Saturday 24 March 2018

Hughes on mission to redress Farney's swift fall from grace

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

As a group they had lost two Ulster finals to Tyrone – 2007 and 2010. Twice in successive years, in 2007 and 2008, they had Kerry's legs dangling over a cliff.

But ask Monaghan's Darren Hughes his greatest regret as a footballer and he'll point to successive relegations that brought them from Division 1 of the league to Division 3, in 2011 and 2012.

Far more than any close brush with Kerry or Tyrone in the championship it was this, Hughes confides, that reflected a general malaise that had set in with the Monaghan footballers.

They had got loose. After years of slavishly doing it by the book, players switched off, Hughes readily accepts. And the freefall kicked in.

For years they had climbed the cliff face together and reached the top, so the sense that they had given it all up too easily gnawed away at him.

Eamonn McEneaney had replaced Seamus McEnaney after 2010 and put in good structures and impressive coaching frameworks, but a general fatigue seemed to set in after six years of hard driving in the fast lane under McEnaney.

"Things got loose, that was our fault. Seamus had a great set-up. We didn't win anything under it so maybe we thought it was too intense," Hughes says.

"We got away from training hard and working hard and that was no fault of Eamonn McEneaney's. The manager does the preparation but when you cross the white line he doesn't make you miss tackles and kick wides."

Hughes accepts the toll that injuries to key players took on them, particularly last year.

"It was the defining factor in our relegation from Division 2 last year, so many games we lost by one or two points," he says.

"Take Conor McManus and Tommy Freeman out of our team and you were going searching for six, seven, eight points every game."

It played on their minds a lot, even during the vacuum between McEneaney's departure and Malachy O'Rourke's appointment.

Hughes (right) describes the team as a "tight unit" off the field who meet socially on a regular basis.

Even after last year's qualifier defeat to Laois some of them got away for a few days and spoke about the direction their careers had taken.

"We spoke about it, how disappointed we were in our own performance, disappointed because we loved being in Division 1, we loved playing the big teams," he says.

"We always put up a good fight against them. Boys wanted to prove they were good enough to compete at a high level again."

The time off was used well to assess what more could be given. The return of team stalwarts like Vinny Corey, Paul Finlay, Freeman, Owen Lennon and Dick Clerkin was conviction in itself. Instantly getting back up the league ladder was the therapy they all required, the first staging post of the recovery they had in mind.

Hughes credits McEneaney for changing the profile of the team sufficiently in his two years.

"We got a lot blooded. Colin Walshe came in under Seamus and he has flourished over the last two years. Christopher McGuinness too.

"Five or six boys from an '08 minor team that lost to Tyrone in an Ulster final, a core of boys 19 or 20 coming in under Eamonn, they're pushing on now."

Hughes, who mixes farming with being an internet marketing strategist for a local business in Monaghan, is arguably the most versatile inter-county footballer around.


By his reckoning he has played on every line of the field at some stage. In 2010 he finished the league at full-forward in a league match against Kerry in Killarney that they lost by a sufficiently low margin to survive in Division 1.

For their first game in Ulster two months later he found himself in goals, a throwback to his days as a minor, when regular custodian Shane Duffy was sidelined and McEnaney opted to overlook his understudy Sean Gorman, who left the panel on hearing the decision.

Position, Hughes says, is largely irrelevant. "It comes down to counter-attacking and overturning and tackles. Once you are in that middle third the number on your jersey is irrelevant. You have responsibility for your man," he insists.

His preference is for midfield; he was half-forward in 2012, though centre-back is his most likely placement.

Gaelic football today "enthralls" him. Sunday's first Ulster semi-final between Donegal and Down fascinated him.

"I thoroughly enjoy pulling on the jersey and crossing the white line. You have to, you have no reason to have to play. Players still love it. It's enthralling at the minute," he says.

"I thoroughly enjoyed the game on Sunday. It was a tactical battle. People are talking about the quality not being there, but you look back at the quality 30 years ago and it wasn't that high either."

Irish Independent

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