MARTIN McHugh is perhaps the most decorated of all Donegal footballers. He was voted an All Star in 1983 when Donegal lost the All Ireland semifinal to Galway, 1-12 to 1-11 - a game which I refereed. His contribution to his county's glorious All Ireland win in 1992, their first ever was enormous and he was again selected as an All Star that year and also won Texaco Footballer of the year.
Known through his career as "Mairtin Beag" when Brian McEniff retired as Donegal manager in 1994 Martin went for the post, but was not successful, however, he later managed Cavan to win the 1997 Ulster championship. Kerry proved too good in the semi-final coming out best, 1-17 to 1-10. He currently broadcasts for Highland Radio, BBC Northern Ireland and is a newspaper columnist with The Star. Outside the GAA McHugh owns Spirits and Liquor Limited. I chatted with him during the half time break at the recent Kerry versus Tyrone game and his observations as a Northern Ireland man are very interesting, open and frank.
I first put it to him that nobody in their wildest dreams could have visualised that the half time score of 2-8 to 0-3. "You're quite right there and I believe the big difference in the two teams is that Tyrone came out to play a National League game while Kerry came up here to play a championship game. There is no question that this is a far better Kerry team than that which played in the All Ireland final. There is much more balance to it and the two man full-forward line is working far better than the three men inside as was in the final. The defence has also tightened up. I am very impressed with Jacko's son Aidan and indeed all over the field Kerry are by far the hungrier team."
I emphasised to him, however, that it was only February and early days yet, so what were his impressions on the new rules? "I am worried about these new rules to be quite honest and the way referees are implementing them. The first day the rules were in operation the referees send off something like 18 players, now in my opinion they have been told by Croke Park to ease off and use their own discretion.
"Now if these are passed at congress and implemented for the championship they will take the whole physicality out of Gaelic football and we need that in our game. Now I know that this is not championship today but really we have no big hits going in and we are looking at the two best teams in the country.
" The All Ireland final last year was a great game of football as was the minor match and I believe there is nothing wrong with our game. It appears to me that there is a committee there and they have to be seen to do something and so they change the rules for the sake of change."
In my opinion the referee should have put off three Tyrone players in that first half. What did Martin think? "Let's be fair to the referees, it is very difficult for them now with black book fouls, yellow card fouls and red card fouls and then he must use his own discretion among all of this and he will invariable get a number of calls very wrong. And of course this will cause lots of anger among players and the men in charge on the line". (Remember this was a half-time interview and Martin's words were very true as the Kerry management were incensed at final whistle with some of the sending off of their men).
"I thought Justin McMahon should have got a straight red out there, he drew the boot on Cooper on the ground and so he deserved to get a straight red. Ryan McMenamin is a lucky boy also to be still on the field and Colm McCullagh got two ticks and should also have got the line.
"The referee is a Donegal man, I went to school with him and he is a next door neighbor of mine and not a bad referee. The players seem to be afraid to put in heavy tackles, they are slow to challenge a man in the way we always did because if he miss times that tackle he will be put off," he continued.
Would he agree that Kerry were giving Tyrone a lesson in those first 35 minutes in the art and skill of the game and in all areas of the field, including their running, support play passing, kicking and fielding? " We know it's only February but we also know that Kerry is the home of Gaelic football. They are the marker for all others and when they lose a final there is more talk about them than the winners, but so far in this game they are giving Tyrone a lesson.
"David Moran in the middle of the field is a great prospect. Paul Galvin is going to have a great year I believe and Tommy Walsh and Gooch inside are causing endless problems. I can tell you Weeshie that to morrow morning there will be a lot of money going on Kerry to win the All Ireland. The team that beats Kerry will win the All Ireland."