Donegal’s Ryan McHugh savours bonus Ulster title

Lifting the Anglo-Celt Cup seemed a remote possibility after a horror 2023 for the county

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

RYAN McHugh thought his days of winning Ulster titles were gone as Donegal GAA experienced ‘bad news after bad news’.

The Kilcar man opted off the panel for last year’s Championship due to a mixture of injury issues and work commitments.

He left behind a troubled group that had followed relegation from Division 1 with painful Championship defeats to Down and Tyrone.

The loss to the Red Hands came at the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final stage and McHugh, looking on from the US, wasn’t encouraged.

Jim McGuinness returned to the hot-seat eight weeks later and has guided a new look team back to the summit of Ulster, with a rejuvenated McHugh in tow.

“We were chatting on the way home on the bus at the weekend and there was maybe seven players that played in the Ulster final that didn’t play last year,” said McHugh, the PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for April.

“I don’t think any team in Ireland could take that, never mind Donegal. I don’t think Dublin could even take that, missing that many players.

“The year before, 2022, we took Derry to extra-time in an Ulster final so we didn’t become a bad team overnight either. It was just everything that was going on in Donegal, not just the senior team, the academy, the county board, everything that was going on in Donegal, just bad news after bad news unfortunately.

“So I don’t think a lot of people would have believed walking out of MacCumhaill Park that day last year after losing to Tyrone by seven or eight points that we’d be Ulster champions. No, was the answer.”

McHugh, 30, said it remains to be seen just how much Donegal’s provincial exertions have taken out of them. Whilst teams like Dublin and Kerry have largely gone through the motions in their provinces, Donegal have had to beat Derry, Tyrone and Armagh, with two games going to extra-time and one to penalties.

“Time well tell on that,” shrugged McHugh who isn’t a fan of how tightly compressed the entire Championship is. “It is tough, personally I do feel the whole season is too crammed at the minute. I think it was crazy that when we beat Derry, and Tyrone beat Cavan, the two winning teams had to play the following week. To be fair to Tyrone, they had extra-time (against Cavan) and had to play six days later. I think there needs to be a look at it all again.”

McHugh is excited by the current Donegal setup and said McGuinness has brought back vital ‘belief’.

“There’s no point lying, maybe last year and a couple of years before that, you were questioning yourself, ‘Am I ever going to get over the line again?’” said McHugh. “Thankfully we got Jim back this year and the belief and everything he instals in the team is just unbelievable. From day one, you knew, I’m not saying you knew you were going to win Ulster but you knew you were going to be fit to compete and challenge for the top awards and thankfully we’ve done that.”