'If you're fit enough to do it - you might as well do it' - Paul Hughes reflects on Armagh career
ONE thing Paul Hughes won’t miss about playing for Armagh is standing at the running track of St Colman’s College with not a ball in sight, facing into another pre-season training session.
With a joke with a jag, Kieran McGeeney would often tell the Crossmaglen defender that he wouldn’t have picked up niggly injuries had he completed a full pre-season.
After eight years, 30-year-old Hughes has decided to call time on his inter-county career.
“At St Colman’s where we did pre-season, there were no footballs there, just a running track. It’s a cold Wednesday night, you’re just getting hit by the wind. It’s not the nicest place in the world!
“Even though I’ll miss the craic with the boys, they’ll know I wasn’t a big one for pre-season training,” Hughes says.
“Kieran was forever saying that to me, that I’d try and get out of it some way. But whenever you go through a pre-season with those boys you look back at those times and dogging it out. So I’ll miss that camaraderie. When the matches start I know I’ll miss being there but you can’t have that without doing the pre-season. There was great pride playing for my county, you’re playing at the highest level and testing yourself.”
Hughes acknowledges that the timing of his retirement isn’t great as he feels that Armagh are “heading in the right direction” and is confident the days of yo-yoing between Division Two and Three are at an end.
During his time involved – 2014 to 2021 – Armagh received many admiring glances but never seemed to win many tight Championship games, none more in evidence than last season’s epic Ulster semi-final defeat to Monaghan.
“I appreciate that I’m leaving Armagh now when we’re going in the right direction,” Hughes says.
“Whenever I joined the panel we were bouncing in between Division Two and Three but that’s the way it is and that’s the way things have fallen.
“We just weren’t able to win that dog-fight. Now obviously there’s a bit more strength in depth over the last number of years. I just think the belief is there, that we are good enough to compete at the top table. Obviously the Monaghan game was disappointing.
“That was the problem over the years. We were the ‘hard-luck’ story. People would watch us and say: ‘Ah, you’re great to watch, you show some fight’ – but we still ended up on the wrong side of the result. I know the team and I know the players don’t want to be a hard-luck story any more. At the end of the day, if you don’t win a game, that’s it, you’re a loser.
“The Monaghan game was brilliant to watch. We gave them that head start and we showed some great fight and courage to come back but we just didn’t take control of the ball in the right moments. It was hard to take but looking forward to next year, getting to an Ulster final and staying Division One is something I’d like to see them do.”
Hughes will now focus on returning Crossmaglen Rangers to the summit in Armagh after suffering two crushing final defeats over the past two seasons.
But not even the split season could tempt Hughes to stay for another year with Armagh.
“It was on my mind to go back but with my wedding and turning 30 and with 'Cross I just felt it was the right time. And you never really know how these split seasons are going to work: is it going to work or is it going to be much the same as what it has been?
“I’ll definitely not miss travelling to training three or four nights a week and I’ll look forward to spending a bit more time around the house. I work in construction and I needed to get work closer to home. Going to Dublin early in the morning and getting to training that night was a lot.
“With the club, you mightn’t have as many sessions and you’re not travelling.”
Hughes had been niggled by back and hip injuries and virtually lost a season due to an ankle injury in 2018 – but even when regained full fitness he struggled to get game-time in the last two seasons, and the incentive to stay on was somewhat eroded.
His last game for Armagh came as a substitute in the drawn NFL game with Donegal while he didn’t feature in Championship games against Antrim and Monaghan.
“As a defender, it’s tough because if you don’t start, you’re not going to be coming on as a corner-back, whereas it’s a lot easier for forwards to come on,” he says.
“They might kick a point and it’s a lot easier to push themselves on. I was blessed with a good engine, that’s probably why I always tried to get out of pre-season because I thought I was fit enough. But because I didn’t fully commit to pre-season Kieran always said that’s why I picked up injuries.”
Despite playing for Armagh in less illustrious times, Hughes doesn’t regret putting his shoulder to the wheel for the best part of a decade.
“I would say it was worth it. I didn’t win anything but you also have to look at it and the memories I had, the pride I got out of playing for Armagh and the pride my family got out of it was a big thing for me.
“What else would you be doing? If you’re fit to do it, you’re better off doing it. I’ll definitely look back with fond memories and I’m glad I did do it. Was it tough? At times it was but it was also very rewarding. Some people don’t get to represent their county or there were some who didn’t get as much game time as I did. So I’m thankful for the times I did play for Armagh.”