Donegal's Ryan McHugh. Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

10 years after shocking Dublin, McHugh still the driver of the Donegal system

KIlcar playmaker back playing some of the best football of his career with the benefit of maturity.

AT HALF FIVE, the luxury Lynch’s coach carrying the Tyrone team entered Ballybofey in a blaze of horn parps from sympathetic Red Hands supporters, and narrow-eyed glares from the locals.

There’s always been an edge to Donegal and Tyrone, but when it comes to Ballybofey it’s a feeling that clings to the air.

Earlier in the week, former Tyrone forward Kyle Coney relived some of his experiences in the ground. A soaking dressing room floor and windows that had been left open. All the stuff you might have expected at, say, Plough Lane.

In 2013, Tyrone arrived here with Niall Morgan as their no-so-secret weapon. He had spent the winter and spring kicking long-range frees, the key to unlocking that Tyrone sides’ potential.

On that day, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness had some surprises for him. It started with the hostility he faced when lining up frees, with at least four opponents encroaching on his allotted ten yards, all with long limbs straight up in the air.

As he looked down, he would have been ragged by the state of the pitch. In between the 45 metre lines, the grass was left long. Long? Well, more like a meadow.

When Tyrone come here, they are treated to less gentle badinage, than open hostility. And given the defeats that Jim McGuinness suffered at the hands of Tyrone teams ibn his playing career, you couldn’t blame him.

Prior to the start of this game, he was 15 games unbeaten at Ballybofey.

Attention to detail is his mark. During the week, the Sean MacCumhaill’s club were told the pitch had to be cut to 40mm length. What’s more, they were coming in on Friday night to check the length.

Is this an advantage? Who knows. It’s interesting enough that they were even specifying that.

Entering Ballybofey on Saturday evening was like another dimension. Dimension Donegal. Everything was green and gold. A sign outside Killygordon proclaimed in bold capitals; ‘JIMMY’S WINNING MATCHES.’

The skirl of bagpipes and a rattle of a snare drum was flaking away, building an atmosphere in the town that already had the saloons packed for the earlier Champion’s Cup and FA Cup finals.

There is no doubt that Donegal are back. Can it really take just an appointment of a manager? Especially one that has been by and large – bar the occasional bit of moonlighting with Down last year and helping out with various clubs around the country – out of Gaelic football management for a decade, to turn things round?

Evidently, it does. After the Ulster final, McGuinness said that there was so much made about management. Too much, even.

It was his attempt to turn the praise back on to the players. But anyone can understand that management is the critical difference now.

There are certain players that grow under a manager like McGuinness. Ryan McHugh is one.

ryan-mchugh-and-seanie-odonnell McHugh driving at his marker, Seanie O'Donnell. Lorcan Doherty / INPHO Lorcan Doherty / INPHO / INPHO

On a day when his wing-back partner Peader Mogan was the best footballer on the field, McHugh played a role that on close examination shows him to be among the very most important members of the team.

Ten years ago he won the Young Player of the Year award, crowned by his incredible performance in the All-Ireland semi-final when he struck for 2-2 against Dublin.

It was his second year on the panel.

After those years, McHugh’s levels of performances held up. There were highlights such as the way he cut through the Fermanagh defence in the 2018 Ulster final to blast a goal and set the terms of the day.

But there were also issues, most notably with head injuries that he struggled with and had to take some time off with his club Kilcar.

In the last few years with Donegal, it felt that his natural game had been altered; that he was avoiding some level of contact because of concerns he might hit his head again. And last year, he decided completely against going out after the initial underwhelming feeling of Paddy Carr’s appointment as manager settled in.

ryan-mchugh In his debut year of 2013. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Against Tyrone, he was immense.

Despite Seanie O’Donnell being given a man-marking job, McHugh played in periods and patches according to when he was most needed.

Consider the first quarter. He made 14 plays altogether. One of those set up Oisin Gallen for a point.

His very first was when referee Joe McQuillan threw the ball in, somebody fisted it towards the Donegal goal and McHugh got his hands on it. Alert and bright, from the first whistle.

It was little surprise that in the second quarter, when Tyrone looked as if they might make a game of it, that his influence waned a little. He had six touched in total.

As the second half began, he opened up the scoring himself with a point. He won frees and took frees to recycle possession.

Here’s the number though; he had 22 plays in the second half. It’s an extraordinary figure, even in these days of short, unpressured passing.

As the game wound down, he was everywhere. He made ten plays in the final ten minutes of the game. Donegal were able to hold the ball and dictate when they wanted to advance, and most of McHugh’s plays were pushing the issue.

When you are playing around with the ball at the back, it is one thing to have the spare man, the goalkeeper, as the option. But McHugh normally doesn’t use it.

Instead, as someone who has been on trials as a teenager with Reading FC, he knows the value of a burst of pace and a jink and plays his way out of trouble.

Mogan may have gotten the gorgeous points and carried off the honours.

But McHugh is the driver of this Donegal system.

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