Hughes braced for onslaught as he hails Mayo role in Farney rise
MONAGHAN stalwart Darren Hughes remembers with fondness a 2013 challenge game against Mayo that proved crucial to his side's victory in the Ulster championship - but that's where the goodwill ends as the teams prepare to shape up in an important Allianz Football League match in Castlebar tomorrow.
But before addressing tomorrow's Division 1 encounter, Hughes recalled how the hardy men of Mayo did Monaghan a favour as they prepared for the Ulster final against Donegal in July 2013.
At the time, Malachy O'Rourke was in his first year as Monaghan manager and the Farney men had earned promotion from Division 3.
Impressive as that achievement was, Monaghan's first two Ulster championship opponents were Antrim and Cavan - also Division 3 teams.
Donegal, two-time Ulster champions and reigning All-Ireland title holders, awaited Monaghan in the final.
How good were Monaghan? Could they cope with the Donegal machine that was chasing a hat-trick of Anglo Celt Cup victories?
Plenty of questions, then, for the management and players prior to facing Mayo in a challenge game at Pearse Park, Longford, ten days before the Ulster final.
Hughes recalls: "There was always a fear factor there that Donegal could blow us out of the water because we hadn't come up against anything like that under Malachy's regime.
"Mayo were ideal opposition for us. They were a seasoned Division 1 team, and a seasoned championship team.
"We came away from Pearse Park that night and it instilled the confidence into us that the system we were going with was going to work, because Mayo found it hard to break us down.
"We always had enough up front to keep the scoreboard ticking so the over-riding thing we took away from that night was the confidence that we weren't that far away.
"I know it was only a challenge match but it was probably one of the most important games so far in our learning curve."
The rest is history. A huge upset for Donegal, a first Ulster title since 1988 for Monaghan, and a new impetus for football in the Farney county.
Last year yielded the Division 2 title and an Ulster final, and Monaghan are geared up for major challenges in 2015.
They opened the league with an away win against Tyrone, but at home to Cork, they were caught on the line when Colm O'Neill's last-gasp point gave the Rebels a win that had looked unlikely.
"It was a tough one for us to take because we probably played better against Cork than we did against Tyrone," says Hughes.
"Cork just had that bit of quality and kept plugging away.
"We were four points up twice in the second half and we just couldn't shake them off. It showed us where we are. You're going to come up against quality opposition every week in this league, and you're going to have to play till the final whistle."
The Scotstown clubman missed the Cork match due to a calf strain. He hopes to be fit to face Mayo but can't take any chances.
"I never had one before. It's just taking longer than expected. It will be touch and go for Sunday," he says.
The two counties last played each other at Iniskeen in 2011, a game Monaghan won, but they still ended up being relegated from Division 1 that season.
"Mayo will be disappointed at losing to Tyrone after a great victory over Kerry," says Hughes.
"Mayo's management and players will want a response and we know what to expect."