Mark McHugh: Rory Gallagher is 'most intelligent GAA man I've met'
When Mark McHugh was weighing up his decision to pull the lever and eject himself from the Donegal football squad prior to last year's Championship, he asked himself a simple question.
He knew they could win another Ulster title but could he live with it if they won an All-Ireland? "The answer was yes. That's why I decided to do it," he recalled.
Once he had reconciled with that he felt at ease. But the morning of the All-Ireland football final brought a different emotion. When he woke up he admitted having a "sickness in his stomach".
"I was walking down to the game, people were saying, 'y'know Mark, maybe you should be out there today,' and maybe I should have been," he said.
"Obviously I was sick coming up to the semi-final, final stage, any human being would be. But I was delighted for the lads in the sense that I knew the work and the effort that they had put in.
"I stuck by the decision I made and no matter what people said to me, I just felt I was right, no matter what anybody else wrote. I didn't really care."
He got out, he says, because he wasn't enjoying his football.
"I spoke to people who I was close with, friends, family, just to see and get their thoughts on it. I lived an hour and ten, an hour and 15 minutes away from each training session," he said.
"So since I was about 18, with the U-21s and then leading onto the seniors, I spent all my summer months driving to training three or four nights a week, doing a two-hour session, driving another hour and a half back. It was three hours driving out of my life.
"I needed a break. I had exams coming up at the end of the year too, so everything was falling on top of me. I don't think my heart was in it at the time.
"It was no good to the players around me that I would just be still there. I didn't want to be there bringing a negative feeling towards the camp.
"I said to myself, 'if I do anything in life, do it right' and I wasn't doing that right. So I said I would take a step back and see if it helped. I am glad I did it now. I don't regret it,"added the 25-year-old, now an account manager with 'i radio' in the north-west.
He headed for New York and, somewhat ironically, played a match for 'Donegal' against 'Monaghan', on the same day that the Donegal seniors claimed their third Ulster title in four years against Monaghan in Clones.
His relationship with the current Donegal manager Rory Gallagher is strong. Gallagher coached McHugh's Kilcar club and lives in nearby Killybegs in the west of the county and as Jim McGuinness' assistant for three years McHugh always appreciated Gallagher's tactical grasp.
McHugh was always going to return but Gallagher's appointment hastened that decision.
"I figured that day of the All-Ireland that I wanted to play for Donegal and that I missed it - I was going to be available for selection after that," he said.
"Rory is the most intelligent GAA man I've ever met. He would tell you about past players and present players from anywhere. He has a real eye for talent.
"If you're ever at a table quiz, he's the man you'd want to sit with. His general knowledge is even vast. His knowledge of football is unbelievable and his tactical awareness is brilliant. He opens your eyes to things you wouldn't normally see.
"He was the right man for the job. He had been there. A brand new manager would take four or five months to find his way and see what his plans were. There haven't been many changes with Rory, just little tweaks here and there to improve us."
The detail of McHugh's role also appears to have changed from the out-and-out sweeper he was in the first three years of the McGuinness reign to more conventional play as a wing-back or wing-forward.
McHugh hit the ground running when he came back but in recent weeks has been hampered by cracked ribs picked up in a club game and a quad injury. His involvement against Tyrone may be limited.