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Danny Hughes: Man with a mission

Going into last year's All-Ireland final, Danny Hughes never felt better. Down were back in the big time and Hughes was playing the football of his life.

After being the most productive player on the field in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kildare, Hughes' confidence and peace of mind hit a new high just before their clash against Cork.

His mother, Imelda, had been diagnosed with a lump on her liver in February and had been sick for a number of months. The week before the final, she was given the all-clear.

"What more could you have asked for?" says Hughes. "In our eyes, that was our family's All-Ireland final and we had just won it. Mum never looked better and I was absolutely over the moon."

Hughes had always been close to his mother. In his mind's eye, one of the most memorable images from his career was walking in home the day after he won his first All Star last October.

"When I came into the kitchen, Mum was crying her eyes out," he says. "It was very moving and it's something I'll never forget. I think she was more proud than I was. I'm glad that she had the opportunity to see me win an All Star after all those hard years with Down."

With the gentle touch of a man who has taught himself to accept the things in the world he cannot control, Hughes walks you through the hardest six months of his life.

After he won his All Star in October, he headed to New York for the Down team holiday.

On the day he returned, his mother had taken a turn and was headed for hospital in Belfast. She never returned home: she was later diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Imelda Hughes died on December 17.

The speed in which she deteriorated felt like larceny, but cancer isn't selective in who it chooses to claim. "Mum never even got the chance to open the present I brought her home from America. She wanted me to go on the All Star trip to Kuala Lumpur in December and see the world, but I couldn't go and leave her.

"I'm glad I didn't. We spent a lot of time with her in the end, but it was very difficult to watch what she went through because they could never get the pain under control."

After the funeral, Hughes was going through his mother's hospital bag when he came across newspaper cuttings she had kept from the time he won the Ulster GAA Writers' Footballer of the Year in November.

Hughes pauses with emotion as he tries to explain how the void his mother left behind reflected the sort of person she was. The tone of his voice lowers as he tries to articulate how the family have coped with the accompanying grief.

"We still can't get over it, there's still devastation around the house. I have found it very hard because there is a massive hole in our lives. It's only been on the football field that I can get any bit of solace and enjoyment."

It was fitting that Hughes' best season came last year, but he had been one of the most underrated players in Ulster for years.

On his first championship start against Cavan in 2004, Hughes kicked 0-4 from play and was Down's best player. He has bagged 2-49 in 30 championship appearances since 2003, but he had clearly taken his game to the next level last season. It was only then that Hughes finally had the big stage to showcase his talents.


"A lot of the previous management teams had done a lot of good work with me and I had always felt that I had played consistently well for Down," he says. "My parents and my family knew how dedicated I was and how much Down football meant to me.

"Everyone who knows me knew how much I wanted to be at that level. I was always very confident in my own ability and always will be. I just love playing for Down and it's not something I intend giving up on for a long time. Until someone comes and tells me that I'm not wanted anymore, I'll keep trying."

Their rapid rate of progress last year would have been deemed unbelievable for almost any other team, but they inherited all the swagger that underpins Down's traditional confidence.

Yet, the reality of Down's progress on the big stage last summer was more about a marriage between tradition and Down finally embracing the modern game.

Down were often a classic example of how tradition isn't always a virtue. Part of Down's belief was always founded on an innate, almost romantic belief in the jersey.

Before the 2007 championship, manager Ross Carr made a comparison between Down and Manchester United by outlining how "Gaelic football played the traditional Down way is the best type of Gaelic football you can play."

It was an idealistic and commendable assertion, but reconciling that shortfall between Down's traditional game and the bottom line of results was a massive battle.

Previous managers Paddy O'Rourke and Carr both left the Down job frustrated because they knew the players were there. James McCartan knew it too, but he immediately implemented a system which helped Down fuse their natural attacking flair with the defensive demands of the modern game.

Nobody has highlighted the cultural shift more than Hughes. He always saw himself as primarily a finisher, but he has turned into one of the hardest working and most productive half-forwards in the game. In Down's last league game against Monaghan, he won seven breaks from kickouts.

In Ulster football circles though, a story has been in circulation for a long time that when O'Rourke was manager, he once tried to get his half-forwards to buy into the defensive duties required in the modern game. And to that Hughes responded: "That's not what Down forwards do."

Is it true? "I've heard that a number of times but I can't actually remember saying it," says Hughes now.

"All I know is that if Paddy O'Rourke asked me to go through a wall, I would have gone through it. There had to be a cultural change in how we played, but I will admit that I did find it hard to get my head around it.

"There has been a big shift in our psyche and it has had a major influence in how we came into the results business."

Although Down play with an attack-minded half-forward line, Hughes gave the most profound illustration of how he had changed his game in last year's All-Ireland semi-final when he won five breaks from kickouts.

Yet, when Cork won 70pc of kickouts in the All-Ireland final, it was that battle for breaking ball where Down were really obliterated, with Cork winning that statistical category 23-9.

Not playing a sweeper and failing to move Dan Gordon to midfield earlier were critical misjudgments, but not having a more varied kickout strategy really crucified them.

"We should have changed our own kickout strategy but I wouldn't blame management because we had gained enough experience to have been able to change it on the field ourselves," says Hughes. "We should have been saying, 'Lets calm this down and think about what we're doing'.

"We should have taken more of a role in isolating Cork a wee bit more. It was fierce disappointing because I really feel that I threw away an All-Ireland medal."

The motivation now is to reach that level again and make it count this time around. Although Cork bossed them on kickouts and dominated the last 20 minutes again when the sides met three weeks ago, it was Down's only loss in this year's league campaign.

That level of progress is further highlighted when placed against the backdrop of their failure to win the Division 3 final two years ago.

"There were a lot of rough defeats and tough days along the way and it's really only that experience that makes you appreciate what we have now," says Hughes.

"A lot of teams in Division 1 don't know what it's like to be in Division 3, which is a tough place to get out of. We're in the big time now and that's where we want to be because we're comfortable there.


"People all over the country like to see us play -- they always have. We're an exciting team to watch but at the end of the day, it's a results business. That brings pressure in itself but that's the challenge you want. I love big games. That's where you want to showcase your talent."

The big games are coming thick and fast now. Dublin tonight at Croke Park, Kerry next weekend in Killarney.

Two wins would give them an outside chance of making a league final, but the summer will soon be here and their season is already heavily pregnant with promise.

For a number of reasons, Hughes wants this season to be better than last year.

When he handed his All Star to his mother last October, she immediately said to him: "That's fine, but we need another one for the other side of the mantelpiece."

His drive and inspiration now is lodged deep in his heart.

"With the help of God, hopefully that comes to me so I can give Mum her wish.

"My mum was a beautiful person. She was an angel. And hopefully she will look after me now and in years to come."

Irish Independent