Hurling & Camogie

Donal Hughes hoping to make up for lost time as Down look ahead to make-or-break clash with Laois

Injury ruled Bredagh ace out of 2022 Division 2A final, now Ardsmen know victory on Saturday would see them promoted

Donal Hughes is one the survivors from Down's 2013 Christy Ring Cup success, when they defeated Kerry in the final. Picture by Philip Walsh
Injury kept Donal Hughes out of Down's 2022 Division 2A final against Westmeath in Thurles. Picture by Philip Walsh

THE last time Down made it to a winner-takes-all showdown with promotion the prize, Donal Hughes cut a frustrated figure watching from the wings.

That was two years ago. A towering figure at midfield, the Bredagh ace was instrumental as the Ardsmen made a flying start to their Division 2A campaign, clocking up wins over Carlow and Meath before stunning Westmeath in Mullingar to claim top spot.

Confidence couldn’t have been any higher heading into a final home game with fellow promotion hopefuls Kerry. Ronan Sheehan’s side did the business, earning themselves a trip to Thurles and a League final date with Westmeath.

By then, though, Donal Hughes’s season was already over.

Tendinopathy had been an issue in his left knee since a spell spent working in London years before, the product of over-loading most likely as the dual player – previously part of county football regimes under Eamonn Burns and Paddy Tally - squeezed every last drop out of himself.

Covid allowed the opportunity to rehab it properly but, no sooner was the left knee sorted than the right started to nag. Then, at training the Tuesday night after the Westmeath victory, bang.

“I kept playing through it, then that night at training I felt a real sharp pain in it... I’d ruptured the tendon so I had to go and get surgery. I missed the League final and Championship,” said Hughes, whose father Danny had been part of successful Down and Ballycran sides decades before.

“I had to go and see a podiatrist, they thought it might have been something to do with maybe flat feet, or the way you run, it turned out one of my legs is slightly longer than the other so I have to wear insoles all the time now.

“It’s tough. My younger brother Sean, he’s on the hurling panel as well at the minute, he has it in both knees and he’s at the same stage – not training and just rehabbing it really.”

That Westmeath game turned out to be the last Down supporters would see of Hughes for some time.

After getting back for Bredagh in the second half of 2022, he headed to Australia and spent a year working for an asset management firm in Sydney and hurling for the Michael Cusack’s club.

Hughes didn’t feature at all in red and black last year and, along with the likes of Daithi and Eoghan Sands – both away for much of the campaign - his absence was keenly felt as Down clung onto 2A and Joe McDonagh Cup status.

Down's Daithi Sands celebrates his goal during the Allianz Hurling Division 2 Round 5 between Down and Meath at McKenna Park,Ballycran on 03-16-2024. Pic Philip Walsh
Three goals from Daithi Sands helped Down defeat Meath in Ballycran on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh

As much as he loved life Down Under, however, the pull of home was always there.

Towards the end of last year the 32-year-old texted Sheehan to let him know he would be back in time for pre-season and, as the Down boss stretched his panel through the early part of the year, Hughes played almost every minute to get up to speed.

“I was working away on a strength and conditioning programme over there because I hadn’t really been playing since July, when the season ended in Australia... when I came back in January it did take me a while to get back up to speed.

“I wasn’t playing great at all, to be honest, up until probably the start of the League. Thankfully then it started to click a bit.”

And so did Down.

Despite narrow defeats to table-topping duo Laois and Carlow, and a dramatic draw with Kildare in Ballycran, Saturday’s nine-point victory over Meath secured a Division 2A semi-final rematch against the O’Moore county on their home turf.

With the hurling leagues being restructured for next season, the winner of Saturday’s game in Portlaoise will go up to Division 1B with already-promoted Carlow.

Having missed out on the League decider in Thurles two years ago, this feels like a shot at redemption – for Down, and for Donal Hughes.

“It was gutting to miss that game. We had such a good League campaign, everything was going well... it would’ve been really nice to play in that.

“We feel like on our day we can compete with and beat anyone in this division. Getting up to 1B would be brilliant because they’re the kind of teams we want to be playing - the likes of Antrim, Offaly, Westmeath.

“We’ve won one-off games against some of them in recent years, but if we’re playing at that level every week, it would definitely bring us on.”