'If someone said your midfield's not good enough and you need Michael Murphy there to shovel your shit, you would take it personally'
HE may be a fixture in the starting 15 nowadays, but it wasn’t so long ago that Hugh McFadden was standing on the terraces in his replica jersey, roaring on Donegal in games just like tomorrow’s huge all-Ulster clash with old rivals Tyrone.
“Probably as a fan, the biggest one would’ve been 2013,” says the Killybegs man-mountain, casting his mind back to that no-holds-barred meeting at MacCumhaill Park five years ago.
“Donegal were just coming off the back of winning the All-Ireland, everyone was saying Donegal had beaten Tyrone in 2011, 2012 and Tyrone were coming into Ballybofey to try and knock us off our perch.
“I remember when Neil McGee came out with a shoulder and sent Stephen O’Neill flying, Colm [McFadden] rattled the net and Ross Wherity scored the second goal...”
After a couple of seconds’ further consideration, McFadden’s mind casts back a couple of years earlier as the blood starts to surge and thoughts turn to the titanic tussles that would go some way to defining the Jim McGuinness era.
“2011 in Clones was our first big, big win,” he continues, remembering that year’s Ulster semi-final dogfight.
“As a fan up there, that was kind of the day Donegal came to life. Kevin Cassidy kicked a couple of massive points, ‘Brick’ Molloy got a goal in the last few seconds to win that one, so those two would stand out.”
Since coming onto the panel in 2014, however, the memories haven’t been so sweet.
McFadden played no part as Donegal succumbed to a late Tyrone rally in the 2016 Ulster final, and came on as a half-time sub in last year’s highly-anticipated - but ultimately underwhelming - provincial semi-final.
By that stage the game was all but gone as seven points on the spin saw the Red Hands take a 0-12 to 0-5 interval lead. There would be no coming back.
It was a harsh lesson for a young Donegal team that contains many of the men who have helped the Tir Chonaill flourish into one of the top teams in the country.
“We had a good win against them here in 2015, Martin McElhinney scored a cracker to win it, but then unfortunately Tyrone have sort of controlled Ulster in 2016 and 2017.
“There’ll always be the pain of that heartbreaking defeat in 2016, considering the style in which Tyrone won it to be fair to them – Peter Harte, Sean Cavanagh, they were two of the best points I’ve ever seen in person and I suppose that hurt’s always going to be there.
“The nature of the defeat was very disappointing, we do acknowledge they were a very good team performing at a very high level, but we still wouldn’t have been happy with our standards that day.”
Those two most recent Championship clashes have been largely devoid of the needle that made those earlier encounters so engrossing, with many of the main protagonists from both counties having since departed the inter-county stage.
McFadden, though, believes the spark could be reignited tomorrow afternoon.
“I do believe it’s alive,” he said.
“It’s a different set of players from the 2011-2013 teams – you know, Eamon McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden, Christy Toye, David Walsh, that generation of a player isn’t here, either are the Stephen O’Neills or Martin Penroses, the Ryan McMenamins, the McMahons [Joe and Justin], Sean Cavanagh…
“There’s been a great rivalry there considering that Tyrone generation of players were dominating in Ulster for a few years up until Donegal stood up, so there’s definitely rivalry but there’s probably a mixture now of two different teams coming together.”
One man who straddles both eras is captain Michael Murphy, the Glenswilly maestro who remains a totemic figure for the Tir Chonaill 11 years on from his senior county debut.
Murphy, who turns 29 today, is playing some of the best football of a glittering career as Declan Bonner’s Donegal side moves through the gears, yet the debate persists about where he should be stationed to inflict maximum damage.
He stole the show at full-forward the last day out against Roscommon, but has largely featured around the middle third through the rest of the summer, often playing a more offensive role while McFadden helps mind the house.
And the 24-year-old smiles at the suggestion that question marks over Murphy’s role in the team would have any kind of unsettling effect.
“The debate about where Michael plays has been going on a long time,” says McFadden.
“Probably when he came on the scene he was an absolutely fantastic out and out full-forward but the game has evolved in the midst of his career with the introduction of more defensive systems, and it became harder for some full-forwards to stand out and that was seen across the game.
“Are you going to take it as an insult that someone wants Michael Murphy to play midfield with you? I don’t anyway.
“Don’t get me wrong, if someone said your midfield’s not good enough and you need Michael Murphy there to shovel your shit for the want of a better phrase, you would take it personally.
“I think we’ve performed well in the middle sector throughout all of Ulster. Given the nature of the style of football Dublin play, it’s very hard sometimes to be competitive on their kick-out.
“Odhran Mac Niallais and I lined out at midfield against Dublin and we didn’t contest the Dublin kick-out. It wasn’t like they were out-fielding us or beating us on breaks, we just didn’t contest the kick-outs given the standard Stephen Cluxton was picking out players between his own 45.
“The criticism after the Dublin game on where Michael needed to play was a bit unwarranted. When Dublin are at it, they’re at it unfortunately but I think we proved last week [against Roscommon], when Michael was in at full-forward, that we could handle ourselves around the middle.”