RYAN McHugh was named as the 2014 Ulster Player of the Year on Thursday, a night that saw the Kilcar man and five of his team-mates named on the Irish News Ulster All-Star team.
The awards showed the old and the new of Donegal’s successful summer.
Young starlets McHugh and Odhrán MacNiallais were joined by three-time Ulster and 2012 All-Ireland winners Michael Murphy, Neil McGee, Leo McLoone and Karl Lacey.
McHugh was Man of the Match in Donegal’s Ulster final win over Monaghan in Clones and it has certainly been some summer for the 20-year-old.
McHugh was introduced to the Donegal side last year, but this year he has really come into his own and his versatility has been evident.
These awards are selected by public vote and McHugh’s superb summer was recognised.
For MacNiallais, it has been a dream year. He has played in every game in 2014 and what an impact he’s made. He hit four points against Antrim in the Ulster semi-final and netted a crucial goal against Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“Us young lads have to be very thankful to Jim for giving us the chance. We’re really looking forward to getting ready for the All-Ireland final,” MacNiallais said, just two weeks before they take on Kerry in the All-Ireland final.
“If you’d told me that I’d be this involved, that I’d be winning the Ulster title and be getting ready to play Kerry in the All-Ireland final after beating Dublin in the semi-final, I wouldn’t believe it for a second.”
MacNiallais was also on the panel through 2013, but made just two substitute appearances in the National League. The Gaoth Dobhair man actually played twice in the Dr McKenna Cup during Jim McGuinness’s first year as Donegal manager, in 2011.
He has been indebted to the established players for being a guiding light.
He said: “It’s incredible – there is so much experience in that dressing room. It’s an honour to play with them. They help us out so much and they’re great men to be around.
“They were the same for the Ulster final – they’re always there for wee tips. Eamon McGee came into the room to me the night before the Ulster final and had a wee word with me.”
Leo McLoone has come up the ranks with McGuinness at Naomh Conaill and is now a mainstay in the senior team.
McLoone, an All-Ireland winner two years ago, scored the killer goal against Derry in Celtic Park and netted another against Antrim, which was almost a replica.
Of the injection of new blood to the side, McLoone said: “We knew the kind of player that Odhran was – a brilliant, skilful player. He has gone out and expressed himself this year.
“Ryan came in and is a brilliant athlete. He’s a great young player too and those young lads have really helped us this year.”
Last August, Donegal looked to have reached the end of the road, but how things have changed.
McLoone said: “It’s great talking to different people about how the mood has changed and how there’s a great buzz about the county. It’s great to be a part of that. It’ll be a tight game and we know that. We have a lot of work to do.
“To beat the Dubs in the semi final was a great occasion. It was tough coming back after last year, but we worked hard and we started to believe we could do it as the year went on.”
The evening was hosted by Joanne Cantwell, RTE Sport presenter, with Kerry’s former All-Ireland winning captain Darragh O’Se as guest speaker and Uachtarán Cumann Luthchleas Gael Liam O’Neill as guest of honour.
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