BY CHRIS MCNULTY
HE’LL be 35 in January and has amassed 383 games in Finn Harps’ colours, but Kevin McHugh has no intention of having Sunday’s FAI Cup semi-final being his farewell from the big stage.
McHugh has hit 176 goals for Harps since making a goalscoring debut against Fanad United in the League Cup way back in August 1998.
The Killea man had an injury-blighted start to this season, missing two months of action after coming off injured on the opening night’s 0-0 draw against Waterford United.
A clinical brace against Avondale United in the quarter-final replay was a timely reminder of McHugh’s penalty box prowess.
The Harps captain wears the armband with pride and counts himself privileged to follow a line of succession of former Harps skippers like Jim Sheridan, John Gerard McGettigan, Fergal Harkin and Declan Boyle.
The sun is shining on Donegal on a late September Monday that resembles McHugh’s career.
Winter isn’t far off, but he feels as if another go is well within his grasp. With just one League game to follow this weekend’s semi-final joust with St Patrick’s Athletic, but next Friday’s home game against Longford Town won’t be the last Finn Park will see of McHugh, the club’s most prolific goalscorer since the great Brendan Bradley.
“I’ll definitely stay,” he says with certainty in a moment of forward thinking to next season. “I’ll know myself when I’m not able but when I’m contributing positively to the team I’ll stay involved. I feel as fit and as sharp as I ever have. I wouldn’t enjoy it anywhere else. I’ll know myself when…but I’m really enjoying it.
“This year was the first time I’ve ever missed a pre-season. I used to hear people saying how hard it was to miss pre-season and then catch up. I used to think: ‘what’s the problem can’t you just go do your own training?’ It wasn’t as easy as that I can tell you. I kept getting wee niggles and was our for another couple of weeks. It put me back a lot but I feel as sharp as ever now again.”
Charlie McGeever captured McHugh’s signature from under the noses of Fanad United in ‘98. Ironically, his debut was made in Triagh-A-Locha when he netted the second goal in a 2-0 League Cup win over Fanad.
In December 2005, McHugh parted company with Harps after relegation from the Premier Division, but since coming back to the club ahead of the 2010 season – following stints at Derry City and Linfield – the Donegal County Council employee has had a new lease of life. Times have rarely been as strained as they are now.
But for a €20,000 grant from the Council’s elected representatives and a similar amount taken in as part of Stephen McLaughlin’s transfer from Derry City to Nottingham Forest, the lid on Harps could have been closed. The last rites have been administered several times in recent seasons and financial strife has never been far away. The optimist in McHugh sees the glass half full.
“Any time I get the chance I always explain to the players about the potential this club has – it’s serious the potential that is here,” he says.
“There is hunger out there to have a good stage for senior football in Donegal. You can see wee glimpses of people who are mad to get behind us. The likes of this game on Sunday could open up a lot of eyes – even among the players – about what makes this football club.
“The club has been down in the doldrums but has been rebuilding well and I can really see things starting to take shape.
“There is nothing you can do with begrudgers or people who just complain all the time. They’re always going to be there. Hand on heart, though, I’ve never seen as many honest guys behind the scenes running the club and the players have worked as hard as any squad I have ever been with. I’m including the Derry City and Linfield teams I played with. These guys are working something serious. We are in a part time league but we have a full-time attitude.
“Finn Harps is steeped with tradition. I know we obviously haven’t been challenging but I have no doubt that we will be back. The club is dotting i’s and crossing t’s with the youth set-up at the minute and everything, from the new stadium all the way down to the youth system, is building towards something good.”
He can admit now to being a little sceptical when he learned of the appointment of Ollie Horgan last November. Peter Hutton had signed his resignation letter before the season’s end.
Among the candidates to succeed Hutton were Don O’Riordan, a former League of Ireland manager at Sligo Rovers and Galway United, and Joe Boyle, the highly-rated Donegal man who was tipped to land the post. Julian Dicks, the former West Ham United player, was one of the more unusual curriculum vitaes to fall through the Finn Park letterbox.
