Ryan McHugh doesn’t remember much about his father Martin leading Cavan to an Ulster title, but he says his family will always have a special bond with the county.
The two-time All-Star was only three when Martin managed the Breffni County to a win over Derry in the 1997 Ulster final, ending a 28-year wait for the Anglo-Celt trophy. The cup hasn’t returned to Cavan since, and Sunday’s decider in Clones is their first final since 2001, with Ryan McHugh and Donegal intending to make sure there is no repeat of the ’97 heroics.
“I can’t really remember it, but sure he hasn’t shut up about it since,” joked McHugh. “Seriously, though, Cavan will always have a special place in the McHugh household.
Some of dad’s closest friends are from Cavan and 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 while.
McHugh was on the team that beat Cavan in the minor championship in 2012, but lost two Ulster U21 finals to the Breffni men in 2013 and 2014 and notes “the backbone of their team now is those same players”.
His record in senior Ulster finals is also something he’s keen to improve: “This will be my sixth Ulster final in seven years, but I’ve only won two.”
Such is the natural ability of the young man, he has taken to Donegal’s more expansive style under Declan Bonner like a duck to water.
While he prospered under the more defensive orientated systems favoured by former managers Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher, he has had no problem adjusting to a more gung-ho approach.
“As a Gaelic footballer, you have to be adaptable and it’s up to the management to set up a team whatever way they see fit. As a player, you have to back that to the hilt and carry it out to the letter of the law. Last year, I played more as a half-forward, and more as a half-back this year. 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, these sort of players seem to get the balance right and know when to go forward. When you’re in the heat of championship, it’s difficult to try and change your game, but as a team we’re trying to kick the ball more and be more offensive.”
While Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann, Niall Sludden, and Colm Cavanagh are struggling to find their way and make an impact in Tyrone’s more direct style this year, if their Ulster championship displays were anything to go by, McHugh has found that happy medium.
The arrival of former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford into the Donegal backroom team this year as head coach may also be a factor.
Stephen’s been a breath of fresh air, he’s been unbelievable, to be fair. His coaching CV speaks for itself, what he’s done with Corofin and Mayo.
"We were used to Donegal and Ulster voices, but he’s come in with different ideas, fresh ideas, and theories in how he believes Gaelic football should be played. We are trying to kick the ball more and play a more expansive style and Stephen’s training drills are designed all around that. Stephen takes most of the training and we are extremely lucky in Donegal to have a top management team led by Declan. To be playing under them is phenomenal.”