It’s appropriate that an unique sporting occasion should be the vehicle to raise awareness of a rare terminal condition which only affects around two in every 100,000 people.
When former Antrim GAA football captain Anto Finnegan was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2012, he and his family took some time to come to terms with the shattering news before embarking on a fundraising initiative, the focal point of which will be the first GAA match to be staged at Kingspan Stadium, the home of Ulster Rugby, tonight.
It’s an event which has captured the public’s imagination – an Ulster All Stars select facing Jim Gavin’s Dublin team in a charity gaelic football match in the tight confines of the rugby pitch at Ravenhill.
Finnegan is thrilled by the support the fixture has attracted, and it’s a ‘win win’ for everyone involved, including Ulster Rugby who get to showcase their superb facility to a relatively new audience.
“I’ve been involved in charity events with the GAA before, even at club level, and know how supportive they are, so I wasn’t really surprised when we called on the big guns to come out, that they did,” explained Finnegan.
“I was keen the event would be in Belfast, because that’s where I’ve grown up and played most of my sport.
“Ulster Rugby said ‘yes’ right away and they have given us fantastic support, making their facilities available to us on an ongoing basis.
“There is a bit of nervousness as the match draws closer, but hopefully we can repay them with a full stadium.”
MND is a condition which causes a progressive weakness of many muscles in the body and it has no known cause, or cure. The prognosis for many sufferers is to live for two to five years.
41-year-old Finnegan was in Dublin last weekend to meet South African World Cup winning scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen, who is at an advanced stage of the condition, to discuss their respective drives to raise awareness of the condition.
Finnegan, who captained Antrim to the All-Ireland ‘B’ title in 1999, is trying in his own modest way to make a difference and courageously battles the side-effects of his conditions every day.
“Both my wife and myself are determined to take some positives out of his negative thing that has entered our lives,” says the father-of-two.
“You can go one or two ways – you can go home and live in a bubble or you can use the background that you have in sport to try and raise awareness of the illness, and generate funding for research.
“It is more important for me to live in the moment. I’m not angry this has happened but I do find myself from time to time getting frustrated. That’s something that wasn’t there before, but there are people there to support me and that’s a real plus.”
Dublin have not played a football match in Antrim for over 20 years and securing the services of the 2013 All-Ireland champions has been a real feather in the cap for Finnegan’s charity ‘deterMND’.
When he was appointed as Dublin manager, Jim Gavin said he felt an obligation to uphold the traditions of his county and believes tonight’s ‘#GameforAnto’ is an example of Dublin remaining true to those values.
“It’s part of what we inherit and it’s part of the GAA in Dublin,” he said. “Any time you get involved with a county side, be it as a manager, coach or player, it’s a privilege, first and foremost. But with the privilege comes a social responsibility as much as a sporting one. We’re very aware of our responsibilities but above all, to get the chance to come up here and play in such an iconic stadium is fantastic.”
Dublin are not due to begin collective training until December 8 but have received special dispensation to take part in this historic event.