Harps plumped for Horgan, who was said to have ‘shot the lights out’ in his interview process. McHugh needed convincing, though.
“I only met Ollie for 20 minutes but even then I could see the workrate that he had,” McHugh says now.
“That spills out onto the team. It says a lot for the squad that they’ve rowed in behind him.
“I’ve seen a lot of squads and teams who would see an unknown manager come in and they’d just throw the shoulders: ‘who the hell is this boy?’ There are a lot of players in that dressing room who have made an awful lot of appearances but there are no big time Charlies or mercenaries.
“You have to give Ollie, James (Gallagher) and Tommy (Canning) credit. If we were as consistent as the coaching staff we would be in a play-off spot. It’s not that we have been inconsistent, but we’ve been unlucky with injuries and we’ve had a lot of suspensions. It’s only in the last month that Ollie has had headaches.
“We’ve had everything a senior club needs – and I mean everything from the video work, to the strength and conditoning, to the nutrition. The big thing is that it hasn’t stopped like it did in other years.
“It’s very easy to start these things but keeping them going is the one. Players sometimes can become fed up or bored but the three boys drive it home every week that this is the way forward – if you want to be a footballer this is the way it has to be.”
One of Horgan’s first recruits was James Gallagher, who is now the club’s senior coach. Gallagher, a former team-mate of McHugh’s with whom he won the First Division title in 2004, was the man who took the striker back to Finn Park in 2010.
McHugh says: “James was severely unlucky when he was manager. I’ve played under a lot of past teammates like Speakie and Gavin Dykes. James was as good a manager as has been here and he had a great idea of where he wanted to go with his ideas. A lot of players felt that they could have done more for him and James deserves immense credit.”
McHugh won three League Cups with Derry City and in 2006 was part of a City team that defeated St Patrick’s Athletic in a thrilling final, 4-3, at Lansdowne Road in the last soccer match at the ground before it closed for redevelopment. He was one of the peroxide boys in 1999 as Harps lost a three-game saga against Bray Wanderers and also lost a final with Derry against Bohemians in 2008.
“The one with Harps definitely meant more,” he says of his previous Cup exploits.
“I have the connection to Harps. I’m a Donegal man and Harps are my first club. Getting to the Aviva Stadium is still a far off dream but that’s the prize we have to play for on Sunday.
“We’re up against it. We know that and we’re not foolish enough to come out and say we’re going to beat St Pat’s. They have Keith Fahey in the middle of the park and he was playing regularly for Ireland under (Giovanni) Trapattoni.
“We do have players to make them worry, but if the two teams play to their potential, well, we’re in trouble. I’m not saying we will turn around and beat Pat’s but we aren’t going there to be pushovers. We will give them respect and they do deserve huge respect because they’re the reigning champions and will be until Cork or Dundalk win the title.
“Sunday will gauge where we are in terms if the bigger picture. This squad has great character. We won’t lie down to anyone – not in the biggest game of the season anyway. We’ve only been outplayed in two games this season – in Waterford and in Galway last Sunday. We know what we’re going into on Sunday though – we’re massive underdogs and rightly so.”
McHugh’s had a busy time of it lately. Not to mention holding down a job in the Council’s IT department, he and his wife, Aine, have two young children, Ella and Odhrán. Life is busy at the McHugh household just outside St Johnston and lately he’s added another column to the timetable after starting his UEFA ‘B’ coaching licence.
Last Tuesday, he atteneded the 1-1 Premier Division draw between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers at Dalymount Park for analysis as part of the course.
He says: “I really enjoyed it. It’s made me realised that it isn’t just all a matter of going and picking a team. It teaches you a lot about managing work loads, managing injuries, video analysis, all that stuff. It’s amazing actually.
“It’s about managing time. I had done my youth cert and the others so I really wanted to go up to the next level. It takes about six months to complete and this is part of the reason I wanted to take charge of the Donegal Schoolboys under-12 team. There are three seminars I have to do. I was down in Dublin for three days and I’ll be back again around the end of November.
“They don’t just hand out these badges out anymore.
“I’d love a camera to have followed me for the last couple of weeks.”