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Armagh defender Paul Hughes takes the road less travelled

Paul Hughes has excelled for Armagh this season

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THE first thing you notice about Paul Hughes when he wanders into the lobby area of the Canal Court Hotel in Newry is the uncanny resemblance to former Armagh great Paul McGrane.

He has the same hair-style. The same gait.

There's not a pick of fat on his wiry frame.

He has the same deep voice and careful delivery.

And like McGrane – if you ever managed to corner the big midfielder at a press night back in the halcyon days – there’s a maturity beyond Hughes' 25 years.

When you listen to the Crossmaglen man's sporting journey you wonder how this interview is taking place at all.

He should have faded away a long time ago.

He missed the cut for the county minors in 2009 – the year Paul McShane’s young Orchard crew went on to win the All-Ireland title.

He played plenty of league football for Crossmaglen - but when it came to Championship he never kicked a ball in the club’s back-to-back All-Ireland successes in 2011 and 2012.

He made his NFL debut for Armagh in 2014 under Paul Grimley and Kieran McGeeney, but an Achilles injury effectively derailed his season.

He recovered his fitness in time for Armagh’s Championship push but he couldn’t force his way back into the starting XV.

Condemned, yet again, to another watching brief.

The last thing Hughes wanted was to be hanging around successful squads like a spare part, but that’s the role he was cast in.

One evening he called to see Tony McEntee to tell them of his intentions to drop down to the club’s reserve team.

McEntee reluctantly agreed to Hughes’ request.

Both McEntee and Gareth O'Neill might've begged to differ but at no stage did Hughes regard the move as a backward step.

“The club had just won two All-Irelands in a row and I didn’t play a minute,” explains Hughes.

“I played in the league but not a minute of Championship.

“I loved every minute of those All-Ireland wins, but you don’t feel as part of it because you’re not actually playing. So I wanted to improve myself.

“I remember the night I said to Tony. I told him I wanted to drop down to ’Cross seconds – they play pretty much junior football in Armagh.

“Tony and Gareth didn’t want me to drop off but I just wanted constant football.

“I wanted to be a leader on a team; to feel I was contributing to the win. Tony said I’d be better staying in the seniors, playing against better teams…”

The progress Hughes made that year with the reserves was “exceptional”, according to Oisin McConville.

McEntee and O’Neill were aware of Hughes’ brilliant form and they invited back onto the senior squad.

“It was the right decision [to drop down],” says Hughes.

“I knew playing there that I was above that standard – not sounding big-headed – and I went back and played a few challenge games with the senior team.”

Hughes always viewed himself as an attack-minded midfielder but when Conor O’Neill got injured in a challenge game, McEntee and O’Neill put him in at corner-back as cover.

After the game, McEntee declared: ‘I think you’ve found a new position.’

Despite his protestations that's where Hughes has found himself since.

“Corner-back is a very thankless job. People think you’ve no skill; you’re there to stop your man. It’s like: don’t play the game, stop your man’.”

“I like to be on the ball. I don’t see myself as just a corner-back trying to stop someone. I want to impact the game going forward.”

Graduating to the club seniors, however, was a key objective.

An Armagh call-up followed in 2014.

From a tactical perspective, it was a culture shock Hughes didn’t enjoy.

“When I was first on the Armagh panel – in 2014 – it wasn’t very enjoyable because we were playing 12 men behind the ball, at least.

“It’s not even enjoyable as a defender because you’re just stuck there at the back.

“At ’Cross, it’s kick, kick, kick, attack, attack and man-for-man. We still try to play that way every game and look for the kick pass. Going from that to county football was less enjoyable.”

No wonder Hughes decided to park his county career for two summer stints in New York in 2015 and 2016.

Living in Yonkers, enjoying the delights of Broadway and playing a bit of ball on America's east coast was one of the most fulfilling experiences he’s had.

Indeed, it was in the Big Apple where Hughes believed he might be good enough to be a regular in the Armagh team.

“You always have it in the back of your head: ‘Right, I’m a good club footballer but maybe I’m not able to make that next step to inter-county’.

“Because I come from ’Cross, such a big club with so many brilliant footballers, maybe you’re thinking that I’m good because I’m in this system; maybe I’m just a cog in the machine.

“But I think going away to New York helped, where I played for Donegal, because all the players out there are county players.

“It’s a good standard, maybe not as intense, but you were playing against pretty much county teams.

“New York gave me the confidence that maybe I could play county back home.”

Upon his return home in September 2016, McGeeney sent him a text about attending trials.

Hughes, though, didn’t rush to a decision.

“I said to Kieran I wanted to think about it for a few days because county football is such a big commitment. You have to be all in or there’s no point being there at all.”

Hughes spoke to John McEntee, Oisin McConville and Gareth O’Neill for advice and they convinced him that he was good enough to make the grade with Armagh.

“Maybe you do need to hear that from those boys, that you are good enough to play for the county,” he says matter-of-factly. “So I text Kieran back and told him I was 100 per cent in.”

