Danny Hughes: I was very proud to play a part in tribute to Pat Shovelin

Former Donegal coach Pat Shovelin died in 2017

I RETURNED to inter-county action last weekend when an Allstars team was chosen to play the Donegal 2012 All-Ireland winners in a game dedicated to the memory of Ardara and Donegal legend Pat Shovelin.

Saturday, thanks to some divine intervention, turned out to be one of the nicest days of spring thus far.

When you turn off the Killybegs Road, heading west over the mountains and then drop down into the village of Ardara on the shores of the Atlantic, with the white soft beaches of Rossbeg in view, you are in awe of the landscape – especially when the sun is splitting the ‘rocks’ as they say in Donegal.

This was the tribute Pat, his wife, children and the members of the Ardara club wished it to be. The event was the very definition of what the GAA contributes to Irish life.

You had Malachy O’Rourke and Damian Diver taking charge of the Allstars team, while Declan Bonner took charge of the 2012 Donegal team. I made my Championship debut against Donegal in 2003, coming on as a substitute, incidentally being marked by Diver, who was a legend of corner-backs in Ulster at the time.

In a way, I have great memories of playing against Donegal teams during an era when it was neither glamorous nor trendy to be playing for Down or Donegal outside the county boundaries.

Consider some of the players who represented Donegal pre-2011 – legends such as Brendan Devenney, the Boyles (Brendan & Co), John Gildea, Brian Roper, Adrian Sweeney, Jim McGuinness and a young Karl Lacey, you could make the argument that the men from Tir Chonaill underachieved during the noughties.

They happened to run into an Armagh team, legendary at grinding out results in the last 10 minutes and one that was a great team in its own right.

Then you had Tyrone.

Pat Shovelin’s wife, two sons (five and three years old respectively), his mum and brothers addressed the two teams prior to the match starting. Something that would have brought a man to tears. Cancer has a lot to answer for.

The match threw in and Donegal were clearly the fitter team with a significant number of their squad still playing inter-county football.

I think it is only in time that you realise just how good some of the players on both sides are.

Tyrone’s Niall Morgan is at a different level in terms of goalkeeping. His re-starts and array of passing is genuinely brilliant in an era when goalkeepers have an increasing influence on deciding the outcome of games.

Yes, it was a challenge match with the intensity missing, but Niall saved numerous point blank ‘certs’ from Michael Murphy. Two or three consecutive thwarted follow-ups ensued to deny Murphy a goal.

I felt there was something of a psychological battle going on – a sparring session which both players subconsciously entered into prior to a potential future Championship fixture later in the year.

Neither Murphy nor Morgan gave each other a ‘by-ball’ throughout this game.

Murphy is currently (and has been) the most influential player on any team in Ireland. He is a once-in-a-generation player Donegal may never see the likes of again.

Even in a challenge match such as this one, he oozed class. His shooting, movement and ability to win primary possession at a completely different level to everyone else is impressive. I don’t think he ‘does’ challenge matches either.

Armagh legend Stevie McDonnell, meanwhile, scored one of the best goals of the game. In true ‘Stevie’ fashion, a cross-field diagonal pass pitted him one-on-one with Donegal’s goalkeeper.

Stevie flicked the ball to himself and following it up with a volley on the rebound – before it hit the ground.

There are guys getting paid £100k a week to do that in the Premier League.

Not to be out-done, Mayo’s Conor Mortimer hit the top corner of the net after Derry’s Enda Muldoon kicked a crossfield pass into him that very few people are capable of executing.

Again, the fitness might not be there compared to today’s players, but the head and the skill levels most certainly are.

Ardara man Paddy McGrath and Kilcar’s Mark McHugh were breaking from Donegal’s defence and with Rory Kavanagh raiding from midfield, Donegal’s forward line became too much to handle for some of the Allstars in defence.

Therefore, Joe McMahon decided to revert to the dark arts he had mastered for so many years and, for him, it appeared as easy to pick up as it is to riding a bike again.

Dick Clerkin decided to give his own exhibition in wide kicking, having a perfect 10 from 10 attempts.

When queried, Dick told us all that shooting from distance was the best way around the blanket defence.

Malachy O’Rourke, who was managing us, had his hood over his head at this point, reaching for the painkillers in his kitbag.

I have not seen Barry Dunnion for years and he has been almost forgotten about in terms of inter-county status.

For me, Barry revolutionised attacking half-back play and, remembering those deep-lying lung-busting runs, he was obviously a manager’s dream in terms of supporting players. He continues to be a real gentleman on and off the field.

I have concluded that, in a significant number of cases, commitment and dedication will only take you so far.

Sometimes, the natural ability one is born with is extremely difficult to develop and improve.

Whether it was Niall Morgan’s radar like place-kicking or Stevie’s volley or, indeed, Michael Murphy’s ability to win a ball and turn on a sixpence, how much of this is genetic? They are lucky men, I guess, and perhaps have had to work less hard than most of us.

Moreover, when you add their work-rate into the equation, in my mind there is no doubt that these type of players have a distinct advantage.

People say that certain players couldn’t make it in certain eras, but that is something that I find quite difficult to reconcile sometimes. Good and great players in any sport would adapt.

Top players would make it in any era at any level and whether defensive football is the norm or not. The players mentioned would be comfortable playing at the elite level regardless.

Footballers, to a large extent, are born. They are not made and, while their natural skills may be different, it is identifying and harnessing the best attributes of the individual which is the coach’s best skill.

We cannot all be a Michael Murphy, but each one of us has a particular role to play. It is finding this and embracing that unique attribute which allows one to reach the top of their chosen field.

Pat Shovelin knew this. His infectious and positive approach to life shone through in Ardara and Donegal last Saturday. Few will have this impact on their community.

This was his uniqueness and, in the end, the game was his greatest tribute.

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