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'He was texting earlier, talking about staying down on Sunday night. We'll decide afterwards!'

Ryan McHugh faces former college roommate Kieran Hughes this Sunday, and admits there’s been talk of a potential sleepover.

GAELIC FOOTBALL IS dying in front of us, or so went the line from former Tír Chonaill star Manus Boyle after he watched the Donegal county final two Sundays ago.

The 1992 All-Ireland winner wasn’t the only one to take umbrage with Kilcar’s 0-7 to 0-4 win over Naomh Conaill at MacCumhaill Park; this had been a mind-numbing slog, 60-odd minutes utterly bereft of quality, and a fixture which had seen Kilcar score just a solitary point in the second half.

That, of course, didn’t matter a damn to the people of Cill Charthaigh, a Gaeltacht village composed of 233 acres in Donegal’s southwest, who watched their club put an end to the 24-year wait for a county championship.

It didn’t matter a damn to Ryan McHugh, who was born six months after his father Martin and uncle James lifted the Dr. Maguire Cup following victory over fierce rivals Killybegs in 1993.

“You know, you want to go out and win as best you can,” says McHugh, reflecting on his first taste of county success. “It probably wasn’t the most pretty spectacle for the neutrals or for anyone at the game. We were just delighted to get over the line. It’s been a long, long wait.

“Last year we were playing unbelievable football and we lost the final, so we did, so we just wanted to get over the line and thankfully we did.”

The pressure had been mounting, too, as is understandable for a club side containing the next generation of McHughs as well as Paddy McBrearty; in 2014, Kilcar missed out on a quarter-final berth on points difference, and by an agonising two points at that. A year later nobody came within an ass’s roar of them until the semi-finals, when Naomh Conaill annihilated them thanks in large part to 17-year-old senior debutant Eoghan McGettigan. Last year, having finally clawed their way to the final to which McHugh alludes, they lost out to a Michael Murphy-inspired Glenswilly by a single score.

“People were saying in Donegal that Kilcar should be winning the county,” McHugh says. “We were raging-hot favourites since day one, I suppose. Whatever pressure you put on yourself… We felt we had a good team every year, not just this year, to go and try and challenge for a county title.

“We got the wee bit of the rub of the green and got over the line. It’s great for everybody in the parish – not just the team, the whole parish together. We are a small, wee community and it was great to see the scenes on the pitch and back in Kilcar after the game. It was just phenomenal.”

His take on the outpouring of criticism levelled at 15 Octobber’s low-scoring final is measured. On the one hand, he didn’t pay much heed to it at the time. On the other, he understands it, but suggests the various proclamations of footballing doom have been voiced a touch prematurely.

“To be honest with you, the celebrations were that big I didn’t really see [the criticism]. I try to stay off Twitter and Facebook and these things, I didn’t really buy much papers during the week. That’s just the way it is.

“We played great last year and I didn’t buy the papers either, so it’s just the way I am. Listen, we were just delighted to get over the line.

“They are just looking in Donegal… The Kerry final was on yesterday and there was great football. There’s other counties outside Donegal.

It wasn’t great, but I would say Naomh Conaill and Kilcar played each other last year and the score finished 5-10 to 1-11.
There was so much pressure, both teams were so nervous it was just a matter of getting over the line.
In our semi-final we put up a big score, Naomh Conaill put up big scores in their semi-final. I don’t think it was right to say one match on any given day was the death of Gaelic football.

McHugh continued: “We played Glenswilly in the final last year and on a poor day it was a good match. We played Naomh Conaill the day before and it was such a high-scoring match, so I think if you go through the Naomh Conaill games this year, all throughout the year, there were high-scoring games in league and championship.

“It was more on a given day, we were so nervous and we put a bit of pressure on each other, so eager to win we would do whatever it took. Unfortunately it didn’t show for a great spectacle.”

He disagrees, too, that a low-quality final will bear any influence on the Donegal senior team when they reconvene in the spring.

“You’re going to have a bit of disconnect; county and club is completely different in my opinion. It’s just the way the match went – I think there was too much made of it.

“Donegal play the way they do. It will probably be different with new management coming in, so we’re going to have to play different, you’re going to have to adapt and change every year.”

