Down to earth

Mourne men more about hard work and intensity than 'swagger' says No 10 Danny Hughes

Frank Roche

AND now for a six-mark question, aimed at enlightening the confused southern masses not old enough to remember the swinging sixties or the exultant early nineties. Can you define the term Down swagger?

"I was actually off today and I went home and got changed into my suit!" laughs Danny Hughes.

"I don't know ... I suppose people say the Down swagger because of the sixties and the nineties teams that brought great glory back to the county, and we've a massive respect for them.

"But I don't look too much into the swagger -- I just know that when I go out onto the field, I have to bring a fierce level of intensity and hard work," he concludes.

Hughes is not necessarily the epitome of Down swagger, whatever that means: rather he qualifies as the perfect half-forward blend of perspiration and inspiration.

His performance in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kildare was a thrilling case in point. The Saval clubman hoovered up the breaks, linked intelligently with Kevin McKernan up the right flank, and capped a dynamic 70 minutes with two points from play.


That's the thing about Down's No. 10. He's not one of these workaholic but chronically non-scoring wing-forwards. He will put in the hard yards, for sure, but Hughes has also clipped an invaluable 14 points from play during their seven-match run to the final.

His one scoring blank came against Kerry, ironically one of his least effective displays given the emphatic nature of Down's quarter-final ambush.

By then, though, his summer account was already in significant credit following impressive outings against Donegal, Longford and Sligo, and his overall body of work in 2010 leaves him well placed for an All Star approaching this Sunday's eagerly awaited end-game against Cork.

Down's press information pack for the final contains an unusual nugget, suggesting that Hughes has "reinvented himself over the past few years as a hard-working half-forward".

The implication, doubtless unintended, is that the player didn't always bust a gut during his early years in the red-and-black jersey -- he first joined the panel in late 2002, when Paddy O'Rourke took charge. Yet it's obvious from talking to Hughes that he prides himself on emptying the tank every time. "Every game I go out to play, I want to be the best player on the field. And I want to beat my immediate opponent, and I want to make sure I get the better of him over the 70-plus minutes," he explains.

"So I would never have taken my place for granted, and I know that when I go into a game, if I put in whatever I can and work as hard as I possibly can, hopefully over the course of the game it will pan out okay for me."

At times, that commitment has meant playing through the pain barrier. Back in July, Hughes suffered a foot injury during the four-point win over Longford -- a fractured metatarsal was later diagnosed.

Now, it's only in the last decade that armchair sports fans have been introduced to the 'Curse of the Metatarsal' -- a modern-day phenomenon that seemed particularly attracted to famous English footballers in the vicinity of World Cup finals.

There are five metatarsals in each foot and obviously varying scales of recovery, depending on the type of injury sustained; some of the above highly paid professionals have been sidelined for months.

However, it is nevertheless impressive that only a week after the Longford game, Hughes was sprung from the bench as Down struggled to shake off a dogged Offaly.

Asked about the severity of his own injury, the accountant demurs that he's not 100pc sure.

"They look at the x-rays, they told me it was a fracture," he says. "I suppose a lot of people will wrap you up in cotton wool, but that's not the way you operate around our part of the country! It's not the way I was brought up either.

"So, you get out onto the field and you give it a go and hopefully it works out ... I took a couple of painkillers (for the Offaly game), it wasn't too bad." From there on, it has got better and better for Down. Whatever about swagger, self-belief has come flooding back into their flagship team.

Back in January, Hughes admits, you would "probably have been chased out of the county" for suggesting there was an All-Ireland final appearance in James McCartan's team. Yet in the countdown to their watershed clash with Kerry, there was a mood of optimism among the players, whatever about the wider public.


"There was a big focus on how intense we were going to be. Kerry hadn't had a game for a couple of weeks and, yes, they had a couple of men missing," Hughes reflects.

"But we knew we were after a good win against Sligo -- we racked up a good score and it was as good a performance as I've been involved in with Down. So we were confident going into the game that we could beat Kerry."

Having banished the holders, and repelled Kildare's late onslaught with the aid of Kalum King's fingertips, Down are now 70 minutes away from the most unlikely All-Ireland triumph in recent memory.

Inter-county life has never been better for Hughes, who doesn't like dwelling on all the previous low points because he is "quite a positive person and I want to remain one!"

But, at 28, does he view this as possibly his only chance to land that elusive All-Ireland?

"Em, it probably should feel like that if it's taken that long to get here," he answers.

"But, ach no, I think we're building. James has come in and done a tremendous job, along with Paddy Tally and Brian McIver and Jerome Johnston as well, and they all deserve a great deal of credit -- as do the previous managers.

"So, hopefully I would look forward to a stage where it's not just a one-off; that there's something to look forward to over the coming years, and I've no doubt there will be."