Diminutive Ryan McHugh standing tall in land of giants as Donegal bid to get back on track
Tír Chonaill star admits he needs to bulk up but insists skill will always trump size
Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30
Sometimes it's hard not to watch through your fingers when Ryan McHugh is playing football.
The characters who populate the middle third seem to be getting bigger and hitting harder and running faster year on year. And in the middle of them all, there's the diminutive McHugh, doing all the things you'd typically urge the smaller man not to. He takes touches, carries the ball and generally dares the behemoths around him to have a swipe.
It's high-wire stuff in the land of giants. And he admits himself he needs to bulk up a little. But only, he says, to be able to take the hits that inevitably come when you spend 70 minutes buzzing around like he does.
"I'm not wild big into (the strength and conditioning) side of it to be honest with you," says AIB ambassador McHugh.
"I know myself personally I do need to put on a wee bit more muscle, just in case you take a hit that you can take it and not pick up a bad injury.
"You go to your gym a couple of days during the week. And I suppose during the winter, that is the period you have to try build yourself up for the coming year.
"I have put on a wee of bit of weight this year and I could put on a wee bit more. I'm not too much into the strength and conditioning side of it.
"Gaelic football is more about playing - don't get me wrong it is important - but it's about doing your best for the county and the boys you are playing with."
For McHugh, brain is better than brawn when it comes to inter-county football. And Donegal, he says, have plenty of natural footballers.
"Donegal put a lot of work into kicking the ball over the bar, practising the basic skills as well, and people are on about players are more like robots now," he says. "I don't think there are any of those in Donegal. They are all good footballers.
"I see them training a few times a week and some of the stuff that does be going on in training is phenomenal. I see them then with their clubs and they are very talented players.
"Donegal are producing good footballers at the minute, and long may that continue."
Things might have gone a different way for McHugh. Gaelic football always came first for him but as a teenager he dabbled in soccer with St Catherine's, the same outfit that produced Seamus Coleman, and was good enough to pique the interest of Reading.
"It was a good experience but I wasn't good enough for that level," McHugh offers candidly of his trial cross-channel. "I didn't put as much effort into my soccer as I did into my Gaelic. I used to enjoy my soccer but Gaelic was always the number one and I put more into it.
"But it was great to get over there. I got to meet all the Reading players at the time. Shane Long was over there and Brian McDermott was manager, it was great, even to see the way they lived their lives and how the set-up was.
"We played a match against West Ham I think so it was a brilliant experience, but Gaelic was number one.
"I was excited and I met Pat Dolan at the time. And it was Eamonn Dolan who died there recently took me over. I met Pat and I asked him what I could do to make myself better and I put a lot of work into it. But Gaelic was always number one. If they ever clashed it was always Gaelic I went to - it was just the family I brought up in."
The following year McHugh was called up to the county minors, and that effectively was the end his soccer career.
He has flourished since, forcing himself into the national consciousness with a brilliant display against Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. And he was to the fore again as Donegal went down narrowly to Tyrone in the Ulster final.
"Everyone was as disappointed as the next man. It's not easy to talk about but we got back on the bus together and we went for a few beers together that night in Donegal town, which I think we needed," he says.
"You need the wee blow-out every now and again and after putting so much into it, it wasn't easy. We got back on the pitch on Tuesday and we've had meetings where we got it all out there.
"We know ourselves we made mistakes in the Tyrone game."
This weekend they'll look to get back into their groove. They will be expected to get over a Cork team they dismissed comprehensively in the league and move into the All-Ireland quarter-final.
But McHugh is wary of a Cork team laden with potential.
"Anybody can have a bad day at the office as they probably did against Tipp but they have picked themselves back up and got a couple of good wins," he warns. "The qualifiers can do that, they can give you a bit of confidence and if you get a run going you can be hard to stop.
"In Ballyshannon, it was tight at half-time and we kicked on from there. The conditions were terrible. They went on and had a very good match against Dublin for while in the league if I recall.
"And any team that can put it up to Dublin is a good team. It will be tight but we are looking forward to hopefully getting back on track."