Ryan McHugh more than happy to tough it out for the good of Donegal
Comparisons inevitable as Ryan brings the same enthusiasm and energy to proceedings as his brother Mark
Donegal’s Ryan McHugh evades the challenge of Monaghan’s Ryan Wylie and Colin Walshe duringt the Ulster SFC final. Photograph: Russell Pritchard/Pressye/Inpho
The comparison was unavoidable. All through Sunday’s Ulster final, Ryan McHugh always seemed to be at hand to take possession and jink and weave his way through Monaghan defenders not known for permitting waltzing in their vicinity. He played fast, smart and elusive all afternoon and finished not only with his first Ulster medal but a television man of the match award.
It was only a matter of time before someone asked him about his older brother Mark, whose high-octane running game was the key to Donegal during their emergent years. Last summer, the older McHugh was left with only fragmented memories of Donegal’s defeat to Monaghan after coming off second best in a collision with Stephen Gollogly. On Saturday night, he was across the Atlantic having stunned everyone by deciding to opt out of the Donegal panel for the time being.
“He rang me last night to wish me all the best, he wished all the lads the best,” McHugh said afterwards.
“He’s out in America and he’s enjoying himself. Listen, he’ll be happy for the lads. He was part of the squad and is best friends with all the lads. He’ll be happy for everyone. He is happy with the decision he made, he has no regrets so it’s all good.”
The comparisons with his older brother don’t end on the field. McHugh has the same optimistic energy and happy-go-lucky outlook. Along with Odhran MacNiallais and Darach O’Connor, he has emerged to provide Donegal with three new attacking options which deepens Jim McGuinness’s options. And for all the comparisons with his brother, McHugh was quick to point out that he hasn’t been used in precisely the same way.
New face“I’d be telling everyone that I haven’t played sweeper this year yet. I was wing-back against Derry and Antrim but I was put up the field today. I play there for my club, and Jim gave me the job and I went out and did it.”
He was drafted into the squad after the All-Ireland success and was the new face during last year’s traumatic defence of the Sam Maguire. Given the highs of the previous year, it was a gruelling summer in which to make a debut. Last summer, he appeared worryingly slight as he moved through what is a physically impressive Monaghan unit but was able to withstand some clattering challenges yesterday, including one that occurred on the sideline and left the Donegal management incensed.
“You take the hits,” he grinned. “They’re not as sore when you win.”
So McHugh is well placed to judge the emotional value of Sunday’s victory. Afterwards, Jim McGuinness didn’t hesitate in declaring it the best championship victory of his time in charge. Certainly, the players and management reacted to the final whistle with the uncontained joy redolent of their 2011 provincial win, the first title for the county in 19 years. But they had private motivations going into Sunday.
“This was a big one for us coming in to the game,” McHugh explained.
“There was a lot of hurt after last year. Monaghan have been great Ulster champions and we were going in as underdogs and thankfully we came out with the victory. The Mayo victory [in last year’s quarter-final] was a dull day for Donegal.
“But Jim and the lads they’ve put great belief into us and put great store in us coming back Yeah, there’s a few of us in there winning our first and hopefully we can go on and win a few more. It was a great day all round with Donegal winning the minors as well. It feels great. It’s my best moment in county football or in football in general in my career. Hopefully I can go on to do better things but for now it’s just great and it’s just sinking in now.”
For much of the match, Donegal exhibited their ability to control and dictate the pace but all of that was blown apart by Chris McGuinness’s 50th minute goal, which put Monaghan right back in contention. For a minute of two, it seemed as if they might have found a new way to get under the Donegal men’s skin. But the match restarted and Donegal put together a 0-3 run and order was restored. That they didn’t blink was perhaps the most impressive part of that win.
‘Great belief’“They told us beforehand, it doesn’t matter if we go two, three, four points behind, we have the team here to win the game so we knew that. It [the goal] did set us back a wee bit, it’s only natural, but we showed great belief to come back and win the game.”
Another fringe benefit means that sitting down for family breakfast in Kilcar is a little bit easier for McHugh now. He has added a significant memento to a remarkable family contribution to Donegal football.
“It definitely does, yeah. Ah, Mark and Dad have been there and done that so they have, thankfully I have one, but hopefully I can go on and do more.”