DONEGAL will have to do without the attacking talents of Eoin McHugh this year as he concentrates on his university studies.
The Kilcar speedster revealed that he will sit out this season of inter-county football to give himself the best chance of doing well in his degree.
In the final year of his Business Studies course at Ulster University, McHugh will be expected to line out in tomorrow’s massive Sigerson Cup game against holders St Mary’s at St Paul’s in Belfast.
However, the 23-year-old has reluctantly told new Donegal manager Declan Bonner that won’t be wearing the green and gold in 2018.
The length of trips back and forth between his native county and Belfast is the major factor, McHugh explained.
“I’m looking forward to, hopefully, getting a degree – that’s the plan – getting into the real world, getting a job somewhere.
“I’ve actually pulled out of Donegal. With Kilcar doing so well [reaching the Ulster Club semi-final], our season went on a long time. To be fair to Declan, he gave me ample time to think about it.
“He did ring me and I said ‘Look, I’m in Belfast and I am thinking of not being involved this year’. I then made the decision that it’s not for me this year.”
McHugh pointed to the distances Donegal players have to cover, the time involved, before they even get to training:
“I don’t think I’m being biased about Donegal but we’re in a completely different situation to a lot of counties. Tyrone and Armagh are no more than two hours away from Belfast and Dublin.
“In Donegal, you’re so far away from everybody. If you want to work in Dublin you have a three-and-a-half hour drive to get back to training.
“If you want to be in Belfast, I was still leaving college at maybe four or five and you’re still stuck in the middle of traffic for three hours to get home.
“It’s a lot of pressure on players, there’s a lot of extra things. It’s not just the training and gym aspects, there’s a completely side where you might have to sit in a car for six hours just to get to and from training.
“Then Donegal itself, from Kilcar you’re talking an hour driving to training in your own county. People don’t understand that, in midland counties that aren’t so far away, that have better roads and infrastructure to Dublin and Belfast and these places.”
Although county managers usually leave the proverbial door open for talents such as Eoin McHugh, the player himself insists he won’t be getting involved later this year:
“With the way the set-ups are now, you miss a month or two and you’re so far behind. It would be nearly impossible to go back in and think that you’re just going to get to the level those boys are at.
“It’s nearly a 10-month season for counties now. Me and Declan agreed that the best thing for me was to step away for the year. I’m happy with my decision.”
The good news for Donegal supporters is that McHugh is aiming to be back next year:
“Every young footballer’s dream is to play for the county team, it was always mine – and it still is.
“You don’t do it for money, you do it for love of the game and love of your county.
“I’m guessing next year I’ll go back into the set-up, if I’m asked.
“When you run out in Clones in front of 30,000 people it makes up for the six-hour drives.
“People complain and give out about players not being looked after. To be fair to Donegal, they do look after you, we get our meals and so on, expenses are paid. I’ve no complaints about how we’re treated in Donegal, it was just the long drives.”
For now, McHugh is putting his potential career ahead of inter-county football:
“It’s extremely important for me to get my degree. I said that to Declan: if I don’t get my degree this year I don’t know what I’ll do.
“This year is about me getting my degree sorted, getting a job that I can be happy in, and that eventually can suit me playing for Donegal again.
“There are plenty of opportunities for people in Donegal, but you also see a lot of people going to Belfast and Dublin and these cities.
“I couldn’t tell you where I’m going to be in September or next year, but I can’t imagine myself being in Kilcar, to be honest. It’s only a village – but I’ll always play for Kilcar, and I’ll always be Donegal, wherever the road takes me.”
In the meantime, he’ll have to watch his county, and hope for better results than Sunday’s last-gasp defeat in Kerry:
“[Sunday] was the first ever day I watched Donegal on the TV. I didn’t travel to Killarney, it was something different watching the boys, your friends, play.
“I saw ‘Jigger’ [Darach O’Connor], who would be one of my closest friends, come on. He’s gone through a tough time for two or three years with his knees, a lot of injuries, it was nice to see him get on and get a goal.
“I’m Donegal at heart, whether or not I’m involved all I want to do is see them win, so it was disappointing to see them lose, especially in the way they did. Here’s hoping for the year that they get on well.”