After being thrust from the bench to replace the injured Ciaran Higgins on 17 minutes in their NFL opener against Sligo in Markievicz Park, Hughes played every minute of Armagh’s Division Three campaign and nailed down one of the corner-back berths.

“I’ve been given the freedom to go forward,” he says.

“It’s not like I’m stuck in the corner. I’m happy doing either but I like going forward. Kieran is giving licence to go forward.

“I think the last few years people have been critical of the way the team was set up. This year we’ve been playing very brave and letting a lot of players go forward.

“Every night we’re trying to perfect our system. We know a lot of county teams are dropping 13 and 14 men behind the ball and if you don’t commit numbers forward you’re not going to break them down.

"It’s being able to balance that and if you are turned over you are switched on to get back.

“We don’t want to drop 13 men behind the ball – we want to keep the likes of Jamie [Clarke], ‘Soupy’ [Campbell] and Andy Murnin up top.

“We don’t want them on our 21-yard line. We’re trying to play the game the right way and it has been enjoyable this year.”

Hughes popped up with important scores against Laois and Louth and has put opposition forwards on the back foot for long periods, particularly against Louth.

McGeeney's more expansive approach this year has also added to the buoyancy of the group.

“We’re a pretty close team,” says Hughes.

“I know sometimes there is this thing between the north Armagh boys and the south Armagh boys.

“But we get on pretty well. We’ve had a few nights out together – they’re not forced nights out.

“It’s not like management said to go out together and gel. Nobody is saying: ‘You all need to be friends’.

“It’s not like that. There was a Christmas night out and after the League we went out, and it was a great night.

“There is good banter among us but we hold each other accountable. We’re not here to mess about.

“We like to have fun while we’re doing it. It’s finding that balance of training well and enjoying it.”

Hughes adds: “We like to say: ‘What’s your ‘why’?’ What are your reasons for wanting to play for Armagh and so you make your sacrifices based on that, and everybody is happy to make those sacrifices.

“When you’re with the county you want to win; you don’t want to be training four or five nights a week just to make an Ulster final and be put out of the Qualifiers every year.

“We want to win things. I know we’re not where we were 10 years ago but we want to get back there."

For the 25-year-old Crossmaglen native, his world starts and ends with Armagh's June 4 date with Down in Newry.

“I think the most addictive thing is the game-day, the crowd, knowing that you’re playing against the best of another county. That’s it for me.

“I’m pretty sure the majority of Gaelic footballers don’t love training. Who loves training?

“But you do it for those days. June 4 will probably be the biggest game of my life, especially if I’m starting. It is days like that why you put in all the training. I can’t wait.”

Paul Hughes has taken the road less travelled to get to this point and is living proof that you can still reach the top without coming through conventional pathways.

“Some people might think you have to be unbelievable at an early age.

“It was only at U16 I really started pushing on with my football. At U12 and U14 I wasn’t anything special.

“It’s how you progress and how you fill into yourself. It’s obviously good to be around that county set-up at an early age but I don’t think it’s a necessity.”

STRENGTHS

AGAINST Louth, Armagh looked the real deal, Ulster contenders even. They matched, and won, the physical battle and never panicked when they were reduced to 14 men after a minute of play.

It’s a game that they probably would have lost in Kieran McGeeney’s first year in charge.

Armagh are evolving nicely.

For the first time since he took over from Paul Grimley, ‘Geezer’ is seeing the fruits of his labour more often and for longer periods in games.

Arguably their greatest improvement has been their transition from defence to attack.

It is executed with greater tempo and confidence. Compared to last summer’s rancid Championship campaign, Armagh look like a team that has finally forged an identity for itself.

Team selection from game-to-game has been a much smoother process than previous seasons and they also have a forward line that demands respect from the opposition.

To have both Jamie Clarke and ‘Soupy’ Campbell available is a huge plus for Armagh, while playmaker Rory Grugan is another outstanding talent who can put a ball on a sixpence for the aforementioned front pair.

Midfielders Oisin O’Neill and Stephen Sheridan look the part too, Mark Shields' return from injury gives more thrust from wing-back, while Paul Hughes and Ben Crealey have added more quality to the Orchard County this year.

WEAKNESSES

GIVEN the increased importance of the National Football League, playing Division Three football will undoubtedly be a drawback for Armagh.

Of course, Monaghan won an Ulster title from the lower echelons of the NFL but they were a more seasoned crew than this Armagh side.

And while there is more of an attacking edge about the class of 2017 (defenders contributed 3-8 during the League) they are inclined to leave the back door open too often, perhaps a natural consequence of their willingness to get forward from defensive positions.

Their conversion rate could be better too as their profligacy cost them dearly against the likes of Sligo and Tipperary, while Antrim were still in the game longer than they should have been.

In short, Armagh don’t put teams away and lack a ruthless edge that is integral to every top team.

And they are still susceptible to bouts of inexplicable inconsistency in games.

The goalkeeping position has been a bugbear of Geezer’s ever since he took the job and he’ll be hoping Paddy Morrison is fit to face Down on June 4.

Morrison didn’t play any League football due to injury so the team doesn’t have a lot of time for kick-out rehearsals.

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