Down Allstar Danny Hughes - a man comfortable in his own skin

Suffering anxiety, losing his mum, the end of his Down career and glory with Saval

Danny Hughes
The life and times of Danny Hughes Picture: Brendan Monaghan

Note to self: ‘Stop worrying, Danny.’

BEHIND the pristine glass, there are endless rows of caramel squares, Viennese whirls and chocolate eclairs.

It’s a heavenly walk through to the back of the famous Shelbourne Bakery on Hill Street in the heart of Newry where you can dine and where you’ll probably find Danny Hughes any day of the week – but mostly Fridays.

After eight years, the former Down footballer penned his final column for The Irish News last September.

His farewell column was typically opinionated, heartfelt and self-deprecating.

“Life is a gift,” he wrote, “and you only have to watch the young people gathering on a Sunday morning at your local GAA club to see the beauty in what we should cherish and work hard to maintain.

“To those who said hello, complimented me, criticised me, sent letters, emails and made phone calls, I want to sincerely thank you.

“So, until the next time we meet, I will continue to talk the same s**** I always talk and hopefully we will agree on the fact that neither of us really know what we’re talking about.”

It’s a bright and breezy Friday afternoon. We’re surrounded by tea and buns and happy-go-lucky staff members – all of whom Danny is on first-name terms with.

But there’s a slight problem with this interview. Danny thought this was just meeting for lunch and chewing the fat – not a deep-dive interview into the life and times of the 41-year-old man from Saval.

“Nobody’s interested in reading about me – honestly. You’re wasting your time,” he says.

“What do you want to eat? Do you want a bun? Take a bun. Mark, get him a Viennese round.”

For the last eight seasons, Danny Hughes was an integral part of the GAA conversation. He quickly evolved into a heart-on-the-sleeve opinion writer, unafraid to tackle head on the burning issues of the day.

Whether you agreed with him or not, the 2010 GAA Allstar was authentic.

But after more than 400 columns, it was time for him to hang up his pen.

With so many GAA columns crafted by ghost-writers these days, Hughes always prided himself on writing his own stuff.

“If you’re going to write a column, why not write it yourself?” he reasons.

“I went to university, my parents got me a great education and I’m very, very lucky to have that, but I am by no means eloquent. I’m a muck savage – well, I’m not a muck savage – I’m a savage from Saval in the country!

“I’d like to think I wrote the column the way I interact with people.”

His first-ever jotting in The Irish News centred around the GAA’s Sky TV deal. He sent a draft to his uncle Sean Trainor – his mum’s brother – to read it.

Sean provided some guidance but from then on, he got into “the swing of things and it was great”.

“I would have read a lot of stuff at the weekend: Brolly and Colm O’Rourke.

“Colm O’Rourke was a brilliant columnist. I suppose it was the way he wrote as well – short sentences, to the point, and he’d throw in the odd anecdote.

“For me, O’Rourke was the best. He understood the game. He was a sensible kind of chap.

“Generally, the themes just came to me... I was thinking five years in, are people going to get sick listening to me? So, I was conscious of that and conscious of repeating myself or being too critical of the county board because I was very heavily critical of them at times.”

Even though he wasn’t anticipating being interviewed today, nothing’s off-limits with Hughes.

It has always been the way.

Everyone woke to the news earlier in the day that Jurgen Klopp was leaving Liverpool.

A big fan of the Merseyside club, Hughes would happily talk all afternoon about the amazing impact the charismatic German has made.

Our conversation over lunch swings seamlessly throughout and is only interrupted by every third or fourth person that passes our table who says hello to Danny.

From his job in banking to Palestine – “the Palestinian flag should be flown at every GAA match,” he says – to losing his mum, Imelda, over 13 years ago.

How the hurt of not being picked for the ‘99 All-Ireland minor-winning team drove him to distraction; suffering acute anxiety during his playing days; retiring from Down; still being a gym rat after all these years.

Excited about getting stuck into his new managerial role at Culloville, and being a “proud and lucky” husband to Anne and father to Mya (7), Zoe (5) and Aaron (3).

A lot of his friends throughout his playing days were members of the all-conquering ‘99 Down minors – a team that Hughes never made.

‘He’s too small. Too light. Never make it…’

And so went the narrative in the early throes of his career.

“Ronie Sexton and me would be great mates to this day,” says Hughes, one of five siblings.

