you back for a day or two.

"I think, over time, you reach a level of acceptance of where you are and I try and focus more on what I can do than what I can't do. I think Alison and I have both been through that mill of 'can't do this and can't do that' but when I'm thinking like that, she'll remind me of the stuff I can do. When she's thinking like that, I'll remind her of the stuff that we can do.

"I suppose that's what you're looking for in a relationship - that you can bounce things off each other, the good days and the bad days. We try not to have bad days together. We try to have as many good days together as we can."

The trip to Dublin was one of the better days: they started the bike ride, spent the afternoon relaxing at a posh Dublin hotel and presented a cheque that evening from deterMND, for €30,000, to Professor Orla Hardiman at Trinity.

"We've raised about £120,000 in the last year and are trying to make sure that as much of that as possible is earmarked for research, because that's where the answer is. Professor Hardiman has dedicated her life to MND research and the 'Project MinE' stuff that she's involved with, sits really neatly within our aims in the trust.

"She's a busy woman. I called her the day before we travelled down to Dublin to make arrangements for meeting-up and she said she would be in her clinic until eight o'clock - that's the sort of dedication you're looking at here. It's admirable. And when you know you've got people like that on your side it gives you a wee bit of hope."

I smile and tell him he's the one I admire.

"I dunno," he replies, shrugging it off. "I meet other people who maybe aren't in the same position as me, but have the same condition, and the work they've done is phenomenal. Because of the platform we've had from the GAA, we've had a bit more profile in relation to the work we've been doing but there are people from all over the place, doing the exact same thing; a walk, a run, a night at the races, week-in week-out, and that's heartening."

The conversation returns to football and his beloved Antrim. He'll be in Enniskillen this afternoon for the game with Fermanagh but is unsure how it will go.

"They've had an open door policy (players could opt out early in the season and come back and earn a place) this year so it will be interesting," he says. "I understand the argument and what he's (the Antrim manager, Frank Fitzsimons) trying to do but if I was a player and was there all season, and someone came in four weeks before the Championship with a shout of getting a place, I'd be feckin' ragin'.

"Players want to see players training or else the backstabbing and everything else starts. But I know big Frank well - I played alongside him for the county - and I think if he believes that somebody is genuine and fully committed, he'll be fair in that regard. And I'm sure he'll have them as fit and fired up as he can get them."

I laugh and he escorts me to the door.

"See you soon, Anto."

Sunday Indo Sport