When Donegal reclaimed the Anglo-Celt Cup in 2014, Jim McGuinness stated the win was his “best ever”.
As referee Maurice Deegan blew for time in the 0-15 to 1-9 win over Monaghan in Clones the Donegal manager — sporting Eamon McGee’s bloodstains on his t-shirt following an innocuous incident on the field — darted across St Tiernach’s Park to congratulate his players.
It might’ve been their third Ulster title in four seasons — as well as winning an All-Ireland in 2012— but the victory was seen as the second coming of Donegal.
A year before, Monaghan had shocked the reigning All-Ireland champions in Ulster and still reeling, McGuinness’s team were hammered 4-17 to 1-10 by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Mark McHugh was a pivotal player for McGuinness. The Kilcar clubman was the team’s sweeper and their link between defence and attack.
McGuinness found that role for McHugh — whose father Martin and uncle James had helped Donegal to their first All-Ireland in 1992 — because of his astute football brain and ability to read the game.
But after the 2014 Division 2 final, where Donegal lost to Monaghan at Croke Park, Mark McHugh, then only 23, made the decision to leave the panel and played that summer for Donegal New York.
At the time he said he wasn’t enjoying his football and needed to recharge the batteries. He watched on in early morning as his younger brother Ryan ably filled the void in that 2014 Ulster final win.
“I was out in America watching it actually and it was unbelievable to see the boys winning and it was Ryan’s first time to win an Ulster title and you were just delighted for him and for the fellas,” Mark McHugh said of 2014 this week.
“I never made any apologies for saying how good a player Ryan was, and I was saying that since he was 17 or 18 years of age.
“He’s a phenomenal player and a very, very committed young fella. But it was very disappointing for myself not being there or being part of it.”
So although a lot of water has passed under the bridge since 2012, those Ulster and All-Ireland successes are McHugh’s last triumphs in a Donegal jersey.
In the 2013 Ulster final, he was unceremoniously charged by Monaghan’s Stephen Gallogly and spent the night in Letterkenny General Hospital having suffered concussion, a perforated eardrum and a quad muscle injury.
Then, last year, McHugh played in the Ulster final as Donegal contrived to kick 16 wides and lose to Monaghan again, this time 0-11 to 0-10.
Tomorrow, against Tyrone, McHugh and Donegal — in their sixth provincial final on the bounce — have an opportunity to put a few things right.
“The hurt of losing in 2013 and last year is still there in that bit of your stomach and I really don’t want to be involved in another loss,” he said.
Now 26, McHugh is back to near the level he was at in 2012. He isn’t a guaranteed starter anymore but enjoyed fine cameos from the substitutes’ bench in the drawn semi-final and replay. He’s enjoying his football again.
“Listen, how could you not enjoy it at the minute — it’s a great set-up to be part of,” he said this week with a smile etched on his face again.
“The craic we have, and just travelling to training two or three times a week with the boys is great banter, and I don’t know what I would do without it.
“It’s the time of the year you love playing. If you could take January and February out of the equation, football would be great altogether!
“It’s a phenomenal time to be part of this set-up and now with six finals in-a-row, the buzz it brings to the county this week and last week after the win against Monaghan everybody is just in good form. It brings a togetherness within the county.”
In 2014, Mark McHugh missed the second coming of Donegal football but a win for Donegal over their nemesis Tyrone tomorrow could confirm the second coming of Mark McHugh.
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