The golden age of the scoring half-back may indeed be now but they aren’t a new phenomenon. Johnny Hughes — “the great” Johnny Hughes as he is still affectionately termed — is testament to that.
From his customary left-wing back position, he scored 1-1 in the 1973 All-Ireland final defeat to Cork on his way to picking up the first of his two All-Stars. A year later and he picked off two points again going down in September to Dublin.
“It was nothing new at the time for me to being forward or kicking 50s. It wasn’t that you were given the licence. You got on the ball and you kept going. At that time you had the thing in your head that you kicked it dead — over the bar or wide — or you gave it to somebody. As long as you didn’t lose possession when you were out of position.
“I always felt I was plenty fast enough to get back.”
Hughes was comfortable on his toes as his heels. Lee Keegan might be the closest modern day version to him but, without mentioning Mayo, he knows scoring backs only get you so far. He can hark back to the ’74 final when Galway’s forwards managed only three points. “Good forwards can win matches but good backs cannot. Now, bad backs can lose matches. There’s no contradiction there.”
Mayo prompts mixed feelings in the Mountbellew native. He’s got close friends there now and would dearly love to see them win an All-Ireland but as a player they never spooked him.
“We had good battles with Mayo, ding-dong ones before Roscommon took over. We never feared Mayo in the early seventies but then we felt we could have beaten anyone.
“I know the game and people will say it has changed for the better but back then it was man-for-man and you marked a man and if you weren’t able to beat him you were taken off. There was no feigning injury, no black, yellow or red cards. We had the Indian sign on Mayo.
“If you were playing the f**kers for a box of matches you wanted to beat the s*** out of them. That was about the size of it but when it was over you shook their hand and any old incident was forgotten about until you took to the field again when a score had to be settled.”
In four championship meetings with Mayo, Hughes only experienced one defeat — the 1981 semi-final. “After we had won the shagging National League,” he recalls. To add injury to insult, he broke his ankle and had a plate and five screws inserted as well as a bone under his knee grafted to his ankle. “They said I might never walk again but I came on in the All-Ireland semi-final in ’82.”
He returned the following year to enjoy another win over Mayo on his way to a third and last All-Ireland final, which he regrets to this day on a number of levels never mind the result against Dublin.
“It was a debacle. I should never have played in that final. I got four injections up into the groin the week before it and during it, I tore the abductor tendon away from the bone. But after playing for 13 or 14 years, I felt we were going to win this one and I didn’t want to miss it.”
The middle of Hughes’ Galway career was marked by provincial disappointment. There was Roscommon’s four-in-a-row and Sligo’s 1975 when they pulverised Galway in the semi-final: “That was the time we brought on Pateen Donnellan. The line in the paper on the day after was ‘Pateen Donnellan came on wearing a faded No24 jersey – and the man, no more than the jersey, belonged to another decade.”
Some might says Hughes’ sympathy for Mayo may have something to do with him being something of kindred spirit having lost the three All-Ireland finals he played in. He doesn’t deny that.
“There’s a thin line between winning and losing and it’s unreal how small it is. My heart goes out to them.
“I would love to see them win an All-Ireland but not at our expense. I’d be an out-and-out Galway man but I’m a proud Connacht man too and whatever county represents the province I’d be fully behind them.”
Mayo’s physical strength is what Galway need to pay most attention to in Salthill tomorrow, he feels.
“If Galway move the ball quickly, I’d give them a right good chance. But if we start dilly-dallying with it I wouldn’t give us much chance. We have good lively forwards but there isn’t much point in having them if you don’t are moving the ball quickly forward.
“For the first 10 minutes against Tipperary last year, I felt we were firing on all cylinders. We were four or five points to one up but for some reason we decided to sit back and hold the ball up and invited Tipperary onto us and they gave us a lesson and they were far the better team.
“The likes of Damien Comer is a right good forward and if you get the ball into him around the house we’re going to get scores but if the ball is not let in early and there are four or five bodies around him he’s not going to do any damage. I’m a great believer that if the ball is up the other end of the field you can’t be hurt.”
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