“I’m confident I won’t be back in that place. And rugby is the reason for that.”

Finnegan SOHK

“Type my name into Google,” instructs Michael Finnegan, gently yet without a trace of awkwardness, his Dublin accent undiluted even after six years of living in London. “Then write ‘suicide’. You’ll see it all come up then.”

Finnegan would be forgiven for distancing his darkest days with a detached tone. Moving smoothly through a career in rugby as a community coach for London Irish, he is immersed in the sport that spared him from manic depression and, ultimately, himself. The grim past must feel otherworldly.

By his own admission, though, the 29 year-old rarely backs down – a trait that comes naturally to a man tough enough to play at tighthead prop. Indeed, a forthright account of the melancholia that consumed him four years ago confronts every detail.

“I had a high-profile court case against the British Transport Police,” Finnegan continues, recalling the summer of 2009 when four hours of police negotiations against his wish to leap onto the Docklands Light Railway line resulted in multiple charges.

“But it was worse before that. I don’t have much contact with my family back in Ireland for various reasons. One of my relatives died and nobody told me until two months afterwards. That tipped me over the edge.

“I walked into Wandsworth Park, climbed a tree and tried to hang myself using my belt. Luckily, a bloke walking his dog called the police. I actually damaged an artery in my neck so had to spend weeks on a cardiovascular unit.”

Only at this point does discomfort surface. Finnegan politely declines to elaborate on his family situation, apologising profusely. Then conversation returns to the catalyst of his recovery and an injection of ardent enthusiasm illuminates his expression.

Following a year-long stretch without a job – “Nobody would touch me because of my CRB” – Finnegan turned up at Haringey in December 2011 to enrol in the fifth series of School of Hard Knocks, a Sky Sports television programme that thrusts under-achievers into eight weeks of rugby training and psychological seminars.

Headed by ex-army officer Chris Chudleigh, with a charismatic, committed pair of former British and Irish Lions in Scott Quinnell and Will Greenwood for support, the course aims to invigorate unemployed attendees through hard work. Twin goals of a match against a local side and a valuable jobs fair come only at the end of an arduous on-field schedule. Finnegan SOHK

For most, it works. A chuckle about new-found celebrity – flame-haired, thick-set Finnegan often gets recognised in public by viewers of the show – does not halt profound reflection on a pivotal experience.

“People say ‘what has rugby ever done for anyone, it’s just a bunch of posh people throwing a ball around.’ I always set them straight, because being on Hard Knocks gave me opportunities that I didn’t deserve and had a lasting effect on my life.

“There’s a genuine brotherhood you develop among your teammates – a deep sense of camaraderie. Brockleians, my club, were so supportive during the bad times. They got around me and somebody would always ask if I fancied a pint.

“Some of the lads didn’t even know about my mental health problems. Others did but weren’t sure how to talk about it – thankfully the situation is changing but mental health is still a big taboo.

“Scott and Will were so humble and they reinforced the fact that help is only ever a phone call away. I’ve got two pretty good references at least.”

Since filming finished, Finnegan has been gloriously busy. In fact, only the recent snow flurry has freed up time for an interview.

Six months volunteering at Saracens earned his coaching qualifications and brought employment with Hitz, a social inclusion initiative aimed at inner-London boroughs that promotes anger management as much as lineouts and spin-passes. From there, he was acquired by Irish and assigned to a hectic routine of travelling between numerous schools over the south-west to deliver sessions.

Parallel projects have included a director’s role at Goldsmiths University and, last September, an outreach trip to spread the rugby gospel in Brazil with Premiership Rugby. In the run-up to Easter, Finnegan will establish the first ever oval-ball set-up at Southwark’s City of London Academy.

Fusing passion and a calm common touch, you get the impression that Finnegan incites inspiration wherever he goes. An uncompromising mantra – “background might explain behaviour, but it doesn’t excuse it” – certainly suggests that even the most disruptive children are won over eventually.

Others have noted the progress. Signing off a half-hour conversation with head coach Gary Street at a conference before Christmas, Finnegan was invited to attend England Women’s Six Nations preparations in Guildford. To crown everything else, he will be part of a world-record attempt on May 31st as two teams attempt to keep playing for over 24 hours at Welford Road, home of the mighty Leicester Tigers, in aid of military charity Scotty’s Little Soldiers.

“The way I see it, I’m not just a rugby coach,” Finnegan ponders proudly. “I’m a social worker, a mentor, an advisor. At the end of my career I am going to be able to look back on so many highlights. I have been coached by British and Irish Lions and have trained alongside the Barbarians with School of Hard Knocks.

“Considering where I was, it’s very surreal. It was like I was closed up in a black box carrying a massive burden – it was hard to breathe sometimes.

“Then people accept you, and it feels unbelievable,” he smiles, pausing to collect himself. “I won’t lie to you, it’s just unbelievable. I’m pretty confident I won’t be back in that place again. And rugby is the reason for that.”

Such gratitude is truly heartfelt and sincere. But it is also reciprocated. Rugby is pretty lucky to have Finnegan as well.

To support Michael’s incredible 25-hour rugby match, visit his charity page: http://www.bmycharity.com/charityrugbymatch. He can be found on Twitter @Mick_Finnegan.

By Charlie Morgan

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieFelix


9 thoughts on ““I’m confident I won’t be back in that place. And rugby is the reason for that.”

  1. I followed Michael through SOHK and have kept up to date with him on twitter. From what I’ve seen he’s a stand up bloke and one rugby is lucky to have.

    He even said hello at the Canary Wharf Triathlon last year.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Hi my little leprechaun, remember us? Thames Rugby Club. So glad to hear you are doing so well. You must be so proud as you have come so far. Keep up the good work. Maybe, if you are in the area, pop in and say hi to the guys, who I’m sure will be pleased to see you. All the best. X

  3. Like Damian above I got in touch with Mick through Twitter after watching SOHK and he’s become a good Twitter buddy. The past 12 months have seen his life do a complete 180 and it’s been great to see him get on his feet at last. Will meet you and buy you a pint one day Mick, promise!

  4. I’ve know Michael for the best part of 15years we grew up together from adolescence.

    What I will say about Mick is he has a great resolve and a true sincere character.

    Mick has battled every step of the way from a tough background in an under privileged suburban sprawl in Dublin through dark, hard times to become a genuine upstanding man.

    I’m proud to count Michael among my friends even if he is a ginger ;). I’m delighted to see Michael not only back on his feet but prospering.

    I have no doubt Mick will roll on from strength to strength.

  5. So proud to have Mick as part of our world record team! We are going to need 44 heroes and Mick fits the bill perfectly!

    Top man that wants to help the children of fallen troops.

  6. A true friend!! This post describes him perfectly! Very modest but a man who has completely changed his life. The quote “Finnegan incites inspiration wherever he goes” is completely true! Proud of you buddy, but there is still a lot more to come from you im sure!

  7. Mr Flanagan: You are an inspiration to everyone struggling with depression. Your continued commitment is an encouragement to me. I know the Lord will continue to work in your life.
    Very best wishes,
    Paul from Ohio

  8. Wow, moving. Michael has always been very supportive and a great, always there for advice and to help mentor, he is a great supporter of the LGBT Community offering his help to us the World’s first LGBT RL Club. We are happy to see he has had some great experiences so far and sure this will continue great work Mr Finnegan x

  9. I worked with Mike at Hitz for London Irish in the short time we worked together he taught me so much about coaching. A great mentor to coaches and players. This story really shows how rugby can turn peoples lives around. Great interview.

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