Ryan McHugh may tweak his game as a result of concussion
Donegal forward says sitting on the bench with injury was the hardest thing to do
Ryan McHugh: knows exactly what to expect when he faces an old friend of Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher on Sunday. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
One of the concerns for any player coming back from an extended spell on the sidelines because of a concussion is that they won’t be the same again. Especially in the proverbial heat of a championship battle.
It’s something Ryan McHugh thought plenty about during the 10 weeks he was sidelined after back-to-back concussions towards the end of summer, and although he did play throughout Donegal’s league campaign, the proper test of that will come in Sunday’s Ulster football quarter-final against Fermanagh at Brewster Park.
Among the smallest and lightest of inter-county footballers, although no less physical in his approach, McHugh, a 2018 All Star, also thought about whether that experience with concussion might force him to change his style of play.
“I was actually talking to my dad (All-Ireland winning Martin McHugh) about maybe changing the way I play my game,” he says. “But as I keep saying, it’s easy to say that sitting around a table, when you’re talking about stuff or chatting, it’s easy to say ‘Yeah, I mightn’t carry the ball as much or I might kick it more, try to change a wee bit’.
“But when you’re in the heat of a championship battle, when you’re going into Brewster Park on Sunday, if there’s a ball between two people then it’s extremely hard to pull out of that ball. If you’re told, ‘run’, it’s extremely hard not to take the ball and go, if you think you need to score or stuff like that."
I would have given anything to be out in the middle of it but unfortunately from my point of view I had to take the medical advice and sit it out.
“I think there are aspects of my game that I definitely can change, maybe kick the ball a wee bit more, maybe try to run without the ball more than run with the ball. So I think that’s definitely something I can look at.”
McHugh certainly doesn’t make light of his experience with concussion: the first, resulting from a series of knocks in Donegal’s Super 8 games against Dublin, Tyrone and Roscommon; the second, resulting from a direct knock to the head playing with his club Kilcar in a challenge match against St Vincent’s of Dublin.
Missing the club campaign wasn’t easy. “I think the hardest thing to do as any sports person, well for me, as a Gaelic footballer, is to sit on the bench, or sit on the line and watch your team-mates playing when there’s nothing you can do to help them. I would have given anything to be out in the middle of it but unfortunately from my point of view I had to take the medical advice and sit it out.
It wasn’t until about a week and a half later, at training one night, I’d trained a couple of sessions before that, but I just felt dizzy and lost a wee bit of vision.
“If you pull your hamstring or break your leg you can see the impact but if you looked at me at that time you would have thought there was not much wrong with me. I suppose that is the hard part with concussion, when you look at the person you think there’s not a lot wrong with them.
“I can only speak for myself, I can’t really speak for any other counties or anything like that. We have a top, top medical team in Donegal to be fair, led by Dr Kevin Moran, I know when I got mine, Kevin pulled me out of training straight away and assessed me, got a scan the next day. So I can only tell you what experience I’ve had with it and I’ve been treated by one of the top, top doctors in Ireland, taken care of extremely well.
“The first one was sort of strange, it was, I’d played three games in a row and it wasn’t until about a week and a half later, at training one night, I’d trained a couple of sessions before that, but I just felt dizzy and lost a wee bit of vision. So I was out for six to eight weeks or something like that. The second one was a bit different, it was a bang to the head I got against St Vincent’s.
That one I actually can’t remember everything, which is worrying. You’re in the dressing-room afterwards, when you come back around to yourself, you’re in the dressing-room and I remember our physio at that was asking me questions and I couldn’t answer them. I knew, I felt myself, I should know these answers and I wasn’t fit to answer them. But thank God as time has gone by it has come back to me.”
Sunday’s game, a repeat of last year’s Ulster final, which Donegal ended up winning by 12 points, 2-18 to 0-12, promises to be properly heated: Fermanagh beat them in the league, and as an old friend of Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher, McHugh knows exactly what to expect.
“I suppose it is well documented that me and Rory are close, he managed Kilcar the local club and growing up myself and Rory used to go kicking together when he used to play with St Gall’s. That’s the GAA, that’s way it is, friendships are put aside.
“He’s based in Killybegs, we’re only 10 minutes away, so we’d be in touch regularly in the off season. This time of year the phone wouldn’t be buzzing as much. When Rory was playing with St Gall’s, they were getting ready for an All-Ireland club that time, I’d have been 15, 16, and wasn’t even a thought for Donegal, but I remember going in and kicking ball with him, him giving me tips, and in fairness Rory has been great for me, as a mentor, a coach, has definitely brought me on as a footballer. But hopefully I can get one over him again this year.”