Who could blame Mark McHugh for having mixed feelings on the morning of the All-Ireland final last year? After his masterly turn as playmaker and sweeper in Donegal's perfect summer of 2012, the Kilcar man was established as a key figure for Donegal but opted out just weeks before the beginning of last year's championship. He spent a carefree summer in the US, keeping tabs on his brother Ryan and on Donegal's steady and then spectacular return to a September showdown against Kerry.
“I woke up that morning and there was a pain in the gut of my stomach because it would have been great to be playing,” McHugh said.
“But I made a decision and stuck by it. I was a Donegal supporter that day and I would have loved to have been able to hop on to the field and try and help them. You wouldn’t be human otherwise. I came back before the Dublin match and everyone had written Donegal off and I had a funny feeling that they would perform and Jim got the tactics exactly right.
“And I was delighted for the boys. I texted them all before the game. I texted Jim. I was so happy because the amount of work these guys do and a lot of my best friends are on that team. Why would I not want to see them succeed? And I was heartbroken the day they lost the final because they were inconsolable and it was just very depressing that night. And I do think that bit of grieving will help them.”
The graph of McHugh’s career is indicative of how the game has changed: he has played in a number of intense, absorbing championship games before the age of 25. The role he was given was hugely demanding and entirely innovative: it was too late by the time people realised that stopping McHugh was central to stopping Donegal.
His 2013 championship revolved around that clattering collision with Stephen Gollogly which left him hospitalised with concussion. It was his personal low point in a miserable season for the then champions. He played through the league in 2014 but wasn't in the right place for the championship.
“It is a personal decision. I felt I was no good to the team at that time because my head wasn’t right. I enjoyed spending time in America and it is not as if I never left but I am back now giving the same blood, sweat and tears. I just wasn’t feeling myself and was hampered with injury. And that break did help immensely. I was buzzing to go in January.”
Returning to the squad under the leadership of Rory Gallagher was both new and familiar. McHugh had played with Gallagher at club level and like all the county players was familiar with him from his involvement as a selector with Donegal from 2011 to 2013. It made the return easier.
But the game itself continued to evolve and with other teams aware of McHugh’s strengths now, he is unlikely to be given the licence to roam by other teams in future games. The emergence of his younger brothers Ryan and Eoin means that Donegal now have three natural ball-carriers and smart, hard-running athletes to choose from. McHugh has been trying to broaden the scope of his game since he returned.
"The game is continually evolving anyway. You look back four or five years, Kieran Donaghy at the edge of the square was the big tactic. Then teams went away from that but it came back last year. It comes down to me working harder and trying to be a better player and bringing more to my game. You have to focus on your weaknesses – I probably had to add looking for scores to my game. My tackling, because I am that wee bit small, might not be the best. The best forwards work on their weaker foot."
As it stands, McHugh faces a race just to make himself available for selection for the starting team. He cracked ribs playing a club game against Dungloe and then tweaked a quadriceps muscle to only resume training last week. He had hoped to impress during Donegal’s five-day training camp in Enniskillen, which took place over the weekend.
He saw just three minutes of action during Donegal's comprehensive league win over Tyrone, replacing his brother Ryan with three minutes remaining. But he has been a key figure during the key championship wins over Mickey Harte's team and expects next Sunday's encounter to be closer in spirit to those games than to that one-sided league game.
“We played Tyrone two years ago in Ballybofey and the atmosphere that day was as good as you would find. The tension was something else. It will be a totally different game than a few weeks ago and a different mindset. We will go out there really focused.”
McHugh’s absentee year means that he is alone among the squad in having won the All-Ireland without knowing what it feels like to lose a final. But he knows that the disappointment of last September has informed the attitude to this year.
“That grief is there. Losing an All-Ireland final . . . I haven’t felt that but I spent most of my days with Ryan in the house and he is probably still not over it. That hurt is still in his stomach and it probably will be there until he has another chance of it. When we got back in, it was positive. It was about making amends and getting things right. We had a lot of good performances in the league and we feel as if we are nearly ready.”