BY CHRIS MCNULTY
Five months previously, McHugh – an All-Star in the All-Ireland-winning year 2012 – decided to leave the panel, parting ways in the days after Donegal lost the Division 2 final against Monaghan. As he walked down Jones Road, McHugh was approached by scores of people asking him to pose for a picture.
‘You should be out there today,’ was the common theme.
“Maybe I should have been,” he says now, back in the panel and refreshed for the summer.
“When I did leave, I said it was going to be ‘no regrets’ and obviously I was sick coming up to the semi-final, final stage, any human being would be, but I was delighted for the lads in the sense that I knew the work and the effort that they had put in.
“In my view they deserved to win the All-Ireland, they probably were the better team to win it, but things did not work out in September for them. It was hard to watch that day as a supporter, knowing that you could be in there, helping them in any wee way at all.
“It’s given me a new freshness though. I was buzzing, training January and February was no problem at all to me because I wanted to be there. It was a normal routine, that training happens in January and February to be ready for this time of the year.”
McHugh lives in Letterkenny these days and is an accounts manager with iRadio. The 24-year-old was invited into the trials process by new manager Rory Gallagher in the winter. He jumped at the chance and, after coming through a month of a trial period, he was back in the squad.
He’d worked closely with Gallagher during his time as Jim McGuinness’s assistant from 2011-2013 while Gallagher’s stint as both team trainer and manager at Kilcar gave him a real insight into the ways and workings of Donegal’s new manager.
McHugh needed little introduction, in any case. Gallagher and McHugh’s father, Martin, became close associates and the former Donegal ace was one of those to recommend Gallagher to McGuinness when he was in search of a number 2 for the 2011 campaign.
Mark McHugh once said that Gallagher possessed ‘the shrewdest football brain’ he knew and he clearly has the utmost respect for the former Fermanagh star.
He says: “He’s the most intelligent GAA man I’ve ever met. He would tell you about past players and present players from anywhere. He has a real eye for talent. If you’re ever at a table quiz, he’s the man you’d want to sit with – his general knowledge is even vast. His knowledge of football is unbelievable and his tactical awareness is brilliant. He opens your eyes to things you wouldn’t normally see.
“He was the right man for the job. He had been there. A brand new manager would take four or five months to find his way and see what his plans were. There haven’t been many changes with Rory, just little tweaks here and there to improve us.
“I’ve been involved with Rory for six or seven years, from the county to the club. You have to play by Rory’s rules. It’s like with Jim, it’s about working hard for your team-mates to make sure that you’re there for them. It’s not like the difference in night and day between Rory and Jim. The philosophy they both carry is based on hard work and being well prepared for every game.
“For Donegal football I thought that Rory was the only man for the job after Jim left. He was the right fit and I was delighted. I was always going to go back. The break did help me. I figured that day of the All-Ireland that I wanted to play for Donegal and that I missed it – I was going to be available for selection after that.”
Late last spring, just when the nights were beginning to lengthen, McHugh found himself falling out of love with a game that had become his life.
In 2012, he was an integral figure – seen by many as the key piece in the jigsaw – as Donegal won the All-Ireland. Few either before or since have played the sweeper’s role like he did that year: Remember the lung-bursting surge from deep against Cork that saw him score a fisted point in the All-Ireland semi-final that year?
Last year, though, the affection for the game had seeped from him. 2013 had been defined by heavy defeats to Monaghan and Mayo, McHugh’s year remembered best for that crunching collision with Stephen Gollogly in the Ulster final that left him nursing a perforated eardrum, concussion and a quad muscle tear.
As summer came into view last year, McHugh was at odds with himself. It was a strange feeling for someone who’d grew up immersed in the ways of the game.
He searched high and low for reasons and answers. After Donegal lost to Monaghan in the Division 2 final, he confirmed his decision to leave the panel. He sought the opinions of those close to him, but his final answer still took time to arrive at.
He says: “I felt that it was the right decision for me, it was nothing against the lads, nothing against Jim McGuinness, just a personal decision.
“I knew the talent that was in the Donegal team and knew that it wasn’t going to go bad. I knew they could win another Ulster title and I did say that to myself, ‘Could you live with this if they won another All-Ireland?’ The answer was yes. That’s why I decided to do it.
“I lived an hour and a half away from each training session so since I was about 18, with the under-21s and then leading onto the seniors I spent all my summer months driving to training three or four nights a week, doing a two-hour session, driving another hour and a half back, so it was three hours driving out of my life.
“I said to myself, if I do anything in life, do it right, and I wasn’t doing that right.
“I needed a break. I had exams coming up at the end of the year too, so everything was falling on top of me. I spoke to people and I don’t think my heart was in it at the time.”
McHugh spent a large portion of his summer in New York, turning out for Donegal New York. On the day of the Ulster final, McHugh rose early, watched the Donegal minors and seniors record wins over Monaghan to make it a Tir Chonaill double with Ryan McHugh, his younger brother, named as Man of the Match in the senior decider – “I was delighted for that man,” Mark says. A treble arrived later in the day when McHugh and company defeated Monaghan New York.
He says: “I had no real plans to go to America at the time I did step back, but then it came up to the finish of my exams and I said, ‘Do you know what, maybe this could be the best thing for me, see a bit of the world.’ I am glad I did it now. I don’t regret it.
“It was no good to the players around me that I would just be still there. I didn’t want to be there bringing a negative feeling towards the camp.
“If I looked back in ten years time I probably would regret not doing it. But I am back now, enjoying being along with the lads and in the company.”
McHugh only returned to collective training last Monday night having been injured in a club game against Dungloe last month, when he sustained cracked ribs, but he’s got the look of a man who’s enjoying the sport again.
The imposing shadow of Tyrone grows ever larger over Donegal ahead of their joust in the airless surroundings of Sean MacCumhaill Park on Sunday; a game that will be Gallagher’s first Championship clash as Donegal’s manager.
McHugh says: “Every manager is different, they had ideas on the table, they have their own thoughts, buut then there’s different ideas that have been there from Jim’s time that, of course you are going to continue on, it’s been successful. Why would you change a successful team?
“The plans that we have had over the past couple of years, Rory is going to add to them, his own personal touch.
“In fairness to the Donegal players, they bought in when Jim McGuinness came in, they have done the exact same with Rory. We are all fully behind him, and are going to play with our heart on our sleeves for the Donegal team.”
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.