The Championship

Donegal's Ryan McHugh is a footballing breed apart

Donegal's Ryan McHugh will come up against Fermanagh on Sunday  

Ryan McHugh comes from a famous footballing family but, as he tells Gerry Maguire, he feels a fraternal bond with all his Donegal team-mates... 

IN THE last century, a famous Fermanagh bard and farmer had a very succinct take on what makes for real class and pedigree. Thomas John Ward always said: “An ounce of breeding was worth a ton of feeding.”

He was referring to livestock, but the adage equally applies to Gaelic footballers. And nobody embodies this rural adage more than one Ryan McHugh. For the son of the great ‘Wee Man’ Martin McHugh, brother of All-Ireland winner Mark, and cousin of the almost equally precocious Eoin McHugh, is a never-ending bag of blue blood tricks. He is one of the most complete Gaelic footballers in a pretty talented Donegal squad and his footballing intelligence is easily equal to that of the great Peter Canavan.

There are some players who can run for Ireland and never even smell possession, but Ryan only runs when he knows he is going to get something interesting. This acute positional sense cannot really be coached, it is a gift from the gods, given in quiet moments to an elite bunch of players.

When Ryan McHugh dips the shoulders you just know something interesting is going to happen. The Kilcar maestro has a low centre of gravity and a wicked burst of pace over 30 metres, which usually gives him the space to create or clinically finish off a move.

For, McHugh often starts and finishes off a move. His football is as instinctive as Maurice Fitzgerald and he has the uncanny knack of getting goals, from the half-back line. And who will ever forget those two killer goals that simply pulverised Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2014? McHugh was man-of-the-match and showed that, despite his slight frame, he can mix it with the best.

So how does he cope with the inevitable clichéd questions about comparisons with the rest of the clan? The succinct answer is very well put, as he is the nearest McHugh to his dad in temperament and mannerisms. He has supreme self-belief as opposed to arrogance, has a voracious appetite to learn and the killer instinct to strike when his opponent is at his most vulnerable. 

It is a scorching evening in Ballybofey as he sits beside Rory Gallagher, who is very close to the McHughs and the Kilcar club, as pedigree is an eternal chum for those that have it in spades. So how does it feel for Ryan McHugh to be following a famous family tradition as there is always a bit of a conscious or otherwise burden of expectation?

“It feels good with Dad and Mark and is nothing that I think an awful lot about as I just go out to try and do the best I can,” he said.

“There is nothing that I can do about people writing and comparing me to Mark and comparing me to Dad. But like all brothers, Mark and me just go out and try and enjoy our football and do the best we can. And it is great to know that you have your brother and your cousin along with you.

“They are great company going up in the car anyway but when you are in a panel of players, you feel everyone is your brother and your cousin as you are that close. You spend most of your time with the lads and would not class Mark and Eoin any different to Frank [McGlynn] and Hugh [McFadden].”

McHugh has never faced Fermanagh at senior level as he was playing with Sligo IT and UUJ in the FBD League and the Dr McKenna Cup. The Kilcar ace did face the Ernesiders in the Ulster U21 Championships.

“I am looking forward to playing against Fermanagh and this is the time of the year you really begin to enjoy your football and hopefully the weather keeps good.”

As a young man who was reared in Bavin on the south west coast of Donegal, Ryan is well used to changes that come in like a flash from the broad Atlantic in Towney, his picturesque home pitch: “The ball is dry, the pitches are faster and it is just a wonderful time of the year to be playing,” he said.

“We have been aiming towards this date with Fermanagh from day one and were disappointed with the end of the League but there is nothing we can do about that and we can’t turn back the clock. So we will just have to focus now on Fermanagh who are a great team. It is going to be tough and they have nothing to lose.”

And he added, somewhat, surprisingly that Donegal too have “nothing to lose": “It should be a great game and we are hoping to do the best we can.

“We are just keen to go out and win the game and get into the next round.”

Even though he has not played directly against Fermanagh, Ryan has come up against Ruairi Corrigan in a relatively recent Ryan Cup match: “I actually marked Ruairi Corrigan who was playing for Queen’s against Jordanstown.

“He was tough, a very good player and gave me a lot of bother that day. I also played against Che Cullen as well and up at the Allstars I got to know Sean Quigley. We had a great craic with Sean Quigley and Fermanagh are good footballers.

“They destroyed Antrim in the first-half and may be a bit disappointed with the second-half, but they showed good bottle when Antrim came back to kick on and win the game comfortably. They are coming up here to Ballybofey with nothing to lose and we will have to produce our best game or we will be in bother. And Fermanagh have some very powerful direct midfielders in Eoin Donnelly and Ryan Jones and the McCusker brothers like to run at defences. Our job is to try and get them stopped.”

When asked if Fermanagh’s extra game will be of benefit, his reply is measured if not guarded: “It is not a bad thing, I suppose going into Armagh last year we thought it was a good thing to have a hard match against Tyrone over us,” he said.

“I think only time will tell and if Fermanagh win this match, they will say the extra game was of benefit and if Donegal win they will say it was not.”

When asked about the possible shape of the team he replied: “We have had great numbers out training with a full bill of health, since the end of the league and we have really upped the training.

“Men are absolutely pushing hard and there is nobody on our squad that can say they will be playing which is a great position to be in. Everyone is pushing hard and everyone is flying.”

But one position you can bank on, is that one Ryan McHugh will be starting either in the half-back line or half-forward line. And if you were stuck for a sweeper or even a close range free-taker, he could hack that too. As Thomas John said: “An ounce of breeding is worth a ton of feeding.”


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