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NFL Focus: Time for Donegal to walk the walk insists Ryan McHugh

GERRY McLAUGHLIN

The time has come for Donegal to 'walk the walk”.

No ifs, buts or maybes according to Ryan McHugh, one of its brightest stars as he looks ahead to a very tough opening NFL tie with Mayo in Markievicz Park.

McHugh and his colleagues have painful memories of the mauling they got on a wet night in Castlebar in 2019.

But the two-time Allstar in 2016 and 2018 and Young Footballer Of The Year in 2014 is convinced that Donegal must “get over the line” this year.

For the past four years Donegal have failed at the final hurdle after winning two Ulster titles on the trot and appearing in three consecutive finals.

Tyrone turned them over in their own backyard in Ballybofey in 2018 in the Super 8s, while Mayo outmuscled them in wet conditions in Castlebar a year later.

And then Cavan sprung a real shocker on them in the Ulster final of 2020 while All-Ireland champions Tyrone edged them out in last year’s Ulster championship.

Four years of failure must certainly have bitten into their psyche as they prepare for another season.

So, what do Donegal need to take the next overdue big step?

“That is a difficult one and it is something that we have been looking at and trying to find a way to take the next step," said McHugh.

“I don’t think we are doing a lot wrong. I think it is just a matter of getting it right on the day and even when we are not at our best, just grinding out a victory and luck has not been with us.

“It can be the luck of the draw and that can happen any team, but I think it has time that we walked the walk.

"We, like many other counties, have talked the talk but we need to start producing things.

“You don’t want to be the team that is saying every year that we nearly could or should have won something.

“We need to firstly produce it night after night on the training ground.

“Every night you are trying to prove yourself at training, whether that is one, two or 50 per cent.

“And hopefully then you can take that into game time.

“As I say we are ticking a lot of boxes up in Donegal, but we need to be producing it on the biggest day in the year”.

Donegal still rely on heavily on Michael Murphy who is now in his 15th year in a Donegal jersey. McHugh paid tribute to the Glenswilly man's determination and professional approach to playing for his county.

"Michael is a top-class person and a top-class professional the way he looks after his body all year long," said McHugh.

“ Michael, just wants to play football and to represent Donegal every chance he can get and the McKenna Cup and NFL are part of it.

“There is no better professional in Ireland”.

Tyrone ended Donegal's season last year with that Championship defeat in Brewster Park. There is little consolation for McHugh and his Tir Chonaill team-mates in the fact that their conquerors went on to win last year’s All-Ireland title.

“I suppose that gives us a wee bit of hope but there was no guarantee that If we had got over them that we would go on to win the All-Ireland title.

“They did what they had to do, and they are worthy All-Ireland champions. I suppose in Donegal we have to take the positives from it.

“In the past few years, we have always been very competitive against Tyrone. But it is taking that extra step that counts.

With his youthful mien it is hard to believe that this will be the 10th season in the Tír Chonaill jersey for the gifted 27-year-old.

The years have flown in flash, but the lithe and lean McHugh still has a savage appetite for the game and is adamant that Donegal need to deliver this year.

“I made my debut in 2013 playing at corner back and marking Conor Laverty of Down so that was an interesting introduction under lights in Ballybofey," he said.

“It is hard to believe, and it still feels just like yesterday.

“That was a tough enough baptism and Down were going reasonably well that time having played Donegal in the Ulster final the previous year.

“Jim [McGuinness] and Rory [Gallagher] trusted me at the time, and I am grateful for that”.

And the accolades have flowed in the interim as he approaches the 'veteran' stage.

“Time waits for nobody and this is my 10th season, but Donegal is very lucky that we have a lot of good young players coming through and they have got run outs in the Dr McKenna Cup.

“I watched the LYIT and UL Sigerson match and there were quite a few Donegal players in major roles too.

“It is a credit to Aaron Kyles and Karl Lacey for the great work they have done in the various academies.

“We are seeing the rewards and hopefully that can continue as you do need a conveyor belt of talent coming through."

“The Michael Murphys and the Neil McGees aren’t going to be about forever, so you need other players coming through all the time to strengthen the squad."

McHugh had his first competitive match against Derry in the Dr McKenna Cup last week and is just happy to be back playing again.

“I took a few weeks off and was back in training for the last few weeks.

“But you can have all the training you want, but it is all about game time and getting good competitive games and that is exactly what we got against Derry.

“That was a good test in underfoot conditions but was good preparation for the match against Mayo at the weekend.

“Those games are important for the likes of me and other boys who are just getting back into it.

“But the NFL is the big one and I really look forward to it as a player and a supporter as well.

“Covid has hit the NFL in the past few years and now we are back to the normal format.

“It is a great competition to be involved in all over the and the format means the teams are well matched”.

"But it is taking that extra step that counts. You don’t want to be known as the team that is competitive in a top match.

“You want to be known as the team that is competitive and actually win those big matches

“That is something we are going to be focusing on this year.

“You don’t want to be sitting here next year saying oh we had chances, we had chances.

“We want to be sitting here next year saying we have taken our chances.

 

 

VERDICT

The general feeling in Donegal is that they have too often supped sorrow from the rusty spoon of defeat for the past four years when it really mattered.

Another big factor is that Michael Murphy is now in his 33rd year and might not have quite the same massive influence on games.

So, they badly need others to step up and allow Murphy to stay where he would now be most effective and that is on the edge of the square.

They also badly need two more out and out defenders with the required physicality to put real pressure on the top teams.

The full-back position remains problematic with Neil McGee not looking likely to be back for a few more months and his natural successor Stephen McMenamin is out injured.

The experienced and versatile Caolan Ward might be an option here as well.

Hugh McFadden is also an alternative and he, McMenamin and the eternally combative Odhran McFadden-Ferry could make up a good full-back line.

Brendan McCole, Paul Brennan and Jeaic MacCeallhúi could complete the sextet.

I think that Ryan McHugh should be in the half-forward line where he can really trouble the opposition with his natural footballing nous, speed and ability to get goals which we haven’t seen too much of in recent years.

Michael Langan is the one player who could take up the mantle of Michael Murphy while big Jason McGee and Oisin Gallen simply have to get more game time.

The forward line is one of the best- around.

They are more than capable of at least taking another Ulster titles.

And if they can bring a bit more intensity and bite to their game, then the possibilities are endless.

 

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