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