Though he wears the number 12 jersey for Donegal, Mark McHugh’s role is far removed from that of a traditional wing-forward.
He can more normally be found closer to his own goal than the opposition’s, so much so that in the All-Ireland quarter-final Kerry opted to bring on attacker Darran O’Sullivan instead of McHugh’s marker Killian Young.
How best to deal with McHugh, and Donegal’s defensive system in general, is an important task for Cork manager Conor Counihan and his selectors. One of the men who could be tasked with dealing with McHugh is Noel O’Leary, who admits it is an interesting question. “It’s hard to know, we haven’t gone through the thing thoroughly yet,” he said.
“Mark McHugh is very effective. The ploy of Kerry moving Killian Young up on him didn’t work for them. It’s hard to know what to do, it’s something we’re all going to have to put our heads together on.
“The way he plays the game is he a guy you would follow for 70 minutes? You’d want a lot of fitness and patience.”
The outcome will almost certainly be different to the last time Cork and Donegal met in the championship, a 1-27 to 2-10 win for the Rebels in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final.
Under Jimmy McGuinness, Donegal’s style and fortunes have been revolutionised, and O’Leary, while admitting that the game will be tough, is relishing the challenge of going toe-to-toe with the Ulster champions.
“There’s a bit of an edge to this one,” he said.
“Tactically it’s going to be interesting and it’s a new challenge for us so there is a bit of a buzz in training.
“They were always fairly handy footballers but they’ve a harder edge now, they’re battling harder and there’s certainly something different there. It shows how important the manager is, a lot of them have been around a long time and it goes to show what a good man-manager can do.
“At the end of the day it’ll be who can outlast the other. It’ll be a massive 70 minutes in Croke Park, and one guarantee is Donegal are a team you’re not going to beat by much, if you beat them at all, we’re aware of that.”
Planning a way around or through the massed defence is something which needs some thought, as well.
“There’s no doubt it’s unique what they’re doing,” O’Leary said.
“You have to change your style of play to a certain degree and it’s a very hard system to break down. Jim McGuinness has run with it over the last two years and he’s going to again the next day.
“It’s a matter of thinking your way around it. You can’t be afraid to break the line against them either. A lot of teams have been holding back, trying to spray ball around, but you have to have the confidence to break the line.
“We’d be hoping we’ve our homework done. We’ve ways and means around these things, but whether it’ll work out remains to be seen.
“Credit is due to Jim McGuinness, he’s pushing the boundaries and we’re going to have to change our style of play, there’s no denying that.”
One worry for Cork, however, is the lack of a stern challenge since beating Kerry in the Munster semi-final over two months ago, with big wins against Clare and Kildare since then. O’Leary feels that enough is being done to keep intensity high, though.
“We’ve a big game ahead of us so we’re at it full tilt now again and we’re happy enough with how it’s going,” he said.
“We’re coming up against a very physical and very, very fit team so it’s very important for us that we perform well in training.
“Everyone saw the difference the subs made, it can only be good for us, it brings competition, but on a day if guys under perform for you it’s not worth a damn to you so we need to be more consistent the next day.
“We’d have been reasonably happy with the performance. Kildare probably didn’t perform on the day, I felt there was more in them. Cork played particularly well in the second half and it was a bit of Cork being quite good and Kildare being poor. It was a good display but we wouldn’t be getting carried away.
“No disrespect to Clare, but we were looking at eight or nine weeks gap to a really competitive game, so it was a plus for us that we started well against Kildare. The way we were going coming into half-time was the big worry for us and we’ve looked at it a bit over the last week.
“But sure it doesn’t matter a damn once we can perform the next day.”
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