Hughes the lynchpin of Down resurrection
IF Kildare's flop to Louth was their Damascene moment this summer, then losing the Ulster semi-final to Tyrone was certainly Down's.
The Lilywhites' capitulation to Louth prompted a detailed post-mortem that saw them reshaped and reborn through the qualifiers, and so it was up North after the Mourne men let a first-quarter four-point lead over Tyrone slip and then scored just two points after the break.
Benny Coulter was particularly gutted. After watching his dream of an Ulster medal evaporate yet again, the 28-year-old didn't know if he could stomach another run through the qualifiers.
"Same old crack, same old s**t, Danny," he said to team-mate Daniel Hughes the next day as two of the team's elders pondered just how difficult it would be to lift themselves again.
Two days later, Down returned to training but not a ball was kicked as a lengthy meeting ensued and, somehow, they came out of it newly enthused.
"It felt like deja vu, we'd set out to win an Ulster title and it didn't happen," Hughes says. "We felt we needed to win one before we could progress. It was James (McCartan) and the back-room team who lifted us up as players."
What McCartan sought most was more leadership on the pitch as games unfolded. Since scoring four crucial points in that extra-time quarter-final defeat of Donegal, Hughes has shown particular leadership this summer and become a fulcrum for Down's progress.
For years the Saval player was seen as the archetypal Down footballer; one of many identikit, crafty forwards capable of sparkling scoring and good covering but, at 5' 11", not exactly a big ball or game winner, despite his undeniable talent.
Yet that has changed under their new management, not least because Marty Clarke's return has freed Hughes up for a new and unenviable role and one which, he admits, he shied away from before.
"Paddy (O'Rourke, previous Down manager) used to say to me that I could do the Brian Dooher role and I used to say, 'no Paddy, I'm a finisher like Benny', though I think Benny got a few more goals than I did," Hughes says.
But he has responded brilliantly to the request to "do a Dooher", lining out at wing-forward yet covering massive amounts of ground between both '45s' while still chipping in with vital scores.
After Clarke and Mark Poland, he is Down's joint third-highest scorer with Coulter and both men's assessment of McCartan as a manager is telling. Coulter reveals that he expected the new boss to be "fiery enough, up and down the line", but stresses that he is actually extremely calm.
What Hughes singles out is that McCartan "has brought continuity of selection" and it is that continuity which seems to have brought consistency to his own game.
Remarkably, he's been doing it with a stress fracture in his foot in recent games -- he could only come off the bench against Offaly -- which, reportedly, has needed pain-killing injections.
Hughes makes little of his injury, quipping: "It depends how I play against Kildare whether I have a foot injury or not! It's not too bad and I have had a few weeks since the Kerry game to get it sorted."
As a younster, Hughes vividly remembers watching from the Cusack Stand back in 1991 and '94 and being part of the red-and-black army who invaded the pitch afterwards.
"Football was just bred into us and those All-Irelands were massive lifts for everyone in the county. From a young age you had heroes to look up to, like Mickey Linden, James McCartan, Ross Carr, Conor Deegan and Greg Blaney.
"Sometimes you learn more from defeats than victories and that was certainly the case against Tyrone this year. The first 20 minutes against Tyrone was the best we played all year and that includes against Kerry or anybody else, but we had a poor second half.
"We rectified that and taking a wee bit of ownership of the whole thing helps. The qualifiers were far from convincing but qualifiers tend to be like that. But they were good for us in that we got football week in, week out.
"The Sligo game gave us a lot of confidence because we did rack up a decent score and we were sitting ready for Kerry then."
Now, just 70 minutes away from a first All-Ireland final, Hughes remains grounded: "It's a semi-final and you can't really look beyond that. We didn't expect to be here but it's only one game and a massive, massive test with the way Kildare are playing."