Sport

Hugh McFadden assumes leadership role in new-look Donegal set-up

Donegal Hugh McFadden collects the incoming goal threat from Armagh during the Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter final match played at Ballybofey on Sunday 24th April 2022. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Gerry McLaughlin

THAT seminal tune 'Teach Your Children' from the great Crosby, Stills Nash and Young was made for passionate, committed young sportsmen like Hugh McFadden.

The Donegal star’s day job is primary teaching, but he has now also become something of a leader and mentor to his younger Donegal team-mates as they face a tough Allianz Football League opener against Kerry on Sunday in Ballybofey.

Since the double whammy departure of Neil McGee and especially Michael Murphy, the mantle of leadership has fallen very much on McFadden, new captain Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh.

All are in the late-20s bracket, but McFadden has been a most vocal leader with his native Killybegs for many years and has a similar role in the dressing room.

But he is also a reflective man who is very grateful to all those who have helped to make him the formidable force that he is as he faces into his 10th season in the green and gold.

When asked about the impact of the departure of the truly iconic McGee and Murphy ahead of a date with Kerry, he said:

“The two boys are obviously going to be a big miss, not only on the field but off the field as well, but nobody knows better than the two boys that the ball just keeps on rolling for Donegal, and another team will take the field against Kerry on Sunday without them, and another team will take the field against Down [in the Championship] without them," McFadden said.

“That’s just the way football works and Sunday is going to be a big game for everyone, but it is always about the bigger picture 2023”

McFadden quips that with the duo’s departure, that some people are “throwing the label of senior citizens” at Paddy McBrearty, Ryan McHugh and himself.

“We have been there quite a long time, so it is up to us to lead the way and to try and ensure that the younger players coming into the panel are aware of the values, the characteristics, the behaviours that are expected of them to be part of the Donegal team.

“Hopefully we can identify things that we can get better at and one of the great things about the legacy of Michael and Neil was that you never had to look too far for inspiration or roles of how to behave, how to act and how to perform and hopefully those good habits will be absorbed by the new lads.”

New boss Paddy Carr has made Paddy McBrearty captain and McFadden is not surprised at the Kilcar man’s elevation.

“Paddy has been there and done that since he was 17 and he is the most experienced man and is also the player with the most accolades.

“He has led Kilcar to a county championship and was U21 captain and we are all delighted for him.

“It is hard to believe that he is still only 29 and he has been playing for such a long time and is into his 13th season, so he has the experience to take up the mantle of captaincy.

“The modern-day dressing room has changed a lot and there is a lot of shared leadership. There are quite a few experienced players throughout the squad to help Paddy as well."

McFadden is now in his 10th season and had great days- winning three Ulster championships - but admits there were sombre days too.

And last year screams that pain fairly loudly.

McFadden says he and the squad, are motivated to rectify some of the wrongs and sombre days and to try and make Donegal football more over the next few years. So, will last year’s pain give McFadden and co more motivation in 2023?

“People love writing about making up for things but what’s done is done and it kind of adds fuel to the fire, but even if things had gone perfectly last year there would be no lack of motivation for me personally to keep on playing.

“We are very lucky that all the boys playing for Donegal really want to be there and that is positive”.

Donegal are also under new management in Paddy Carr and that brings an understandable sense of freshness for McFadden and the squad.

“We were very lucky with Declan Bonner and his backroom team over the past five seasons and they brought a lot to Donegal a relentless desire to improve Donegal.

“Declan decided it was time for a change and now we have Paddy coming in with Aidan O’Rourke and Paddy Bradley and they have brought a freshness to things.

“No matter what, a change is sometimes as good as a break and Paddy Carr has come with new ideas, but a lot of the old principles stay the same and there are only so many new ideas out there.

“It is now about us players stepping up and driving it and hopefully we will have a successful period under Paddy’s tenure."

But even though this is quite seasoned Donegal squad, McFadden says the age profile is still quite good.

“Only Paul Brennan is over 30 and Caolan Ward is 30 and everyone else range from 29-23 and there is a good life cycle left in this squad and hopefully there is the nucleus of a team that can perform on the bigger stage”.

He added: “There is a lot of talent in the squad, and it is up to us to get everyone out consistently fit and making sure we deliver but fortunately bumps and bruises have halted that goal in the past.

“If we can get everyone fit, we won’t be far away.

“The new season changes the whole dynamic of the thing.

“There are a lot of games, and the GAA supporter might have to change their emotions about the game because it is going to be up and down with peaks and troughs.

“No matter what, we are going to have four championship games and hopefully a lot more and there is going to be a lot of football played this year”.

Although the 2022 season will not be one that is looked back on fondly by Donegal, it was also one of fine margins. They went into the final two rounds of Division One matches still with a chance of making the League final.

In the Ulster Championship, it took extra-time for Derry to finally squeeze them out of a Titanic Ulster final tussle before it all caved in against Armagh in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

The first year of Paddy Carr's reign may be one for consolidation and transition, but McFadden cautions against setting targets, no matter how modest.

“Football is a funny thing and when we are inside a squad, all we can is to get fit and get ready for the NFL bring in a few players and try to win every game we play," he said.

“We are not looking too far down the line and especially as we are only just getting to know the new management team.

“But within the squad, we are still ambitious about what we want to do.

“We are not going to be out there shouting and roaring, but we have a lot of things we want to achieve and at present we want to get a strong start to the NFL and to try and put a bit of life back in the Donegal supporters.

“We want to give them a bit of excitement. It’s been a long winter and we have had some tragedy up in the north-west so it would be great to give people some hope and entertainment."

THE VERDICT

Like it or not, much will depend on how Donegal copes with the departure of Neil McGee or Michael Murphy as they don’t yet have equivalent replacements.

But the new management of the enthusiastic and eloquent Paddy Carr may give them a bit of a bounce as they prepare to entertain Kerry.

Paddy McBrearty is the new captain who made his debut as a 17-year-old back in 2011, the year Michael Murphy began his record 12 years as captain.

Hugh McFadden and Ryan McHugh will also be asked to provide some experience and leadership in the absence of the big two.

Their number one objective has to be survival in Division One as relegation would be a major blow.

And, another Ulster title is well within their capabilities, but will the competition be less important as teams gear themselves to peak for the later stages of the championship.

They could have got an easier opener as Kerry rock into Ballybofey.

But a lot could depend on the Kingdom’s lineout.

Will they rest the Clifford’s and Paul Murphy and send up an experimental side.

If that happens, then Donegal will have a very good chance of picking up two precious points.

Of course, this NFL will be ferociously contested as it is linked to championship slots so that is a huge incentive for all teams.

But this will be a real watershed year for Donegal.

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