‘I Loved Every Single Game’: Tony Finnigan

Tony Finnigan played for Corinthian-Casuals in for a season and a half between 1982 and 1984, and was part of a talented side put together by manager Billy Smith, which included future Crystal Palace heroes Andy Gray and Alan Pardew. Finnigan, a former England Youth international, had been released by both Palace and Fulham when he joined Casuals and the club helped him to regain his love for the game. After his spell here, he played for Crystal Palace again, as well as Blackburn Rovers, Hull City, Fulham and Falkirk, among others. 

Whilst recording the second series of Broadway to Brazil, we invited Tony to the clubhouse to talk to Dominic Bliss about his career and the part Corinthian-Casuals played in shaping it.

How did you come to join Corinthian-Casuals?

From a personal point of view it was a tough time because I did my scholarship at Palace, got released by [Terry] Venables at 18, went to Fulham and got a year’s contract under Malcolm MacDonald’s tutelage. I was really happy there, just so happy, enjoying my football. I got called up by Johnny Cartwright to England Youth and that was it – happy days! 

We were about to go to the World Cup in Australia, and I remember Malcolm MacDonald, when I came into training, said, “Tony Finnigan, stand up,” in front of everybody. He said, “Everybody, I want to give a round of applause to Tony. This guy’s going to the World Cup with England. Brilliant, great achievement. By the way, you’re getting released when you get back.”

So I knew I was getting released six months before the season was going to finish. You had the old combination league then, which was the reserve league, and I remember the second to last game of the season, I went up for a ball and tore my left hamstring…and it changed my life. I was out for a year, I didn’t have any treatment, I got released. It was almost like, “You’ve got released – well done, Tony,” and you went down the Fulham Palace Road to a pub and you just said goodbye to everybody you’d been friends with for the last two years. Then, bang, you’re out of the game.

Finnigan was offered trials at Middlesbrough and Leicester, among others, but his hamstring injury returned to haunt him at every turn and he eventually dropped out of the professional game and found himself without a club, at the age of 20.

What did you do at that point?

I came back to London and got a job packing boxes in Harrod’s, in the basement. Then one day I was driving the Mini down Brixton Water Lane, I looked to my left and saw this black guy. I thought, “I know him.” It was Andy Gray.

I stopped the car and he said, “I’m playing at this club. What are you doing?” 

I was living in Brixton, near Brockwell Park. I’d get there at six, when the park opened, and run that park twice, then go to work. I did that every…single…day. I would write for trials, and ring for trials.

Andy just said, “You should come and see this team, Corinthian-Casuals.”

Did you know anything about the club’s history?

No, I didn’t know anything. I met Andy, turned up to training, and it was almost like a family atmosphere. I just couldn’t miss a match. In the end, I loved it. I loved every single game I played with Corinthian-Casuals. Every game, we’d get on the coach and the atmosphere just gave you an appetite for playing. 

Remember, we didn’t get paid, you just went because it was a great bunch of lads, a good team and all of them were budding footballers: Pete Bateman; Ashley Stevenson, this guy out of Stockwell who was a good, cultured right-back; then you had Mark Rulton, who used to be at Palace with me as a schoolboy. We had a guy up front, Bernie Merron, who never stopped scoring goals. Then there was Colin Coldspring – oh my…what a hard nut he was! 

And they all worked at the flower market with Billy Smith. He found them jobs and they were all in the union, so they either worked in the printing firm, or worked at New Covent Garden flower market. But it was the closest thing to a pro environment, because everybody was ambitious. You were playing at Casuals, and now the years have gone by, you realise that everyone was proud to play for that club. 

What was Billy Smith like as a coach?

Billy didn’t do the coaching. Billy was a manager. Billy was a motivator and, to any player, he never said more than a sentence. I really liked him, that was my kind of management – he was a hard taskmaster, but if you had quality, he expected you to show quality. That’s what I loved about him, and I found out he was a good player himself when he was a younger man. He was disciplined, a structured guy and he had his cockney way, you know? “That ain’t good enough for me. You’re f****** about! You can do better than that, what are you doing? What kind of a first touch was that?! Come on!”

And that worked for you?

Yeah, 100 per cent. It worked for everybody, because we had a dressing room of men. I don’t know what people think football is. Maybe now they might take a bit longer about how they articulate those things, but he was bang on, brilliant. You could see the potential in everybody. 100 per cent. Billy galvanised everybody and brought it all together, he was the glue that made all his players come back.

Was the gap as big as people might think it was between non-league and the top two divisions of the Football League?

At that time, I didn’t think that a team from the Conference, as we called it then, would have been able to compete consistently at the professional level. But I know any one of those players could have gone into a professional environment and got a contract. I’m convinced of that. Colin Coldspring could have been a professional footballer – all day long.

Broadway to Brazil’s Dominic Bliss and Tony Finnigan in the Corinthian-Casuals clubhouse.

Did this club do its job as a springboard for you back into professional football?

Yeah, 100 per cent. It made me want to drive and be the best I could be. It made me want to get up when the park gate opened in the morning and do that run. I’d get home after that run, go to work, packing f****** boxes. On Tuesday night, on that train to Corinthian-Casuals – I couldn’t wait. 

That changing room wanted to beat people. We always felt we were the best. That atmosphere was unbelievable, even now I can see it, man. Oh mate. Then, in the bar afterwards was the first time I’d seen a black geezer hold a pint of beer. I went, “Andy, what’s that?” He went, “Lager top.” 

Remember, up to that time I was a youth-team footballer. I didn’t think black bods drank beer, you know? The only alcohol I ever saw growing up in my household was Guinness. That was the only drink that my mum would allow me to have! In West Indian culture, you used to mix it with egg yolk and sweetened milk, so it was like a protein drink. That was the only one that my mum would let me drink, because of the iron content. It’s a bit weird, but it’s true.

Sounds like it was a great dressing room atmosphere at Casuals.

It was just a band of brothers. Other people that were in the same boat as me, with the same belief, the same desire to make it, the same aspirations as me – wanting to get on in football. I was determined to get back to being a pro, determined to retire at 35. No matter what, that’s what I was going to do, and nothing was going to stop me. Casuals played a massive part in that. That’s why, when you reached out to me, it’s such a pleasure to be able to talk about that time of my life, and what this place did for me.

Listen to Tony alongside his former Casuals teammates Alan Pardew and Andy Gray, as they recall the 1983 FA Cup run and the side that Billy Smith built. Find Billy’s Heroes, Series 2 Episode 2 of Broadway to Brazil, on the player below, on our Podcasts page or on all podcast apps.