BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FINN Harps might be riding high at the top of the First Division, but Kevin McHugh is too long in the tooth to be getting ahead of himself at this stage of the season, just five games in.
The 35-year-old striker has scored in each of the last two games to take his overall Harps tally to 178 goals as Harps prepare to welcome Athlone Town to Ballybofey for an early season top-of-the-table clash.
Finn Park is expected to see its biggest crowd for some time with Ollie Horgan’s side unbeaten, winning three and drawing two of their handful of games so far.
“The question was put to us in pre-season: ‘Can we get the crowds back to Finn Park again?’ and that was something that we talked about,” says the Killea man.
“The away crowds in Shelbourne, Waterford and UCD were excellent. That really helps the team. You cannot underestimate the difference a crowd getting behind you can make. Sometimes you mightn’t deserve anything, but that crowd on your back driving you on can make a wee difference.
“Home form, ultimately, will decide if we’ll be in the shake-up or not. It would be fantastic to have a big home crowd. If people turn up to see the game, hopefully they’ll see the hunger and desire that’s there.
“If people see genuine effort and genuine commitment, they appreciate it around Finn Park. Well, to me this group is as commited as any that I’ve involved in over the last 17 years – and I don’t say that lightly.
“From what I’ve seen so far, there’s no ego in the dressing room. The team has been changed week-in, week-out and no-one has spat the dummy. People know that the team changes to suit a certain shape or to deal with a certain opponent – at the end of the day winning the game is all that matters.
“If you can keep an ego-free zone within the dressing room, everyone can be effective and make a difference when called upon.”
McHugh, the Harps captain, has yet to start a game this season, but in the last fortnight he’s come off the bench to net the second in the 2-0 win over Cobh at Finn Park and last Friday night a magnificent 81st minute equaliser against UCD in Belfield secured his side a precious away point.
The Donegal County Council employee has indicated that 2015 will be his last season as a Harps player – and he’d dearly love to go out with a bang.
He says: “Creating and scoring goals is what I’ve always enjoyed doing – it’s why I’m still playing, if I couldn’t do either I wouldn’t be here.
“There’s no point in me being flogged for a whole game and putting in a five-out-of-ten performance so it’s better to get those 20-30 minutes and give a eight-or-nine-out-of-ten display. If that’s my role within this squad, I’m more than happy with that.
“I’ve read a lot of books and stuff about stretching and how it can help. I’ve yet to go down the yoga route. I haven’t felt that I’ve needed it yet. I’m doing a lot of stretching programmes myself.
“I’m feeling fit, I’m feeling energetic. I’m staying injury free so touch wood that continues.”
At some time this summer, provided he remains intact, McHugh will become only the second player in the 61-year history of Finn Harps to make 400 appearances for the club. Against Athlone, he’ll likely draw level with Con McLaughlin on 391 and he’ll bypass Paddy McGrenaghan (393) and Jim Sheridan (397) in the coming weeks too. The record, 485, is held by Jonathan Minnock and is too far in the distance for McHugh now.
He often wonders if he’d stayed at Harps could he have reached that number – and the 241-goal record of Brendan Bradley could have become a realistic target, too.
He says: “I do think about that sometimes, but to be hones it’s all about the here and now at the minute.”
McHugh knows all about consistency – and believes Harps must bring their ‘A’ game for the whole night against the Midlanders.
He says: “If we’re not at ourselves, they could pick us apart, but if we turn up for the whole game we’re good enough to win the game. Athlone do pose a serious threat. They were in the Premier Division last year so we can’t take them lightly.
“There are 28 games in the League plus the Cup games. We’re definitely not getting carried away, as boring as it sounds we are literally taking it one game at a time, and trying to improve every week as individuals and as a unit.
“We want to go out and win the game. We have yet to put in a performance over a full ninety minutes. We’ve had 45 minutes here, a half-an-hour there sort of thing. If we turn up like that this week, we’ll get nothing. We’ll need to be at it from the warm-up – and, if we’re not, we’ll not get anything from the game.
“I’ve got a good feeling about the squad we have that we can do it for ninety minutes. In the last five weeks, the team that has finished the game has made the difference for us – that shows how important the whole squad is.”
McHugh describes the over-riding mood in the Harps camp as a ‘steely determination’.
He says: “There are two things for me: Competition for places which is really genuine now and means the management have a headache; also, the boys who were there last year felt maybe that they were embarrassed a bit live on TV in the semi-final against St Pat’s. That can really hurt, but these things happen in football and its how you bounce back that matters”