Wee James they called him, but at times he was a colossus for both club and county.
James McHugh was easily among the top three club footballers that I have seen in my time attending Gaelic football matches in Donegal since the late 1970s.
Amazingly, it took the county selectors some time to be convinced. He was almost 25 before he got the call up in 1989 and it another year before he made his championship bow.
But then he became a fixture, mostly at half-forward, although when playing for his club, the number on the jersey could be anything from 2 to 15.
Whether it was the slight frame that disguised the teak-tough interior, his late call-up will probably never be known and looking back now James has no bad memories.
Man of the match in his first Ulster final, his consistency and workrate in the Donegal half-forward line was instrumental in the county reaching the great pinnacle of winning Sam Maguire in 1992.
Winning possession and protecting it was part of what James McHugh took to the table. Being able to win the odd free also helped, but in doing so he was always putting his body on the line for the benefit of the team. You can just imagine that he would have been really suited to the way Donegal play their football at present.
“Looking back on it now, it was all good memories. You’re inclined to forget all the bad memories. The memories I would have of 1992 would be no different than the memories I would have of the county scene in general.
“Your memories are all about fun. It’s not about winning and losing. I remember that time travelling up in the car (to training). You had Martin and myself and Noel Hegarty and John Joe; maybe stopping off the odd evening when we shouldn’t have. It’s all good, positive memories.
“I enjoyed my time with the county, albeit it is a completely different scene to what you have now, even going down to the social scene; it was part and parcel of it. I enjoyed every minute of it,” says James.
Just like he performed on the field, James goes against the argument put forward by so many that Donegal would have retained their All-Ireland crown in 1993, but for the awful conditions that pertained in Clones for the Ulster final against Derry.
“Maybe the edge went off us after we won the All-Ireland, whether we were an old team or whatever it was. I think a lot of us were maybe more than happy to have got the All-Ireland because we hadn’t really been competing.
“In 1990 we won Ulster but then we got hammered in 1991. We had come from a distance and then you could see again in 1993. I always say, and I know people don’t like me saying it, that the wet day probably saved us. I don’t think we had the appetite for it and a lot of players had lost the edge,” says James.
“They were a good group of players and it was unfortunate that they were as old when they won it. Looking back, I always compare it to now. When you go to a club game now, nobody has to tell you who the county players are. It was similar back then. All them players were on top of their game for the club. We could have won another one, but as for disappointments, I couldn’t look back and say I had any. It is something you will always be remembered for and something that you will always remember yourself, particularly because it was the first.”
Comparing those days with the county to what is happening now, the Kilcar man feels that any expectation that is around at the moment is well founded.
“The expectation nowadays is founded because if you take the last few games. It took Dublin all their time to beat them and the expectation is there and well founded and I would tell our boys that,” he says.
But he also feels that there are other big differences from twenty years ago, not least being the introduction of the qualifier system. Wearing his new hat as senior club manager of Kilcar, he has first hand knowledge of this.
“The back door system has changed the football; you can argue for the good or the bad, but it definitely has changed it to the detriment of club football, but for the benefit of county football. But again, like everything else in the GAA, money is the important issue.
“When you consider that time (in 1992) you had Down, Derry and Donegal, who were three very, very good side. You remember that game in Celtic Park, was in 1994, when Derry met Down in the first round in what was a very, very good game of football. But unfortunately in the month of May Derry were gone out of the championship,” says James, who feels that the back door system is tearing the heart and soul out of club football.
“We have two county players here and they are mad to play for their club. It’s not just our lads. It’s nothing to do with them. Club football is now very secondary. They have been brushing over it in recent years, but it’s just a pure camouflage. Something has to be done and we have to be careful. It’s one thing filling Croke Park or Ulster venues, but go through clubs to see how they are surviving. If we kill the goose that lays the golden egg, we won’t have crowds in Croke Park,” warns James.
James was a latecomer at county level. After playing minor and U-21 for the county, he was only introduced to the county panel by Tom Conaghan in 1988. He missed out the 1989 season before being brought back in by Brian McEniff, when he took over the reins in 1990.
“We were going well at the club in the 1980s and that put me in the shop window. I never look back with any regret. You cannot do when you have won an All-Ireland.
“Maybe there was one thing about that group of players. It was a better team than we would have given ourselves credit for,” said James, who felt the entire panel were fabulous club players.
James feels that Down had led the way. “People again wouldn’t like me saying that but back then Ulster and Connacht football was poor.
“I would always have great admiration for Dublin as they bring great glamour to games, even this year when they played us. To beat Dublin in the All-Ireland final was special,” said James, who felt the win in the Ulster final over Derry in 1992 was probably the spur.
“Our backs were to the wall and we got belief from that,” says James, who added that even though Mayo could have beaten them in the semi-final, they would not have gone on to win it. “There was a lot of quality in that Donegal team.”
Taking the Sam Maguire home to Kilcar was one of his greatest memories, especially as his club was so strong at the time and they won the senior championship again the following year in 1993.
The club is special to him and he returns again to the theme of clubs having to play without their best players in the present county set up.
“We had six players who played championship football in Breffni this year (four minor and two senior) and that was a fabulous thing for the club, people, schools,” says James, who feels that the system now of playing games without club players will lead to clubs being punished for producing county players.
“Supporters paying into club games want to see Patrick McBrearty and Mark McHugh and the McGees playing. There has to be a system found to suit the clubs,” says James, who feels that players have to play league games for their clubs.
One of those minor players in the Ulster Minor Championship in Breffni Park this year was James’s son, Eoin, who is a chip off the old block, with lightning speed and low centre of gravity.
The McHugh name is known throughout the county and well beyond for many years now and it looks as if the tradition will continue well into the future.