After nearly a decade of inter-county service, the hard working wing-forward virtually became an overnight sensation and was nominated for Footballer of the Year after the Mournemen surprisingly reaching the All-Ireland final.
He accepts many believe Down were one season wonders despite pushing Cork so close in September’s decider, particularly as they exited the championship the previous season at the hands of lowly Wicklow in the qualifiers.
But he insists he’s relishing the task of proving the doubters wrong and, perhaps, even going one better than last season’s heroics.
That, essentially, would mean winning either the Allianz National League title or the All-Ireland as they reached the finals of both competitions last year, albeit the Division 2 final in the league.
“Every player’s different, but I don’t see expectation as something that should drag you down,” said Hughes.
“Personally, it would spur me on to make sure that we’re there or thereabouts for the league and All-Ireland finals.
“Those are your own personal goals that you have to live with. It’s a great challenge. You look at team and personal accolades but the bottom line is we didn’t win anything last year. So you have to set the bar higher than it was last year.
“This ‘second season syndrome’ you hear people talking about can easily be overcome by putting in the performances out on the field. It is up the players to do that and make sure we are successful on the field.”
Down manager James McCartan consistently made the point last summer that he’d sacrifice the All-Ireland title in 2010 if Down could use the year as a springboard to sustained success and, perhaps, a title further down the road.
Ultimately, that means competing in All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals on a yearly basis. “That’s what we have to be doing,” agreed Hughes. “The days of going out in the qualifiers are not where we want to be any more.”
That thin air at the head of the All-Ireland pecking order is what teams like Kerry, Cork, Dublin and Tyrone have been breathing for the last decade, counties that have been able to handle the weight of expectation and still perform.
“Absolutely, and people will be looking at us after the great year we’ve had and they’ll want to know what we’re all about,” said Hughes.
“They’ll want to know can we come back and reproduce performances week in, week out in the National League. We have spoken about it and I suppose we will have a bit of an answer about it at the weekend after we play Mayo in the first round.
“We’re going to have to live with that expectation. But Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and others have had to learn to live with it and now we are too.”