Twenty years. A long time looking forward. Much shorter looking back. Just how quickly the last two decades have been is something which has amazed Martin McHugh as he reflects on the glory days of 1992.
“There aren’t too many 20 years in a lifetime,” declares the Kilcar man, who was voted Donegal’s best ever footballer in the 125 year history of the Association in a poll carried out by the Donegal Democrat in 2009.
Better known now among the younger generation for his views on the game through his role as co-commentator and analyst on RTE and Highland Radio, and through his column with The Star newspaper, the “Wee Man”, as he was affectionately known, doesn’t mind an odd look back at the past. But he’s not one to stare.
“It was enjoyable at the time,” he says about past glories.
“But the important thing in life is being able to move on.”
With his son, Mark, established as an automatic choice in the Donegal team, and his younger son, Ryan, part of this year’s Donegal minor team, his interest in Donegal football was never stronger.
Another thing the drinks’ company owner finds hard to believe is that the county has only won one senior All-Ireland.
“The players from counties who have just won one All-Ireland are burdened somewhat because they will always be compared until they make the breakthrough themselves. But we’re in a different era now. It’s important to move on and let everyone have their own time.”
Luck, he stresses, plays a big part in life. And it was, he maintains, with Donegal in the championship campaign of 1992.
“The draw was very favourable to us – we had Cavan in the first round, Fermanagh in the semi-final, Derry in the Ulster final and Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final. We only had to peak for two matches really to win an All-Ireland. I know I be giving out about Kerry only having to peak for two matches to win an All-Ireland, but that’s the way it was.”
A number of clubs that fed into the Donegal squad in 1992 aren’t the force they once were – a fact that isn’t lost on the man who played 138 times for the county. Glen, Kilcar and Killybegs had nine players in the ‘92 squad. Kilcar regained promotion to Division One last season, Killybegs are in Division Two and Naomh Columba are in Division Three.
“14 of the 15 players who started the All-Ireland final were from the south. The under-21 team of 1982 had 11 – with Donal Reid, Paul Car, Eunan McIntyre and Charlie Mulgrew – being the other four.
“Ballyshannon, MacCumhaills and St Eunan’s always produced a good style of a gaelic footballer,” he opines.
He comes from the school where hard graft is the foundation for success. After winning Sam, he reckons, not enough on the ground work was done.
“Our school of excellence should have been set up because we were competing against soccer back then. We are paying the price since for that missed opportunity.”
While acknowledging the extreme level of fitness required in the modern game, Martin says he’d like to see teams going back to the basics of gaelic football.
“Crossmaglen have done it and have shown they are able to win All-Ireland club titles. And still, they have only two players who are probably good enough for the county team. We need to go back to the catch and the kick – it’s certainly easier on the eye,” he insists.
According to the double-winning All-Star, there’s a huge amount of pressure on managers. Back in his day, it was all about the players. Today, he says it’s more about the man at the helm.
Asked about the type of tactics adopted by Donegal last season which came in for a fair degree of criticism, he says: “I think Donegal’s style of football will change this year. The important thing from Jim McGuinness’s point of view last year was to win an Ulster title. It was important to win Ulster having gone so long without having won a provincial title.”
While he carries many happy memories of the third Sunday in September in 1992 and the days that followed, escorting the Sam Maguire into Kilcar and stopping outside the home of his parents in the townland of Bavin is a moment in his life that is locked inside, never to be forgotten.
“I had shivers going up my back taking the cup into Kilcar. The pipe band was out, you saw all your friends and the GAA people who had done a lot for you. It was great for them to see me arrive back with the cup. Having my brother, James, standing beside me for that experience was also special. I was so happy for mammy and daddy because they had two sons on the Donegal team that had won the All-Ireland. Coming back into Kilcar that night would still bring a tear to the eye thinking about it.”
As brothers, himself and James were extremely close and Martin rated him highly as a player. Martin believes that because they were brothers, this might have backfired on James in the earlier days of his playing career.
“Every individual should be seen as what they are, not who they are. I’m not saying James was an underestimated footballer, but he was one of the top players in Donegal and this wasn’t always recognised.”
On the homecoming the following evening, Martin feels things should have been done differently.
“Coming back to Donegal Town on the Monday night was great. But I do think we made a mistake not coming back to Pettigo because our first stop on the Monday evening should have been in Donegal. And that should have been in Pettigo because the Pettigo people were always good to us – they were always with us in good times and in bad.”
Martin chipped in with three points in the defeat of Dublin and a number of moments stand out from that tussle with the Leinster champions. James’s shot crashing off the crossbar and him picking up the rebound before popping the ball over the bar. A shot from Manus Boyle which clipped the top of the crossbar before going over.
“After Charlie Redmond’s penalty miss for Dublin, I’d say we played the best football of our careers in the second quarter. A great bunch of talented footballers clicked into gear and every one of our lines was exceptional.”
It was only when Declan Bonner pointed from under the Hogan Stand to open up the lead to four points that Martin believed Donegal were going to be crowned champions.
He thoroughly enjoyed the celebrations that followed and went to every single venue and function with the cup – such was his desire to savour the success.
There was to be no successful defence of Sam Maguire or the Anglo Celt in 1993. Derry defeated Donegal at a rain-soaked Clones and the following year, Martin played his final game for Donegal when Tyrone knocked them out of the Ulster championship at the semi-final stage at Breffni Park
He was shot down for the Donegal manager’s job when Brian McEniff called it a day after that defeat by Tyrone, with the Donegal County Board selecting PJ McGowan ahead of the creator-in-chief who had just finished up a senior inter-county career which spanned 14 years.
He then opted to throw his lot in with Cavan and in 1997, after three years of hard slog, planning and plotting, he guided them to their first Ulster title for 28 years.
While he still doesn’t rule out the possibility of taking on the job as Donegal senior team manager, he’d love to see the minors make their mark.
“It would be great for Donegal to win a minor All-Ireland. I’d like to see the big players taken in and developed at under-14 level. If their skills are developed, and get them using both feet, that will help them carry them through.
“There are so many different sports out there, so we have to make gaelic football enjoyable. I feel there is so much pressure on managers and players that the enjoyment isn’t there.
“For the years I managed Cavan, I put everything I had into it. That took a lot out of me and I find it very, very hard to think about going back to a task like that. Management today is very much a young man’s game. I’ll never say never. I love Donegal football. You never know what might change down the road. But for now I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I love watching schools football and underage football.”
Medals and championships apart, one other memory Martin carries with him was an end of game conversation he had with the great PJ Flood in Pettigo, in the early days of his adult playing career with Kilcar
“I remember PJ coming over to me after the match, putting his arm around me and saying ‘you’re a good one young McHugh. Watch yourself and keep at it’.”