How the irrepressible Ryan McHugh torched the Kerry defence from deep

September 19, 2021 0 By HearthstoneYarns

WHEN RYAN MCHUGH first broke onto the Donegal panel, he was described locally as the stereotypical Kilcar footballer – small, skilful and intelligent.

Ryan McHugh during his debut season in 2013.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Kilcar have a tradition of producing such players that goes back generations. 

His father Martin, nicknamed An Fear Beag, was seen as the embodiment of elegance ever since he destroyed the Cavan minors in the 1979 Ulster minor championship.

At 11 stone and 5’7″, McHugh was Donegal’s primary score-getter from centre-forward when they upset Dublin to win the All-Ireland title in 1992. Alongside him on the half-forward line was his brother James, another pocket dynamo with a brain to match. 

Martin was awarded his second All-Star after that Sam Maguire success and was later named Footballer of the Year. The brothers didn’t lick it off the ground either. Their father Jim McHugh was also a footballer of note, winning a Donegal senior championship medal with Killybegs in 1952.

When Kilcar ended a 24-year wait without a county title in 2017, McHugh brothers Ryan and Mark, plus their cousin Eoin – son of James – and attacker Paddy McBrearty were central figures in that team.  

Both Ryan and McBrearty had soccer trials in the UK as teenagers, with Reading and Celtic respectively, but opted to focus on Gaelic football.

Mark, who famously mastered the sweeper role in the All-Ireland success of 2012 under Jim McGuinness, is no longer part of the Donegal panel but Ryan and Eoin McHugh, plus McBrearty played key roles against Kerry on Sunday.

In an era where physicality has become central to the inter-county game, it’s still a sport that diminutive, creative players can dominate.

If the All-Star team was picked tomorrow, three players sure to be selected would be Ryan McHugh, Jack McCaffrey and Stephen O’Brien. The trio are among the most exciting footballers in the country, relying on pace and direct running rather than brute force.

Jason Foley challenges Ryan McHugh for possession.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In McHugh, Declan Bonner’s team possess a man capable of changing the shape of a match with a swivel of his hips and a quick turn of pace. He’s one of their most prominent figures alongside Michael Murphy, Shaun Patton and McBrearty. 

At the same venue where he announced his arrival as an elite prospect when his 2-2 helped gun down Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, McHugh gave another one of his great displays in the county jersey at the weekend.

He scored two points and was directly involved in a further 1-6, while he set-up the Eoin McHugh goal that was disallowed. Despite being man-marked for the 70 minutes, he got his hands on the ball 29 times and was only turned over on one occasion. 

He lines out as an auxiliary left-half back, often finding himself ahead of the ball and looking to get himself involved in dangerous areas of the field.

Six minutes into the game, McHugh was fouled by Paul Murphy, handing his captain Michael Murphy an easy free in front of the posts. The combination play between Murphy and McHugh was a feature in many of Donegal’s good moves in the opening period.

His first score arrived after Murphy found the arching run of McHugh, who curled over from distance. The pair showed their telepathic understanding moments later, when Murphy stood over a free near the left touchline.

McHugh strolled towards the Kerry goals seemingly disinterested before he created daylight between himself and Gavin White and sped towards the ball, receiving a short kick-pass into the chest. McHugh rolled past his marker and popped over the bar off his left foot.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Recognising McHugh’s threat, Peter Keane had employed White – the flying Dr Crokes wing-back – at wing-forward to track his runs.

But shortly before half-time, White was black-carded after he over-committed on a trademark McHugh run and took a fist of his jersey, hauling him to the ground.

McHugh likes to duck his head and lean his shoulder into the tackler, which usually either draws a free or allows him burst through.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Given the amount of ground he covered, at stages during the game McHugh could be found with his head down and hands on the knees on a number of occasions, gathering his breath.

But he also used it as a ploy to trick his unsuspecting marker Jonathan Lyne, who replaced White.

In the 50th minute, McHugh was apparently taking a breather, yet within 15 seconds he was 50m further upfield and haring towards the Kerry goals.

He took a hand-pass from Oisin Gallen on the D and fed Dara O’Baoill, who was fouled by Stephen O’Brien inside the area.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

McHugh had actually turned the ball into the net himself when it broke to him, but the play was called back and Murphy duly dispatched the spot-kick into the bottom corner.

In the final 20 minutes, he turned over two of Shane Ryan’s restarts, which led to Eoin McHugh’s disallowed goal and Murphy’s crucial stoppage-time score.

He was also an option for Patton at the far end and was targeted by the stopper on six occasions, including four short kick-outs, one long restart and one kick-pass from open play.

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Outside of Murphy, who took the Kingdom for 1-7, no player makes Donegal tick like their maestro McHugh.

In a 2009 Donegal Democrat poll, his father Martin was voted the county’s greatest ever footballer in their history.

Murphy has probably already assumed that title and by the time Ryan’s career is over, Martin may not even be the best footballer in his house. 

Mayo are up next for the Ulster champions.

Survive the cauldron of Castlebar and they’ll most likely face Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final a week later in a repeat of that epic encounter five years ago.

The air only gets thinner from here.

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