Donegal All-Star Ryan McHugh has admitted that last year’s championship campaign turned decisively against them once Paddy McBrearty suffered a season-ending injury.
All-Ireland winner McBrearty tore a cruciate knee ligament during the 2018 Ulster final win over Fermanagh, sidelining him for all of their Super 8 games.
McBrearty had scored 0-19 in four Ulster games, leading to an average Donegal score of 2-19 per match compared to just 0-17 per game after his departure.
It’s anticipated that the fit again McBrearty, a Kilcar club colleague of McHugh’s, will play his first game for Donegal since the injury when they meet, ironically, Fermanagh again in the championship on Sunday.
“I suppose looking back on last year, at the time when he picked up the injury, you tried to tell yourself that it’s not that big a deal, you tried to stay positive but looking back now, I think it was a huge, huge turning point in Donegal’s year,” said McHugh.
“He was playing so well, he was leading our attack, kicking six or seven points per game. So looking back, I think it was a huge turning point. It’s all ifs and buts and maybes but you’d say to yourself, ‘If we had him for the Tyrone game, could things have been different?’
He was playing unreal, at the time he was probably one of the top forwards in Ireland, definitely in the top three
"Everything he kicked was going over the bar which was great from our point of view. I think it’s up to Paddy to get back to that level. I have no doubt he will.”
McBrearty missed all of this season’s Allianz league campaign too though Donegal still secured promotion and won the Division 2 title.
Now with a fully-fit McBrearty back available for selection, the hope is that they can retain their Ulster title and push hard in the All-Ireland series.
“He’s played four matches with the club since coming back and he was going well, he kicked 11 points in one of the matches,” said McHugh. “To be fair to Paddy, he’s extremely disciplined, does everything to the letter of the law, the rehab and all of that. He’s got himself back into great shape and is playing really well again, thank God.”
McHugh, himself, was sidelined for a lengthy period over the winter as he obeyed medical orders after suffering two concussions in a seven-month period in 2018. The attack-minded half-back was even ordered to stay off his smartphone and computer for a spell.
He reckons he has suffered concussion three times in his career but said that while it is possible to alter his direct, hard-running style to potentially avoid big hits, he won’t be pulling out of any 50-50 challenges on Sunday.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Yeah, I mightn’t carry the ball as much’, or ‘I might kick it more, try to change a wee bit’, but when you’re in the heat of a championship battle, when you’re going into Brewster Park on Sunday, if there’s a ball between two people then it’s extremely hard to pull out of that ball,” said McHugh.
“If you’re told, ‘Run, go for it’, then it’s extremely hard not to take the ball and go, if you think you need to score or something like that.
I think there are aspects of my game that I can definitely change, maybe kick the ball a wee bit more, maybe try to run without the ball more than run with the ball.
"I think that’s definitely something I can look at.”
Like last year’s Ulster final, Sunday’s quarter-final will pit McHugh and Donegal against former boss Rory Gallagher.
“Rory’s living in Killybegs and he’s based in Killybegs, only 10 minutes away from me, so we’d be in touch regularly during the off-season but at this time of the year the phone doesn’t be buzzing as much,” said McHugh.
“When Rory was playing with St Gall’s, they were getting ready for an All-Ireland club final that time, I’d have been only 15 or 16 at the time, I remember kicking ball with him. It was great. I remember Rory giving me tips.
“To be fair to him, he’s been great to me as a mentor and as a coach. He’s definitely brought me on as a footballer. Hopefully, I can get one over him again this year.”
McHugh netted in last June’s 2-18 to 0-12 provincial final win though more recently was on the losing side as Fermanagh beat Donegal by three points in the league.
He agreed that it will probably be ‘hot and heavy’ in Enniskillen this weekend.
“Fermanagh’s a tough place to go, I remember being up at the Armagh v Fermanagh game at Brewster Park last year, that was hot and heavy as well,” he said. “It’s going to be no different.”
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