IT CAN’T BE easy growing up in the shadow of your county’s greatest footballer but Mark McHugh knows that he has reaped the benefits of being his father’s son.
Small in stature, 20 seasons ago “Wee” Martin McHugh was a footballing colossus, terrorising defences from the half-forward line as Donegal bid to bring Sam back to Tír Chonaill for the first time.
An All-Star and Player of the Year recognition came part and parcel with McHugh Sr’s deserved All-Ireland medal, a fitting crescendo to a brilliant career nearing its final act.
Now for the second time in his young career, 21-year-old Mark is just two games away from matching his dad’s crowning achievement.
The Kilcar man has been one of the stars of the Donegal panel this term, embodying manager Jim McGuinness’s insistence on hard work and quick transitions from defence to attack and back again.
His footballing nous has shone through in his performances, a quality developed subconsciously by sharing the dinner table and time on the couch watching the Sunday Game with a great teacher, he says.
“It’s constant talk about football,” McHugh told TheScore.ie ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Cork. “It’s all we have ever talked about in the house. Videos upon videos.
He would be sitting down analysing the videos and I would just sit and listen to him. You take everything he says on board. Before every game he would ring me and give me a heads up on what he thinks is going to happen and how best to play. You take that advice on board and then the management too.
“Growing up of course it was always going to be a case of ’are you going to be as good as Martin McHugh’ for me and Ryan, my brother,” he continues. “But I am a completely different individual and a completely different player. I don’t kick scores every day I go out, four or five points, but you do have that hindrance.
“I think I have grown out of it the last few years – not even made my own name – just grown out of it. Maybe it is because Donegal are doing so well these days that people have kind of forgotten about that ’92 team.”
Under McGuinness a centre-forward in McHugh’s mould is expected to spend as much time, if not more, mucking out in defence as carving open scoring opportunities. Knowing when to stay and when to go can be a tough judgement call at times.
I am probably lucky enough to have grown up in the house I did grow up in. Football was always talked about and you take that onto the pitch. With the good football brain he [Martin] has he has taught me all about how to read a game as best as you can.
Even when I was younger playing club football I was probably playing centre-back which is basically the same position I find myself these days and that is where I learned through the year but every day you go out it is a different job.
He adds: “If I get on the ball I will get up. If I can’t get up I can’t get up. As I said, I have probably matured a bit as a player this year and I can see where the danger comes a bit better.”
The prospect of emulating the legendary team of 1992 is one which has dangled tantalisingly in front of every Donegal panel since. A September date with destiny is again within touching distance but the disappointment of last season’s semi-final defeat is still raw, as is the criticism that came with it.
“You don’t mind going out, performing to the best of your ability and being beaten by a better team. That’s fine, you wish them the best of luck in the final. It’s just that we don’t think we performed as we could have that day against Dublin.
“People in the papers were slating us afterwards for not pushing on and maybe we should have but we had a job to do that day and maybe we just didn’t do it well enough. That was what hurt more than anything.
“We thought we could have got to that All-Ireland final and we want to get to it this time.”
And so to Sunday where Cork, the other standout team of this year’s championship await. McHugh doesn’t hesitate to use the word “phenomenal” but it’s respect rather than awe that he’ll carry on to the Croke Park pitch.
I am still only 21 and Cork and Kerry have been two of the big teams growing up for me. It’s not that long ago that I was looking up to these players. From number two up to 15 they are really big and physical men who can do everything with the ball.
They can move it quickly and long so it is up to Jim and Rory to come with a ploy to counteract it. We have full confidence that they will come up with that.
Jim McGuinness: “If we stagnated and we were just doing what we did last year, I don’t think it would be good enough”