Donegal’s Ryan McHugh: ‘We know it’s a massive match against Cavan’

Hoping to reach their 10th Ulster final in 12 years, Donegal are keeping their eye on the ball

Ryan McHugh of Donegal celebrates his team’s win over Armagh in the Ulster SFC quarter-final in Ballybofey on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Once upon a time in Ulster the football championship was played over three months and felt like a marathon. These days it is played over six weeks and feels like a sprint.

Cavan and Donegal have already booked their semi-final places, both successfully navigating their quarter-finals over the weekend, and will play again on Sunday week, May 8th. It’s not yet two years since they last met in the 2020 Ulster football championship, that final played on a winter night in November due to the pandemic-condensed season.

It's still plenty fresh in the memory of both counties and for contrasting reasons: Donegal had beaten Armagh by 12 points in the semi-final and looked poised for a third title in succession; Cavan had other ideas, striking late thanks to a Conor Madden goal to secure their first title since 1997.

That contributed to the crazy twist of Bloody Sunday weekend fate when the All-Ireland semi-final pairings for 2020 were the exact same as in 1920: Cavan versus Dublin, and Tipperary versus Mayo.


Sunday week will see Donegal looking to secure a 10th final in 12 years, missing out only last year and in 2017; they’ve also won five titles during that period. Ryan McHugh says the experience of 2020 is fresh enough to ensure nothing against Cavan will be taken for granted.

“We know it’s another massive match against Cavan, we’re only through one round, we’re really looking forward to it,” says McHugh. “I’ve haven’t seen them yet [against Antrim], but we know them well, you don’t need motivation going into any Ulster championship match, and we’ll definitely need none here.

“They’re a good side, were playing in a division they probably felt they shouldn’t have been, they came out of this year and played a lot of good football.”

Easy path

Indeed, Cavan fairly blew past Antrim on Saturday, 1-20 to 0-10, dismissing any suggestion the winners of Donegal-Armagh on Sunday would have an easy path to the final. Donegal ultimately dominated Armagh too, winning 1-16 to 0-12, McHugh admitting they could and probably should have won by even more.

In the first half alone, Donegal had 19 scoring chances, many from winning the Armagh kick-outs, only to score nine. “Aye, I felt we were getting into good scoring positions, and on another day those scores will maybe go over. We still felt they were the right shots to take. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a good wide, but definitely we need to score more of them or we could be punished the next day.

Ryan McHugh of Donegal with Rory Grugan of Armagh. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

"We felt we'd the right players on the ball: Michael Langan, Michael Murphy, Paddy [McBrearty], Jamie Brennan. We go back every day of the week to kick those scores, so still happy with the way we shut down the Armagh kick-out.

“These are massive men, and we’ve huge confidence if we can get the keeper to kick the ball long we’ve more than a 50-50 chance of winning that.

“It’s all about next ball, next ball, next ball, playing the game as if it’s level. I think we got off to a good start, the first half really set the tone for us. We probably felt we should have been even more up at half-time – three points up, we felt we could have been five or six.

“I thought we carried that on in the second half, bar maybe the first five or 10 minutes when Armagh really came at us. After that we showed a wee bit of composure and kicked on. The massive score after that was the goal, the biggest score of the match, from McBrearty [on 46 minutes].”


Donegal’s composure was gleaned from some recent experiences where they surrendered a half-time advantage: “Yeah, a lot of games, the very first match against Mayo, in different matches like that we were in the lead and didn’t see it out. That’s something we touched on at half-time, that we were in this position a lot, not just this year, but at times we didn’t see it out. Thankfully we did.”

Still only 28, having made his senior debut in 2013, McHugh says there was no great distraction when the Armagh players had their suspensions overturned.

“We just focused on our game, disappointed for Odhrán [McFadden-Ferry] and Neil [McGee] missing out, it could have backfired, but we leave all that to the officials. We felt we had the match-ups anyway, it didn’t change our plan, we like to focus on ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – you have to focus X amount on the opposition, but we focus a lot more on ourselves, and getting as many scores as we can on the board.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics