Mark McHugh will line out in his second Ulster final against Down on Sunday, just two years after he made a disappointing start to his inter-county career, with a defeat at the hands of the Mourne men.
The son of one of Donegal’s most famous footballers, Martin McHugh, Mark had been identified as a future star for the senior team from a young age. However, his debut did not go to plan when Donegal meet Sunday’s opponents in the first round of the Ulster Championship in MacCumhaill Park in 2010. “I came on just before the end of the game that day. It was a disappointing game for me. I would have been hoping that my debut would be a good day for Donegal but it turned out to be disappointing. We went out to Armagh then and got well beat.”
McHugh entered the fray as a 62nd minute substitute and kicked a point as Donegal pegged back James McCartan’s side to force extra-time. However, Down’s craft and guile shone through in the additional 20 minutes.
A lot has changed since that defeat in MacCumhaill Park. John Joe Doherty was replaced in the dug-out by Jim McGuinness, and Donegal have been on the rise ever since. They are now stronger and faster, and they have a new winning mentality installed in them by McGuinness.
“Donegal have that wee bit more belief than back two years ago. I would have come on and it wasn’t the same feeling as it is going out now. You always feel something was going to happen that day and Benny Coulter got the goal. Even last year against Kildare we were able to grind our teeth more and dig out the victory. You would hope that if it came upon us again, we would have that wee bit to pull through,” he added.
Donegal have been serenaded with praise from throughout the country, and they go into the Ulster final as raging hot favourites. Paddy Power have placed Down at 4/1 to lift the Anglo Celt cup for the first time since 1994. However, McHugh does not believe it will be as one sided as that.
“We played Down in the first game of the league this year up in Newry and they beat us. They have some phenomenal forwards there. Wee Conor Laverty is playing unbelievable stuff; Danny Hughes, Mark Poland, Benny Coulter, Kevin McKiernan, all these players. I can’t see how all these bookies have put us at 1/4 favourites.
“It’s an Ulster final and every team going into an Ulster final expects and believes that they are going to win the game. Going up to that field, once you cross the line, it’s going to be a 50/50 battle. There will be no going back once you cross that white line and it’s going to be a real, real battle.”
For years, Down have been labelled with a strong attack, but a poor defence. But McHugh was quick to dismiss this talk and suggested that they will be working hard on ways to stop the Donegal forwards in Clones.
“You would expect Kevin McKiernan to play and they’ll probably have Dan Gordon at full-back. They will be working hard on that area since the Monaghan game. They wouldn’t be happy with the way they played in the first half against Monaghan. Monaghan tore them asunder and they’re going to address that and it won’t happen again. It’s going to be like the Tyrone game, it’s going to be a titanic battle with both teams trying to break the other team down. Hopefully we can do that.”
Although McHugh is usually named in the half-forward line for Donegal, he has been very effective under Jim McGuinness in a sweeper role. His superb fitness levels allow him to be in defence and then in the forward sector in seconds. The Kilcar clubman has three points to his name in the championship to date, including a fantastic point from 50 yards against Tyrone. He regularly lines out in a more forward position for his club Kilcar, but he insists he doesn’t mind playing a defensive role for Donegal.
“Listen, the team comes first. Any day I go out, the manager gives me a job to do, whether it’s corner forward or corner back, I’ll do it as best I can. If the team is achieving, why would I change? There’s no good being a selfish player and letting the team down. There’s plenty of other players there like Paddy McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden who are better at kicking the ball over the bar than I am any day of the week, so I’m not going to take it away from them. If I’m there I’ll do the best I can. I kicked a bad wide against Tyrone in the second half and I didn’t score against Derry. It’s just the way things turned out.”
Controversial footballer Conor Mortimor caused a stir in GAA circles last week, by leaving the Mayo senior panel following his omission from the starting fifteen for the Connacht final. His decision has led to rumours of disharmony in the Mayo camp. In the past, similar suggestions were made of the Donegal panel, but McHugh insists that everyone is pulling the same way now.
“Jim (McGuinness) is responsible for that. From the first day, nobody was going to stray off on their own path. With the amount of work you put in, there’s no point in someone going off on a stray path. I don’t know Conor Mortimer at all, and I don’t know what happened. You don’t get that feeling in Donegal and we are all united and we’ll be going into this final as a team and hopefully come out on top.”
The Sligo IT student praised his Kilcar teammate Paddy McBrearty, and he talked of how easy it was to play with him both for Kilcar and Donegal.
“Any player will tell you that if you play club football with someone, you will know them better, when they peel off, when you give the ball, whatever. Patrick is a phenomenal talent. I know as I played with him at underage. He is one of the best I’ve ever played with and he’s not 19 until August. “But that is the way Donegal has evolved. If I play with the likes of Michael Murphy or David Walsh or Ryan Bradley, I’ll know exactly what they are going to do.”
McHugh turns 22 in August and he could have two Ulster senior medals by then, a remarkable feat considering the disappointment of his debut in the green and gold only two years ago. He acknowledges that a lot of good footballers from Donegal went their whole inter-county career without any silverware, and realises that he and Donegal are a formidable outfit under McGuinness.
“You feel for those boys that went through the same work as we put in and they got nothing. There is a great bunch now and I feel privileged to be part of it. That’s why any day you put on that Donegal jersey, you do so to go out and do your best. We are hopeful of getting victory and I’ll make no apology for having two medals in my back pocket. It’s a great feeling and it’s great to be there and hopefully everything works out on Sunday.”