Time flies. Ryan McHugh is asked about 2014, his rookie season when Donegal flabbergasted consensus by taking down Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final – to which he contributed 2-2. Of course it didn't end quite as well, as they were out-smarted by Kerry a few weeks later but it was a notable year – only the county's third All-Ireland final.
Does it all appear now as if it’s disappearing into the rear-view mirror a little quickly and taking opportunity with it?
“It is. I was just saying to a friend of mine yesterday that 2014 feels like a lifetime ago. I am 27 at the minute, turning 28 this year so I was 19 turning 20 that time so it does feel like a lifetime ago.
There's no point lying; we aim high and if we don't achieve it we definitely feel we've underachieved
“I don’t like to be looking back all the time. I like to look forward to the career that is ahead of me. At 27 coming into 28, I would like to think that I am coming into my prime. After one of the games, I am now known as one of the ‘veterans’ of the side whereas in 2014 I was known as the new kid on the block.”
His 10th season. Opportunities also zip past with each succeeding year. In recent years the trail of agonising championship defeats, narrow and frequently avoidable, has stretched out like a despairing jet stream.
At home to Tyrone in 2018 and four ahead going into the final quarter; a year later, anxiety in the face of a fervid Mayo challenge at the last-chance saloon in Castlebar; most regretfully, the Cavan ambush of November 2020 and then last year a litany of misfortune and another defeat by Tyrone, which their rivals used as a springboard to an unlikely All-Ireland.
He accepts the implications of this roll call and says that it is compounded by the team’s high hopes and ambitions every season.
“At the start of every year, we always target an Ulster title and an All-Ireland title. There’s no point lying; we aim high and if we don’t achieve it we definitely feel we’ve underachieved.
“Not to even get to an Ulster final last year - and I know we came up against Tyrone, the eventual All-Ireland winners - was extremely disappointing.”
So how has the league fitted into all of this? Curiously, his three Ulster titles have come in years when Donegal were either relegated or in Division Two. McHugh doesn't attach huge significance to this but accepts that less pressurised league campaigns can allow certain players to be rested.
That won't be the case, starting on Sunday in Sligo where Mayo have to play their opening home fixture because of work on MacHale Park. Last year the league, broken into its regions, resembled a McKenna Cup campaign for those in Division One North.
As I got into senior level, something I did enjoy more was getting to play other teams. It's a different style of football
Will the full national experience be a relief and a benefit this year?
“Yeah, it’s massive I think. At the time last year we felt extremely fortunate to be playing football with the world we were living in. There was a lot of uncertainty out there so we took whatever we got.
"I think as player and even growing up playing under-15 and -16 you are always playing Ulster teams. You might have the odd challenge match against Sligo, Mayo, Galway or Roscommon but your big championship matches, the Buncrana Cup - you are always playing Ulster teams.
“As I got into senior level, something I did enjoy more was getting to play other teams. It’s a different style of football. Every county has a different style and I suppose every province nearly has a different style of football.
“We were so used to playing Ulster teams and playing that style. To get out and see how other teams play and to experience it – and even going back to analyse other teams, studying them and how you are going to play against them - is different so I think it is hugely important every year to play other teams outside your province.”
He heads into a fifth year under Declan Bonner’s management, convinced that by sticking with the programme, a corner can be turned.
“I think just in terms of game plans and different sorts of stuff like that, the same people being about definitely helps.
“We know what we’re doing, I think it’s just a matter of the players stepping up now and producing what the management team are trying to say, every single night in training, so that we can deliver it at the weekends in the games.”