Ryan McHugh . . . ready for action with Donegal
If Antrim are to harbour any hope of defeating Donegal, they must nullify two of Tir Conaill’s greatest assets.
The first is obviously Michael Murphy, the O’Donnell County’s greatest ever player.
And a lithe lean Peter Pan type lad from Kilcar is arguably the second, one Ryan McHugh, scion of a truly great Gaelic football dynasty.
Last year’s All-Star will never be a gym bunny and is a refreshing antidote to some of the stocky cloned bulging biceps of many other players who have endured major renovations in the gym.
McHugh is an athlete with the razor footballing brain of a Peter Canavan, bewildering pace and uncanny ability to start and end moves by finding the net.
This latter asset is probably his greatest calling card, allied to an uncanny ability to read a game like a chess master.
But he is always grounded and constantly deadpans his own remarkable ability on the eve of a championship clash with rank outsiders Antrim.
Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone and every other team have identified and targeted the Kilcar maestro for special attention.
But being a “marked man” does not perturb this most self-contained of young men.
“That is the way it goes and there is nothing I can do about it if I am going to be targeted.
“I can’t stop an opposition manager or opposition players from targeting me.
“You just have to focus on your own game and on yourself and make yourself improve as a better player.
“There is no point looking back and saying that I played well last year, I have to prove myself again this year as everyone else has to prove themselves every time they put on a Donegal or club jersey”.
McHugh is quietly sure of his wares but never stops learning and takes each match in the most pragmatic manner.
He has an easy manner and numbers Monaghan’s Kieran Hughes, with whom he shared a house in Belfast, as one of a number of friends and rivals in the GAA world.
And he already knows Antrim’s towering Niall McKeever and Ricky and Martin Johnston and got to know Ryan Murray from being in Belfast.
"They are all good lads and good footballers.
“Niall may be injured at the minute but he was a very good captain for us in UUJ earlier this year”.
Donegal may be the hottest of favourites against an Antrim side that has some internal problems, but McHugh is just focusing on Sunday.
“It is a cliché but it is really is one game at a time.
“We are really looking forward to the championship and we feel ourselves that we had an ok League.
“We were disappointed that we did not make the League final especially considering the position we were in.
“We put ourselves in the position to win against Mayo, being ahead at half-time and were disappointed that we did not carry on and win the game and get to the League final.
“But there is no point in looking back in football and that is what we are doing by focusing on Antrim”.
And he is very aware of the pitfalls of being red-hot favourites.
“Anything can happen in football on any given day.
“We can just prepare the best we can by taking on board what Rory and his backroom team tell us and try and perform to the best of our ability”.
So where will the threats come from Antrim?
“The threats are all over the pitch.
“They will have good runners coming from deep.
‘They have CJ McGourty inside and a number of other good footballers.
“I have got to know Antrim from being up there in college and they are a huge footballing county”.
Antrim are under no pressure and having nothing to lose as McHugh concedes.
“They are under no expectation whatsoever and the whole pressure will be on us but we have to be fit carry that and be fit top perform when the pressure is on.”
When asked about his views on the shock proposed departure of his talented club mate Stephen McBrearty to the US, he said:
“He is going to be a huge loss to club and county, but I suppose he is young and he has to live his life as well.
“There is life other than football, he will be a massive loss and will be missed coming up in the car to training as he is good ould craic.
“I wish him all the best and I hope he gets on well”.
McHugh admitted that McBrearty’s decision was a “surprise”.
“Of course it was a surprise and was not expected and he had a great game for Kilcar against Gaoth Dobhair on May 7 and probably carried us over the line.
“Anytime you hear news like that it is a shock but what can you do as he has obviously made up his mind.
“Hopefully he will come back bigger and better”.
But Ryan and Co has an extra bit of motivation this year, after losing out narrowly in two Ulster finals in 2015 and again last year.
“We felt we did not do ourselves justice last year and especially in the final against Tyrone having been in a winning position.
“It was very disappointing not to seal victory.
“But people say you learn more from your defeats and hopefully we can put it right this year, starting with Antrim”.
So what did Donegal learn from the Ulster final last year?
“We have a lot of new players this year so last year is not relevant to then but otherwise we need to learn how to close out a game better.
“We were four points up in the second half in that final against Tyrone.
“It is hard to know what do sometimes in the heat of battle and you have to be thinking and on your toes the whole time”.
But the regular addition of some towering youngsters like Jason McGee, Michael Langan, Michael Carr, Eoghan Ban Gallagher and speed merchants like Jamie Brennan and Cian Mulligan has given McHugh and the older players a “new lease of life”.
“It has been great since they have come in and those young lads have won Ulster minor and U-21 titles with Donegal and a Buncrana Cup.
“They have given everyone a lift and they want the jersey just as badly as Michael Murphy or myself.
“And they deserve it just as much and training has been very competitive”
Unlike other years, Donegal are relatively injury free which is “half the battle” according to McHugh.
“Yes that has been the case and it is great to have as many men as possible on the training field.
“Jason McGee had a wee concussion in the U-21 match and is back training and is a phenomenal footballer and Donegal are extremely lucky to have him”.
And boy, are they lucky to have a guy of the calibre of Ryan McHugh!