From the Tommy Murphy Cup to the brink of an All-Ireland final: Darren Hughes on his journey with Monaghan
DARREN Hughes should savour these heady days of Croke Park, the Super 8s and medals and awards.
Monaghan stand on the verge of the second All-Ireland final in their history and it's a sea-change from when Hughes started out in the bad old days and a Tommy Murphy Cup medal was the best a Farney man could hope for.
But he didn't get one.
The Scotstown native – one of the driving forces of the side that takes on Tyrone in tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final – was part of the team that lost the quarter-final of the All-Ireland ‘B' competition to Louth back in 2006.
So, more than anyone, he knows how far Monaghan have come in the last dozen years.
Maybe it's because they're a small, fairly unfashionable Ulster county that has come up through the ranks that, according to Hughes, Monaghan have been routinely overlooked when they mix it with the traditional big dogs.
“There were a lot of people writing us off but we knew we had enough in us to go to Galway and get a result,” said Hughes after his side had cruised to a double-scores win over the Tribesmen and he laughs at the suggestion that Monaghan are over-reliant on talismanic forward Conor McManus.
“Let them (journalists) write away; we know what's happening inside the camp,” he says.
“We'd been written off and written off, talking all week in the papers about Kerry and you're sitting back laughing.
“You look back through the stats, we've had 10 or 11 scorers a lot of the days we go out.
“It's lazy journalism again, it is, let them at it, it does us no harm. Everybody thinks we're a one-man team.”
It's hard to understand how that mindset can still exist. Hughes has been a top drawer midfielder for over a decade and – since those Tommy Murphy Cup days – he has been joined by a steady supply of equally motivated Monaghan footballers.
Rory Beggan, McManus, Colin Walshe, the Wylies, his brother Kieran, Fintan Kelly, Karl O'Connell… This year Niall Kearns has been a real find beside him in the engineroom.
“We were cock-sure going to Galway we were going to win,” says Hughes, a dairy farmer.
“We were 100 per cent sure, we had the work done.
“I suppose we had the hurt from the Kerry game and knew we needed to put in a performance. If you look back at our performances over the last two or three years, we generally put it in, we might lose a game by a couple of points but never too often are we beat out the gate.
“So we're never too far away.”
There were times in their clash with Kerry when the mighty Kingdom was in grave danger of getting a proper trouncing. But Monaghan's first half wides and a dramatic late fightback earned the Munster giants a draw they scarcely deserved.
What was Hughes' abiding memory of the late David Clifford goal that left it level?
“Rory Beggan hit me a slap on the back of the head and told me: ‘Get up the field, the game isn't over yet',” he replies.
“I suppose the initial reaction at the final whistle was frustration.
“We didn't know what the score was in the Galway game, we didn't know where we stood; we didn't know if it was in our hands.
“So we went in, got ourselves settled and Malachy (O'Rourke) came in with a big smile on his face: ‘That's great boys, three points on the board after two games, we'd have took that a couple of months ago, we'll go to Galway and win'.
“That was it, tunnel vision from there on in.
“We knew Galway might be a bit soft, they'd a game the next week either way, they'd be looking after themselves. We knew it was win or bust for us, we had to go full tilt.”
‘Full tilt' was enough in Galway and Monaghan will have to produce even better tomorrow.
They are underdogs and there are reasons why that is the case. Hughes was involved in four quarter-final losses (two to Tyrone and two to Dublin) before last Saturday's win in Salthill broke that 30-year hex. It meant they avoided Dublin (for now) but to be the best, Monaghan will have to beat the best.
“It's not a case of avoiding the Dubs,” says Hughes.
“People were saying you want to avoid them but if you're going to win it (the Sam Maguire) you'll have to play them.”
Despite disappointment like last year's one-sided loss to the Dubs and the sickening last-minute defeat to Fermanagh in this year's Ulster semi-final, the Farney fans have remained steadfastly loyal to their side.
“They follow us the length and breadth of the country, they're mad into it,” says Hughes.
“We know what to expect now, if we were in the bottom of Kerry or the top Donegal they'll follow us through thick and thin. They're always there, they're great.”
He says the fans can expect a hammer-and-tongs provincial-style rumble tomorrow in the biggest all-Ulster clash since Armagh and Tyrone met in the 2004 All-Ireland decider.
“It's an Ulster final basically to get to an All-Ireland final,” he says.
“It will be the same for both teams.”
And don't swallow any of the talk about Monaghan choking at Headquarters.
“We've won big games in Croke Park, we beat Dublin this year, we beat Down, beat Kildare, won League finals… So that's lazy journalism again.”
There'll be no more of it if Hughes and the boys win tomorrow.