Donegal and Ryan McHugh relishing improvement in fortunes

Ryan McHugh tormented Derry at times on Saturday night. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Ryan McHugh tormented Derry at times. Pic by Margaret McLaughlin

Some might find it hard to believe that just 11 months on from their ‘annus horribilis’ in 2023 that Donegal would find themselves in their current position, but it’s not a major shock for veteran Ryan McHugh.

It was June 25 last year when Donegal under the management of Aidan O’Rourke finally ran out of road. Tyrone came to Ballybofey and saw off the home side with ease on a 1-18 to 0-13 scoreline.

The thought was where do the Tír Conaill men go from here? Could it get much worse?

McHugh was absent from the squad at the time, feeling he needed a break after a decade of service to the green and gold, but once Jim McGuinness announced his return to the inter-county scene for the first time since 2014, there was no surprise that the Kilcar native would be back on board.

Now fast forward a number of months, and we find ourselves in the same venue with the same two teams squaring off in the All-Ireland round-robin series as we did last June. The result this time was much different as Donegal dominated the second half to emerge 0-21 to 0-14 point winners.

What a difference 337 days makes with McGuinness and McHugh back on board.

“I wasn’t there last year but as a Donegal person, and as a fan, I was hugely disappointed not to get the result last year against Tyrone, but the turnaround has been unbelievable,” said McHugh.

“I don’t think we became a bad team overnight last season, but I think this year with Jim coming in and everything changing we’re in a good place, but you’re only as good as your next performance and our next game is against Cork.”

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

The two-time All-Star and Young Player of the Year is back playing the football of his life since Donegal has been operating off McGuinness’s new formula to get his county back to winning ways, with McHugh being a crucial ingredient to such a system.

His second-half point against Tyrone firmly put his team in the driving seat as they cruised to a seven-point win in MacCumhaill Park, but for McHugh, it was a case of, ‘a lot done, more to do’.

“It was a great second half to be honest. We were probably a little bit disappointed not to go in with more (of a lead) in the first half, I think we were three up at one stage, but there was a little bit of a breeze to be fair,” he said.

“We were . . . I wouldn’t say confident, but to go in with the lead at half-time was important, and then in the second half we showed our true colours and we played the way we wanted to play with good counter-attacking football and with a lot of pace, and we got the right boys on the end of the shots, so it was just a good performance.

“I think if Ciarán Thompson’s shot hit the net in the first half, it would be one of the best goals of the year, but some of the football played was unbelievable, and I suppose it’s how you react to these chances that you create, and I think we reacted well.

“We could’ve put the heads down or thought it maybe wasn’t our day when the goal chances weren’t coming, but as I said we reacted well and thankfully we went in at half-time in the lead.”

Donegal Oisin Gallen with Conn Kilpatrick and Padraig Hampsey of Tyrone during the All Ireland Senior Football Championship match played at Ballybofey on Saturday 25th May 2024.  Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal Oisin Gallen with Conn Kilpatrick and Padraig Hampsey of Tyrone during the All Ireland Senior Football Championship match played at Ballybofey on Saturday 25th May 2024. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

Having already played Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final which Donegal emerged the victors after a tense period of extra-time over a month ago, McHugh and the rest of the Donegal panel knew the difficulty they would face against Tyrone, but the home side admitted that they merely saw it as just another fixture they needed to win.

“Look, every match is tough, especially when you’re playing Ulster teams and in an Ulster derby, they’re going to be tough, but we felt if we put in a performance, we would get over the line,” said McHugh.

“I suppose we were disappointed in our last two performances against Armagh and Tyrone, we didn’t show our true colours.

“You want to win every game you play in, but to win this home game was massive, and to see the support, in my opinion, it was probably six or seven to one, so it was unbelievable and hopefully we’ll see huge support down in Cork.

“The aim is to top the group, no point beating around the bush. It’s a cliche, but we are just taking it one game at a time. Cork are looking to top the group themselves and they feel if they can get over Donegal they’ll top the group, so it’s going to be a massive match in Cork and it’s something we’re looking forward to.

“We’ve been playing Ulster teams all throughout the year, so to get on the road and playing a different team is something we’re looking forward to.”

It’s been a long road for Donegal to get to this point following their three tough battles against Derry, Tyrone, and Armagh in the Ulster championship before facing into the round-robin series.

But McHugh acknowledges that while they enjoyed their success in reclaiming the Anglo Celt Cup, they knew that once the party was over, it was a case of, back to work, perhaps with eyes on a bigger prize later this summer.

“It was hard once we got back to training. Jim doesn’t be long taking you back down (to earth),” McHugh smiled.

“Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the Sunday night when we got back to Donegal after the Ulster final, and we enjoyed the Monday too as a group.

“Jim always puts a big emphasis on celebrating our victories and enjoying them. As you know, Ulster is massive for us, and it was great to get over the line, but we were back training on Tuesday night.

“Life doesn’t be long hitting you in the face and getting you back to normality, and we did that straight away.”