Mark McHugh’s departure piles the pressure on Donegal
Departure of former All Star a blow in the run-up to big clash with Derry
Donegal’s Mark McHugh, who has left the county panel, and team manager Jim McGuinness. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The last thing any manager wants to hear is talk of unrest, indiscipline and disillusioned players, especially three weeks before their opening game in the championship. Rarely, if ever, is it a sign of good things to come.
The fact Jim McGuinness now finds himself hearing it – three weeks before his Donegal travel to Celtic Park to face Derry – is being interpreted in two different ways: a signal of some new or deepening unhappiness within the panel, or an old signal of his zero tolerance towards the sort of slackening of behaviour which quite possibly contributed to his team surrendering their All-Ireland title last summer.
Either way the timing couldn’t be much worse, or indeed the identity of one of the players involved. Mark McHugh, an All Star forward in 2012, was instrumental in Donegal winning the All-Ireland title that same year, particularly given his sweeping role. And yet long before McHugh made known his decision to leave the panel on Tuesday night there were signs that all wasn’t right with the 23 year-old from Kilcar.
McHugh struggled to rediscover that All Star form last summer. A pelvis injury forced him to miss much of their league campaign, and his championship form was certainly hit and miss –- not helped by the heavy hit taken in the Ulster final defeat to Monaghan, when McHugh was not only concussed but also suffered a perforated eardrum and a quad muscle injury.
This spring, a hamstring injury also limited his league appearances, including the final round win over Armagh when McHugh was listed to start, only for the returning Neil Gallagher to take his place instead.
Last Sunday, when Donegal once again faced Monaghan in the Allianz Football League division two final in Croke Park, McHugh was also left off the starting 15, although he did come on as a substitute after 28 minutes, replacing Christy Toye. Again, his form looked off, and Donegal ended up losing by six points.
There is also the awkward backdrop of club versus county commitments, not just the scheduling of club games but the near total postponing of them. McGuinness has already had all club championship matches put off until after his team are eliminated from the All-Ireland series, and the Easter weekend also saw the postponement of some club league games, as they were scheduled a little too close to Donegal’s return from that training camp in Portugal.
And yet, as McGuinness pointed out in Croke Park on Sunday, this scenario only appears to cause controversy in Donegal, as he claimed “every single team in Ulster called their championship off (last year) until their county team was out... So I don’t understand where the whole thing is coming from, but I know it is coming from certain quarters, let’s put it like that”.
So what exactly is ailing Donegal football right now?
“This has nothing to do with county versus club commitments, or anything like that,” suggested one former Donegal player, part of the 1992 All-Ireland winning set-up, and himself no stranger to the sort of player controversies that dogged the team in some of the intervening years.
“The mood was good when they returned from the training camp, in Portugal, and I think by then the focus was already on the Ulster championship date with Derry.”
The fact that Ryan McHugh, younger brother of Mark, appears to be content with his place within the panel would suggest it can’t be all about a club versus county conflict, or else surely he would follow his brother’s suit.
In the meantime neither McGuinness nor McHugh have publicly commented on exactly why he left the panel. McHugh is in his final year at Sligo IT and does have exams pending, and Donegal selector Damian Diver claimed it was a simple matter of the player’s own personal disillusionment.
“He hasn’t been enjoying his football,” said Diver. “He has been troubled by a hamstring injury, and his form has been indifferent. He just wasn’t enjoying it and wanted to take time out. It can be hard to keep it going mentally. He felt that he wanted a break and take some time to find himself. Any player you lose at this stage of the year, it’s a blow, but we’ll have to get around it.”
Diver was then asked if he thought McHugh could return:
“The door is always open, to any player,” he answered, although that wasn’t the case two years ago, when former captain Kevin Cassidy left the panel in a similarly unexpected manner.
Whatever about McHugh’s prospects of returning this summer, it would seem unlikely that any of the other three departed players – Gary McFadden, Antoin McFadden and Thomas McKinley – will be returning anytime soon. Antoin McFadden – who is actually McGuinness’s brother-in-law – had announced that he was leaving the panel last week, ahead of the Division Two final against Monaghan. Neither Gary McFadden nor McKinley were listed on the team sheet for that game, and announced their decision to leave the panel after the game on Sunday, reportedly citing an inability to make the necessary commitment, given the lack of game time.
They are not the first players to opt out of a county panel for those reasons and Donegal press officer Ed Byrnes said: “The way intercounty football has gone, there are serious commitments in playing for your county team. And it is probably that they have other commitments. But I would categorically state that there is no bust-up within the camp.”