Ruairi McHugh glad to be back on the pitch to help Tyrone U20s win more silverware

Red Hands eye All-Ireland assault

Tyrone's Ruairi McHugh in action during the 2021 Electric Ireland Ulster MFC final. <br />Pic Philip Walsh
Tyrone's Ruairi McHugh has battled back from injury and helped the Red Hands land an Ulster title

Miracle man Ruairi McHugh knew anything was possible when the magical touch of physio Shane O’Neill began to work wonders.

Season over – that was the damning medical opinion as one injury compounded another, a shoulder dislocation piled upon a grade three quad tear.

But the shared positivity of patient and practitioner turned despair to hope and ultimately to triumph as healing powers combined with the will of a young man desperate to play his part.

McHugh was a midfield powerhouse on the Tyrone team that won an All-Ireland U20 title in 2022, but his third season at the grade descended into despair.

A substitute appearance in the opening game against Antrim was followed by a frustrating spell on the sideline, until he was deemed able to come off the bench in the 42nd minute of an Ulster final epic.

Derry appeared to be on their way as they pushed into a four points lead in extra-time at the Box-It Athletic Grounds, but McHugh’s goal rescued the Red Hands and they won it in penalty shoot-out drama.

“I have been very unfortunate with injuries. I have had two back to back injures, but Shane, our physio deserves great credit. He has been a massive part of my recovery,” said McHugh.

“I was very lucky to get to play in that big game, because I was ruled out at the start for the whole season, All-Ireland included, if we got there.

“So I’m just delighted to have got to play some minutes.”

The Coalisland Fianna clubman isn’t the only survivor from the All-Ireland triumph two years ago.

Current captain Michael Rafferty and Gavin Potter, both of Killyclogher, also played on that title-winning team.

“Those two lads bring a lot of experience, and I probably have that bit of experience too, with playing in an All-Ireland U20 semi-final.

“A lot of these lads won’t have done that, so it’s going to need us boys to calm them down and take care of the younger boys.

“A lot of those boys have played in big games, with Omagh CBS getting to the Hogan cup final and boys playing in big games at Minor level.”

Last year reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone were ambushed by Down in a first round tie at Omagh, no way back in the straight knock-out series, and the Mourne county went on to win the provincial crown.

“Obviously last year wasn’t good enough, and this team has a lot of players back from last year, and that was definitely a big motivation for us.

“It drove a lot of us boys on, thinking of Down beating us and going on to win Ulster, knowing that that could have been us.

“So we knew that we had to give everything that we have got for this championship.”

Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Roscommon gives Tyrone another opportunity to display the steel that carried them through the provincial decider when all seemed lost.

“Any team that’s able to come back from a four points deficit, it shows a lot of character.

“But this team is special, with the leaders that are in the group. We dug deep, stayed calm and got the result.”

McHugh was pushed up front as Tyrone chased the vital scores that would bring them back into the game, and he struck gold with a fisted effort that hit the Derry net.

“I have had a long season of injuries, and I was moved in to full forward, and Cormac (Devlin) had the vision. He was the person who got the ball and ran it, and I was just lucky enough to get my hand on the ball and palm it in to the net.

“We had to change tactics a wee bit, our hand was forced, with being four points down.

“It’s not a position any team wants to be in with only ten minutes remaining of the second half of extra-time.

“But thankfully we got the goal, and that’s all that matters, and Conor Owens was able to send over a point after it to settle the game.

“And Macka (Conor McAneney) was the hero at the end of the day in the penalties – job done.”