When he was on the outside looking in before being named as Donegal senior team manager, Jim McGuinness was known to sit with a notepad and pen.
He’d document his thoughts in doodles and diagrams to form the delicate outline of the system that would ultimately divide opinion and conquer the established order. Although frequently replicated, it was never intended for roll-out purposes. McGuinness’s blueprint was derived with careful consideration of the players he would eventually manage.
One such player, whom McGuinness managed first at U-21 level in 2010, was Mark McHugh. He was then a not so famous son of a famous father. Martin was Donegal’s talisman in their first capturing of Sam Maguire in 1992. But Mark didn’t fit the contemporary stereotype for a Donegal panel who needed bulking up to compete, first and foremost, in Ulster.
He was still a teen when McGuinness took over in July 2010, slight in frame and a little raw, although McHugh possessed superb levels of natural fitness and the ingrained abilities to read a game. Those attributes made him the perfect link between defence and attack.
McHugh, the sweeper, was named an All-Star in 2012 and was a vital constituent in Donegal’s All-Ireland victory. The famous son of the famous father and the images of their celebrating the final whistle following the 2-11 to 0-13 win over Mayo - eyes both bellowing with tears - was one of the abiding memories.
Last season, having joined Donegal New York and taken a break from the inter-county scene, Mark woke in Dublin on the morning of the All-Ireland final with Donegal due to face Kerry. His brother Ryan scored two goals as McGuinness’s team upset the football world to topple Dublin 3-14 to 0-17 in the semi-final. Now there was another famous son.
“There was a pain in the gut of my stomach and I was thinking it would be absolutely great to be playing out there today,” Mark McHugh recalled this week. “I was a Donegal supporter that day.”
The next morning, most of Donegal woke with a pain in their head as a crowd of 3,000 attended the CityWest banquet - a sombre occasion as the county’s seniors and minors had both lost All-Ireland finals to Kerry.
“I was heartbroken,” McHugh added. “The lads were inconsolable that night and it was depressing for everyone in Donegal. I would’ve loved to have hopped onto the field and helped them.”
McHugh has returned. New manager Rory Gallagher, Donegal’s assistant from 2011 to 2013, was someone who also watched football with a notepad and pen, as well as having joint-managed the McHughs at Kilcar.
“Sometimes when a new man comes in it takes that four or five months to get to know his ways,” McHugh added ahead of Tyrone visiting Ballybofey in the Ulster SFC preliminary round tomorrow week. “We didn’t have that with Rory as it was all so familiar. It was pretty seamless.”
There’s been a familiar crossover in terms of management but where McHugh stands in Gallagher’s same-only-different system remains to be seen. Twenty-four-year-old McHugh is though, having returned to training following a cracked rib and then a quad-muscle injury, willing to work his way back in.
“I would not say that they were grieving,” he added of the All-Ireland hangover. “When we came back in, there were positives. They were saying ‘right boys, let’s make amends, we did lose last year but let’s put it right this year’. A lot of that is down to Rory just getting everyone properly prepared with a positive attitude.
“I enjoyed my break but I am back now. It is not like I never left but you are back in and your blood, sweat and tears is left on the field like the rest of them.”