The McHugh factor in Cavan, phenomenal McBrearty and the balance of half-back play for Donegal

IN THE TUMULT of 1997, back in the days when reporters were allowed to bear witness and bring to life such scenes, the Irish Independent’s Vincent Hogan was on hand to record Ryan McHugh’s first experience of an Ulster title winning dressing room.

Cavan had just beaten Derry to win their first Anglo-Celt Cup in 28 years and Hogan takes up the story by assessing Cavan manager Martin McHugh’s deportment.

‘Flanked by his two sons (Ryan and Mark), McHugh seeks to offer perspective on the evening. No, nothing will ever cap winning an All-Ireland medal with his county five years back. But this? This opened different windows.

‘In my whole life,’ he gasps, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, ‘I’ve never experienced anything like the buzz in Cavan this week. And I mean nothing.’

22 years on, and while his older brother Mark may no longer be part of the Donegal senior team having won an All-Ireland and an All-Star in 2012, Ryan McHugh is one of the players that Cavan will have to curtail if they expect to win this Sunday’s Ulster final.

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Asked about the connection between the McHughs and Cavan, he laughs of his father; “Sure he hasn’t shut up about it!

“Nah listen, Cavan will always have a special place in the McHugh household. Unfortunately I can’t really remember it, I was only three at the time, but some of dad’s closest friends are from Cavan. The people of Cavan will always have huge time for Dad but I think friendships are going to have to be put aside for a week.”

While McHugh was coming up through the underage ranks, he was unfortunate to run into a Cavan U21 team that beat them in the 2013 and 2014 Ulster finals.

In that Cavan teams of that vintage, Killian Clarke, Padraig Faulkner, Gerry Smith, Conor Moynagh, Ciaran Brady and Dara McVeety are the spine of the senior team now.

Alongside McHugh, he had the present vice-captain Hugh McFadden, Paddy McBrearty and cousin, Eoin McHugh.

McBrearty’s ruptured cruciate in last year’s decider put him out of football for the league campaign, but his return to action this season has been nothing short of miraculous. His Kilcar club mate knows better than anyone the lengths he has gone to.

“To be fair to Paddy he is a top professional and completely devoted to football,” says McHugh.

“He was so unlucky to pick up such a bad injury in the final last year but he’s done everything to the letter of the law, all his rehab, and he’s getting back to his best. At the end of the game the last day he kicked some scores when we really needed them.

Patrick McBrearty in action for Donegal against Tyrone.

Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

“He is a phenomenal footballer and I’m fortunate to play with him at club and county level so I see first-hand what he’s like. The amount of times you drive past Towney football pitch and you see Paddy kicking ball is unbelievable and he practices so much and all the time.”

Last year, Eoin McHugh dropped out of the Donegal panel to focus on his studies but he is another to have returned and made an impact with his performances.

“(It’s) great to have Eoin back, he’s really built himself up this year and asserted himself and done what needs to be done to be a Donegal footballer and he is reaping the rewards,” says McHugh.

“Throughout the league he had a wee hamstring knock and couldn’t get a run at training but to be fair to Declan he’s always said if you’re training well, you’ll get a chance and we will all have to prove ourselves again for the Ulster final.”

Ryan McHugh celebrates after Donegal’s win over Tyrone.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Eoin’s return has allowed Ryan to drop back into the half-back line. He is not scoring as heavily as a result, but for a couple of seasons his ability to squeeze through tight spaces in attacking positions led to a couple of concussions.

He made a vow to change how he played the game last winter, but when you break it down, he has found the transition almost impossible to affect.

“When you’re in the heat of championship battle it’s difficult to try and change your game. As a team we’re trying to kick the ball more and be more offensive,” he says.

“A defender’s number one job is to mark a man and try to take him out of the game as much as possible. You talk about the best half-backs in Ireland, the Lee Keegans, the Jack McCaffreys, the James McCarthys, those kind of players seem to get the balance right and know when to go forward.

“Growing up I always played centre-back for Kilcar. It’s an old cliché but any day you get a jersey you play wherever you’re lucky to get it, but I always enjoyed centre-back.”

But Cavan will watch for him making the breaks forward.

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