DONEGAL didn’t look the same without Ryan McHugh last year. The Kilcar clubman had to do something he never thought would be possible and step away from his county team and he missed a difficult 2023 for Donegal.
You could argue that he hadn’t quite looked at his all-action best the season before but, like manager Jim McGuinness, McHugh is back now and he admits he feels refreshed.
“I never take for granted getting the opportunity to play for Donegal,” he said.
“I love getting to represent my county, unfortunately last year didn’t go my way with a few injuries and having to travel with work. It was a massive decision for me personally and I never, ever, thought I would step away from the county set-up in my life.
“I had to do it and I’m delighted to be back and I’m delighted to have Jim and everyone else back on board. I’m getting that wee bit older now so I cherish every single time I get to put on that Donegal jersey.
“I do feel refreshed - I don’t know whether it’s because I had a year off or because Jim is back, but I do feel energised. I’m delighted to be back and giving everything and not just me, the whole team, we feel in a privileged position to be able to put a smile on Donegal people’s faces.”
With Cavan gone and Armagh still to come, Donegal face the second round of their Ulster three in-a-row when they host Division Two rivals Fermanagh in Letterkenny on Saturday (2pm).
Kieran Donnelly’s Ernemen make the trip north unbeaten after a draw and a win against Leinster duo Meath and Kildare while Donegal sit second in the table, level on points with Armagh who’ve also won two out of two.
McHugh says the four Ulster sides make the second tier a “league within a league” and he expects the struggle for promotion to go all the way once again this season.
“I watched Fermanagh against Kildare and I watched Armagh against Louth the week before,” said the three-time Ulster Championship winner and 2014 All-Ireland finalist.
“Ourselves and Armagh are on four points now but it’s always really tight, there’s never any teams that pull away. It’s very, very competitive but that’s what you want as a player, you want to challenge yourself against the top teams and thankfully we’ll have the chance to do that.
“It’s really about taking it week-on-week and we have Fermanagh now up in Letterkenny and we can’t look past them. They had a great win against Kildare and they looked really good, really strong with powerful runners the same as Cavan have.
Last time out, Donegal were pushed all the way by a battling Cavan outfit. Over the last couple of seasons, the Tir Chonaill men might have buckled under the pressure but they dug their heels in and, crucially, remained composed to come away with two vital points.
“To get over the line and get the points was great for us,” said McHugh.
Scoring-wise, it was a mixed bag in challenging conditions but Oisin Gallen led the way with six excellent points and skipper Paddy McBrearty and Jamie Brennan kept the scoreboard moving.
“Oisin has been unlucky in his career with the injuries he’s had so, touch wood, he gets a bit of luck now because he’s a phenomenal player and we saw that in the Donegal club championship last year,” he said.
“Paddy and Jamie are feeding off him and in Donegal we’ve been blessed to have good forwards going back through Michael Murphy, Tony Boyle, Brendan Devenney, Adrian Sweeney…
“We’ve had top class inside-forwards and, with Paddy, Oisin and Jamie, we have that as well.”