THE saddest news that could have been relayed came through on Saturday night as it was confirmed Anto Finnegan passed away.
Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2012, the former Antrim football captain spent his remaining years campaigning for greater awareness of the condition, founding the deterMND charity.
When announcing he had the disease back in November 2013 at the Balmoral Hotel, Anto - a St Paul's and formerly Lámh Dhearg clubman - insisted he would campaign to bring a greater focus on the disease, and set about launching a range of events that would raise funds for his charity.
It is with the upmost sadness that we learn of the passing of our friend, former player, coach, mentor & ambassador Anto Finnegan. This world has lost a fine man.— CLG Naomh Pól, Béal Feirste ⭕ (@StPaulsGAC) September 18, 2021
Our deepest sympathies to Alison, Conall, Ava & the Finnegan & Dowdall families
Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal ♥️ pic.twitter.com/UtwvH4rxZS
The most high-profile was the 'Game for Anto' at Kingspan Stadium, home of Ulster Rugby, on November 14, 2014, when Dublin came to town to take on an Ulster select -– a nod to the reverence in which the West Belfast man was held.
Former Antrim PRO Sean Kelly held a 'Run for Anto' at Falls Park in 2018 that drew huge crowds with special guests including then Dublin manager Jim Gavin, selector and former All-Ireland winner as a player Jason Sherlock, plus Sam Maguire himself.
His life was not defined by Motor Neurone Disease, as Anto's exploits on the field spoke for themselves. Leading from the front as ever, he captained the Antrim footballers to the 1999 All-Ireland 'B' title, going on to skipper the Saffrons to a first victory in the Ulster Senior Football Championship in 18 years when they came through a storm to vanquish Down in the hail and rain at Casement Park.
Only for the big paws of Anthony Tohill in a semi-final and Antrim would have defeated Derry and reached the final, but the Oak Leafers proved too strong in a replay.
Anto was part of an Antrim side that would defeat Cavan in 2003, losing a semi-final to eventual All-Ireland winners Tyrone in the semis, but hung up the Antrim jersey having gone places many had only dreamt of in the past.
There was club success with St Paul's, helping the Shaw's Road men to a county title 1997 in what was a golden era for the club.
His passing has left a massive hole in the heart of not just the GAA fraternity, but of Irish society in general. We have lost a captain, a leader, a hero and an inspiration.
Our thoughts go to Anto's wife, Alison, son Conall and daughter Ava, plus the wider family. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.