BY CHRIS MCNULTY
HUGH McFadden dreamt of being a top line soccer player.
First with Finn Harps and then with Sligo Rovers, the Killybegs man won League of Ireland Under-19 Northern Section titles. He was captain of Sligo’s Under-19s for the 2012/13 season and he played for Ian Baraclough’s team as a substitute against Glentoran in March 2013.
Then Harps manager Peter Hutton was disappointed to lose McFadden’s services in July 2012, but McFadden saw Sligo as a real opportunity. He took up a scholarship offer and studied Health Science and Physiology at IT Sligo.
A year after signing for the Bit O’Red, Baraclough delivered the news that he was no longer a part of the plans at the Showgrounds. He sat in the stand on the night the UEFA Champions League Anthem rang out as Rovers played Molde FK.
Two months later, an unknown number flashed up on his mobile. It was Jim McGuinness. McFadden had scored 2-4 for Killybegs in a Donegal SFC quarter-final against Sean MacCumhaills.
With one dream dead, a whole new world appeared before McFadden’s eyes.
He took up the offer from McGuinness during a run that saw Killybegs reach the championship final.
By his own admission, McFadden had a lot of catching up to do having parked his Gaelic football career for three years. Two weeks ago, he made his Ulster SFC debut as a sub during Donegal’s win over Armagh at the Athletic Grounds. After promising appearances against Laois and Galway in the opening two League games in 2014, McFadden was kept in cold storage by McGuinness.
He took it all in, though, and came back ready to make an impact this year. To those who know him closely, it came as no surprise.
“On and off the pitch, Hughie is a top pro,” says Shane McGinty, who roomed with McFadden while the pair were at Sligo. “It’s unbelievable how much he puts into it. He’s just one of those boys who gives 100 per cent whatever he’s doing and that’s why he could never play both sports at the one time.”
McFadden knew where he wanted to go, but he quickly changed his goals – and now he’s aiming to make a permanent mark with Donegal.
“I was looking maybe for a move to Finn Harps or Athlone, but simultaneously as I was leaving Sligo the Donegal Under-21s were planning their attack for the following year and Killybegs had the run to the county final that year,” he says.
“Maxi (Curran) and Rory (Gallagher, who was alongside Curran for the 2014 Under-21 campaign) spent a lot of time last year working on my game. They were very proactive in catching me up on things. Finding a position was a big problem, but the under-21 experience really helped me with those different jobs on the pitch. It whetted my appetite for the game going forward.
“To excel in any sport you should be playing that sport for as long as possible. The decision making skills and understanding of what to do in a game just weren’t at the level they should have been at for me and I was bringing a lot of soccer habits into the game too. It was stuff like where to receive the ball or standing off you man whereas in Gaelic football it’s different. One of my biggest strengths as an underage Gaelic footballer were the long kick passes, but they’ve kind of gone out of the game now so I’ve had to adapt a lot.
“I missed a lot from 15 to 18, but hopefully I can take my learning forward.”
McGuinness put him on a strength and conditioning programme in the winter of 2013. He had jumped at the chance, but knew he had lost time to make up for. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy, but he made a vow to himself that he wouldn’t go when the going got tough.
“People were excited about football in the county and were excited about the Donegal team at the time, but I was just thinking about how I could contribute and help the team,” he says.
“I didn’t get on in the Championship last year, but a lot of that was probably down to it being my first year on the senior panel having not played much underage with the county. I was finding my feet a lot last year in the inter-county game.
“I had a lot to learn because I was coming in very raw player without a definite role within a team. I spent last summer learning, but I gave it my all and I’ve brought all that work into this year. I was definitely disappointed not to get in, but then you remind yourself that you’re trying to break into one of the best teams in the country.
“At this level, you can’t spend too much time being in awe of the surroundings or being in awe of the people around you. You’ll be left behind if that happens. You can pinch yourself when you get home or whatever, but not when you’re in the moment.”
Like most youngsters in the fishing port, McFadden played with both the Killybegs GAA club and St Catherine’s FC.
A natural at both codes, he chose soccer when the time came to make a selection, but he holds no regrets when he charts his journey and a meteoric rise from the night he hit 2-4 against MacCumhaills in Convoy, having been released by Sligo just weeks earlier, to the day he ran on in front of 18,126 at the Athletic Grounds a fortnight ago.
He says: “When I was younger I looked at soccer as being higher than Gaelic so that’s stood to me. I’d have been looking at playing League of Ireland as being a massive thing or playing for the county soccer team as being a bigger thing than playing county Gaelic.
“Now, I can see how massive it is and getting the game time against Armagh was huge for me – I just want to push on now and keep improving. It’s something I wouldn’t have expected to happen a few years ago, but I’m delighted that I’ve got the first Championship appearance under my belt.
“I’m happy with where I am and I’ll be doing the best I can to help the Donegal squad from now on.”
As McGinty puts it: “He’ll do whatever he can to make it.”