“Ronie wasn’t the tallest but a phenomenal footballer; won a minor in ‘99, and I think Mayobridge won their first senior title in ‘99 [since 1919], so a lot of them were my best mates and I was playing for Saval. They were winning things. I was delighted for them, but I was jealous too.

“I went for trials when I was 16, 17 and 18 and never got picked. I was a nobody, really. But the hurt I experienced by not getting picked in ‘99 drove me in everything I did in life.

“I was a good player. I was small – maybe I was too small. In the first year of college [UUJ] I just sprouted up. I went to the gym in between my classes every day...”

Everything that Hughes did after his non-selection at minor level had the singular focus of increasing his chances of playing for Down.

He later graduated to the county U21s.

At the same time, Paddy O’Rourke was grooming the fleet-footed Saval attacker for senior honours. The Down boss dipped the youngster in a couple of times during the 2003 season.

When Down fell to Tyrone after an Ulster final replay, they crashed out to Donegal a week later in a Qualifier in Clones.

Hughes came on and kicked a point.

He waited until the following year to make his starting debut in the Championship against Cavan at Casement Park.

In the build-up to the game, Hughes agreed to be interviewed by Terry McLaughlin, a Down-based journalist who wrote a weekly column for the Sunday Independent.

“I remember getting on the bus for Casement Park that day and one of the players – I’ll not say his name - said to me: ‘Ah, Terry’s no luck with interviewees. I wouldn’t have done it with him because they always have a shit game.’

“I kicked four points and got man-of-the-match. And I was thinking: ‘F*** you anyway – prick’. I never forgot that.

“There was this notion you’d do an interview and have a shit game. Load of nonsense.”

Hughes adds: “For the life of me, I don’t understand why any manager would protect their players from the media.

“I was in changing rooms where managers told us: ‘Do not talk to the press’ – and yet, they were talking to the press. What’s the problem?”

There were plenty of bleak times for Down football during the ‘Noughties’ - a decade that can be summarised by various rebuilds and the occasional majestic Championship display.

Through thick and thin Hughes was a mainstay of the Down team between 2004 and 2013.

An exceptionally hard-working wing-forward, he was lightning quick, a regular scorer and adept at winning break ball.

With his skillset he would take to today’s game like a duck to water.

Marty Clarke collects his 2010 Allstar alongside Down team-mates Brendan McVeigh, Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes
Marty Clarke collects his 2010 Allstar alongside Down team-mates Brendan McVeigh, Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes Down's 2010 Allstar contingent Marty Clarke, Brendan McVeigh, Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes

But beyond the Championship swagger was a guy in his mid-20s wracked by the fear of failing.

Pouring more tea, Hughes says: “One thing I would do differently – I wouldn’t worry as much, I worried about it. Why was I worried? I was just worried about failing and losing.

“I’d no balance in my life - absolutely none. When you’ve no balance in your life, you can only see the thing that’s making you anxious, making you worried.

“Maybe I needed a long-term relationship. I married my first long-term partner and I’m very, very lucky to have Anne and my children. But I didn’t have time for long relationships.

“I had my work, but accountancy was never something I loved doing. It was a means to earn money. No amount of training was ever enough.”

Despite the worries of the world on his shoulders, Hughes was in the form of his life for Down from 2009 onwards.

By the time James McCartan took the managerial reins in 2010, a strong, talented nucleus of footballers was forming while Marty Clarke was coming home from Australia.

In the background the year McCartan guided the Mournemen to an unlikely All-Ireland final, Hughes’s mother, Imelda, was suffering ill-health.

“Some people say you don’t find books – books find you. When my mum was sick, I remember reading ‘Screaming at the Sky’ by Tony Griffin and I thought: ‘Jesus, that’s exactly the same negative shit about playing that I would have felt…’

“Anyway, my mum had an operation to take a tumour off her liver in February 2010. I never once missed a training session or a match over it. So she was recovering well.

“A week before the All-Ireland final against Cork, she was given the ‘All Clear’ - two words I feel should never be uttered to someone who has had cancer.

“She still had a sore back which we thought was sciatica… So, the All-Ireland final came and went, you go to the GAA/GPA dinner and all the rest of it. It’s all good. I came home from the team holiday in New York.

“As I was coming through the door of the house with my bag, I couldn’t believe the change in her within the space of a week.