McHugh is excited to play under new manager Declan Bonner for the first time, but echoed the sentiments of many team-mates in paying tribute to Bonner’s predecessor, Rory Gallagher, whose tenure ended in disaster last summer.

Contrary to what’s become the norm with managerial departures within the GAA, Gallagher retained the utmost respect of his charges even following a bleak year relative to expectations. He made a particular impact on McHugh, who brings Gallagher into the conversation unprompted.

“I haven’t really worked with Declan before. He was involved a wee bit with me as a minor but he was sort of in the background. I’m looking forward to it. Donegal have had great success over the last number of years.

Rory has done a great job with Donegal. He deserves a lot of credit for the way he took me in and progressed me, and if you ask anybody in Donegal they love him, and the footballers love him and that’s all that really matters.

Rory Gallagher Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But I am looking forward to the year ahead,” McHugh continues. “We haven’t really concentrated or thought about it much, to be honest with you, because we’re involved with the club, but [I'm] really looking forward to the county scene, getting knuckled down and try to get back to where we want to be – competitive in Ulster first and foremost.”

He earmarks Galway boss Kevin Walsh as an example of the sport’s fine margins – “everyone was saying after the Donegal game that he was the best manager in Ireland, and after the Kerry game, you know…” – and admits there’ll be no small amount of soul-searching done amongst the Donegal ranks this winter.

Long before league campaigns or Ulster championships, however, there’s the small matter of the Ulster club championship to take care of – Kilcar’s first taste of provincial action in over two decades.

Four-time Ulster champions Scotstown lie in wait in Clones this Sunday having won their third county crown on the spin on the same day as Kilcar’s triumph in Donegal.

It’s an unfamiliar footing for this Kilcar crop, granted, but not totally alien to McHugh, who like Paddy McBrearty will be reunited with an old friend at St Tiernach’s Park.

“Scotstown will come to this match as raging-hot favourites,” says the 23-year-old half-forward. “It’s going to be tight, they have some phenomenal footballers.

“It’s such new territory to us at this point in time. We’ll know more on Sunday evening, so we will!

You talk about knowing people. We’re actually playing Scotstown. I actually lived with Kieran Hughes in college, so I did, so I know Scotstown pretty well as well, actually.

“Sure I was chatting to him today, so I was! Ah, me and Kieran were big [friends]. Patrick McBrearty actually lived with us as well, so we’ve good connections, so we do. And Rory Beggan was in a class with me in Jordanstown, so he was, as well.

“They’re good lads, but friendships will have to go out the window on Sunday I’m afraid.”

For 60-plus minutes, sure, but beyond that? Perhaps.

“It was just a bit of craic, so it was – [he was] just seeing what’s happening. Ah, like, he was texting earlier on, he was talking about staying down on Sunday night maybe. We’ll decide about that afterwards!

“I’m really looking forward to it, d’you know, they’re phenomenal footballers first and foremost. We’re going to have to get men to mark them first which won’t be easy, but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.”

Kieran Hughes scoring his sides second goal Source: James Crombie/INPHO

McHugh, speaking at the AIB launch of the Camogie and Club Championships – the bank’s 26th year of sponsoring the latter – must dash off to meet his father shortly, and ends on a more somber note.

He and Martin, who stepped aside as Kilcar manager earlier this year for work reasons, are hitting the road to pay their respects to a recently-departed Donegal GAA great, Pat Shovelin, who passed away on Saturday.

Shovelin, a goalkeeping coach and one of the most lauded Gaelic football figures in the county, was just 41 when his year-long battle with a rare form of cancer came to its end.

“It’s extremely sad times in Donegal at the minute,” says McHugh. “Pat’s a great lad. I worked with him when I came into the panel in 2013/2014, he was involved that time. Just a great lad to have around the squad, always had a smile on his face. Every time you met him, he’d have a joke to tell.

It’s extremely sad. I’m actually going down the road to the wake now – meself and me father. Listen, it’s a tough on to take. Every man who worked with him has great time for Pat. The U21s – he was [involved] in that squad last year, so he was. You just don’t know what to say.

“I suppose, from my own point of view, I’d just say condolences to his family and to his friends. It’s an extremely tough time for them.”

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Donegal players pay tribute to former goalkeeping coach who passed away following cancer battle

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