“About a month later, she had a follow-up scan. I was working across the road from where we are now, and I got a phone call from my brother, Jonny, and he said that the doctor had arrived out at the house and that he wasn’t sure if everything was alright.

“I went home to see and was told: ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ That was the 17th of November.

“I was like a baby, literally. Crying. Blubbering. A mess. A month later she was dead.

“I was never the same after it. I never felt the same about playing football. Your mother and father are the cornerstone of every kid’s life - but I never remember them saying that life is going to be easy – but we expected it to be.”

His inter-county career stretched to the summer of 2013, an All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Derry at Celtic Park was his last appearance.

“I never had an injury until I hit 30. It was like a light going off. Bang – injuries, injuries, injuries…

“I decided I wasn’t going back for pre-season the following year. Physically, I could have. Mentally, I couldn’t. Mentally, I was broken. I had to go and get fixed.

“I told the doctor – Eddie Harney, who’s a great guy, a Tyrone man – the anxiety was a real killer. I remember it was the 16th of October and I rang ‘Wee’ James and said: ‘James, I can’t go back at the minute’. And he said: ‘No problem.’”

Danny Hughes feels the 2010 All-Ireland final was 'never fully dissected' by the Down management. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Danny Hughes feels the 2010 All-Ireland final was 'never fully dissected' by the Down management. Picture by Seamus Loughran Danny Hughes during the 2010 All-Ireland final where Down lost to Cork by a point

The weeks rolled into months and with no communication between player and manager up until February the following year, McCartan pulled the plug on Hughes’s inter-county career.

“My brother rang me to say: ‘I see you’re retired. Why didn’t you say to me?’ because we tell each other everything. One of the papers rang me and asked: ‘Are you retired?’ And I said: ‘It was the first I heard of it.’

“I’ve great respect for the McCartan family.

“Some of the best games I played were played under James. Nobody really goes out the way they want.

“I would have found it very difficult to let go no matter who was the manager. I was bitter with Down. Did it reflect in some of my articles? It probably did. At the end of the day, it is what it is.

“I never wanted to retire – ever.”

He adds: “The problem that I had was I defined myself as a county player. And when that wasn’t there any longer, I was lost. I was the ex-county player who doesn’t get the buzz from 10,000 people anymore. So, what am I now?”

Through time, though, Hughes worked it out. Having The Irish News weekly GAA column afforded him a “soft landing” from the inter-county field.

Through writing, he still felt “relevant” and part of the sporting discourse of the day.

In more recent times, he turned his hand to management and with the guidance of his father, Gerard, and a few trusted friends, Saval won the intermediate championship in 2022.

“The boys went mad that night; I had four pints of Guinness. I didn’t go out the next day with them because I didn’t need to because I was as content as any other time in my life.

“My wife and kids were there, and my Dad was so proud.”

A few months back his cousin asked him would he be interested in giving a talk to a group of foster care managers – a high-pressured role within the health trust – to outline how he dealt with his own anxieties on and off the pitch.

“I talked about how when I walk into a room, people have a certain perception of you but when you strip away one layer, we all have the same worries and doubts. While my struggles and worries may not be the same as theirs, there is maybe relatability there.

“I gave them examples of playing in front of 20,000, 40,000, 80,000 people – and I could deal with that, no problem. But I couldn’t deal with building a house and getting a parking ticket on the same day. It would send me so far off course. Or getting injured. I could not deal with injury.

“But, you know, my wife held my hand the whole way through. I am blessed with the family and friends I have. Thank God, I like where I am. So that’s good. But it’s the kids – that’s the stuff I’d worry about now.”

If he could give one piece of advice to his 25-year-old self, what would it be?

His reply is instant: “Stop worrying, Danny. Nobody cares.”

And what does he miss most about those hazy summer Sundays?

“The roar of the crowd – it’s kicking a point and the roar going up, knowing the point is going over before the white flag is waved. That’s what I miss.”

The lunch-time trade in the Shelbourne has eased up a little on this breezy Friday afternoon. We walk up Hill Street before we go our separate ways at the traffic lights.

You tell him when the article might appear. He shoots back with a smile: “Nobody will read it. Nobody’s interested.”

Danny Hughes, the ex-Down footballer. Forty-one-years-old and father of three. A man happy living in his own skin.

Danny Hughes
Danny Hughes never felt more contented after guiding Saval to an Intermediate Championship in 2022 Picture: Brendan Monaghan