Tuesday 22 October 2019

'I never witnessed scenes like it in my life' - The Donegal legend who led Cavan to Ulster glory

Martin McHugh recalls his sideline role in Breffni's last provincial title 22 years ago

Breffni beat: Martin McHugh (C) celebrating with Michael Reilly and Donal Donohoe after leading Cavan to their 1997 Ulster SFC final success INPHO
Breffni beat: Martin McHugh (C) celebrating with Michael Reilly and Donal Donohoe after leading Cavan to their 1997 Ulster SFC final success INPHO

Chris McNulty

As Martin McHugh got off the Cavan team bus before the 1997 Ulster final, some familiar faces were waiting.

McHugh, in his third year as Cavan manager, had taken the Breffni to a second Ulster final.

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Having been beaten by Tyrone in 1995, Cavan were back again.

For 28 long summers, since 1968, Cavan yearned for the return of the Anglo-Celt Cup - originally presented to the Ulster Council by the Cavan newspaper of the same name in 1925.

McHugh spent much of his time in Cavan, away from his young family, who waited at the gates of St Tiernach's Park when the bus snaked its way through the throngs.

His wife Patrice was waiting with his young son Ryan, just three years old at the time.

"I can't get in with Ryan."

The Ulster Council officials at the gate demanded a ticket for the toddler.

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It was an unexpected hiccup. McHugh called Brendan O'Neill, a Donegal native who was involved with the Ulster Council, to rectify the problem. The McHughs headed for the Pat McGrane Stand, Martin for the Cavan dressing-room and his family to their seats, to watch history unfold.

"Cavan was ready in '97," McHugh says now, 22 years on.

"There was no panic and the dressing-room was relaxed."

This weekend, the same Ryan McHugh will go through those same St Tiernach's Park gates as Donegal face Cavan in the Ulster final.

It's an occasion that will take Martin McHugh back to the day he delivered one of the finest hours in Cavan's great history.

Derry, All-Ireland champions just four years beforehand, in 1993, stood between Cavan and their moment of glory.

Kieran McKeever popped Derry ahead with 12 minutes to go and Cavan got ready for another evening of mourning.

There was another twist in the tale. Damien O'Reilly collected a ball above Johnny McBride and off-loaded to Jason Reilly. The shot, the goal and the conclusion remain a blur for McHugh, who was engulfed with delirious Cavan supporters as he struggled to conduct his post-match interview.

"It was unbelievable," the Kilcar man says.

"I never witnessed scenes like it in my life. For Cavan, it would have been on a par with Donegal winning the All-Ireland in '92. I'd say there were over 30,000 people in Cavan town for us that night. It was amazing."

When McHugh took over from PJ Carroll in 1994, Cavan were in the nether reaches of Division 3 and were seven years without a win in the Ulster Championship.

Before Cavan (having won promotion to Division 2 in '95) met Antrim in their opening championship clash under McHugh's watch, the new manager called a press conference.

McHugh says: "People were laughing at me calling this press conference. No one else turned up. Someone from the 'Irish News' said to me: 'You're a cheeky boy, calling a press conference and Cavan haven't won a game in seven years'."

They reached a provincial final, via a semi-final win over Monaghan.

"Beating Monaghan in the semi-finals was unbelievable. Monaghan was always the big one for Cavan," McHugh recalls.

"Tyrone beat us well in the final, but being in the final was always going to stand to us. There wasn't much expectation so it wasn't a big downer to lose it."

The blocks were building in the background.

Cavan reached an U-21 final in '95, losing to Donegal, managed by McHugh's fellow 1992 All-Ireland winner Donal Reid, in a replay.

Another promotion followed in '96, and Cavan won an Ulster U-21 title but lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland final.

As fate would have it, McHugh came up against his home county in the 1997 semi-final. McHugh had applied, unsuccessfully, for the Donegal job in '94, before taking the reins in Cavan.

The likes of John Joe Doherty and Noel Hegarty, two of his closest friends, were still playing for Donegal, though it was something of a small mercy that his brother James had retired.

"It was an awkward game for me," McHugh says.

"The players took over and took control before we played Donegal. It was something that I probably didn't want to happen, facing Donegal in the championship. At least I was two years into it and James wasn't playing.

"There was a big turning point for Cavan that day. Damien O'Reilly got injured, we were struggling, but Donal Donohoe suggested that we fire him in at full-forward. We put him in and he caused Donegal a lot of bother.

"I was glad to see the back of that game. I just got it over. I went to the Donegal dressing-room and that was difficult. But I met most of the Donegal players coming out, they had togged out so quick, so I didn't get in to say a few words."

Cavan lost itself in mania after they had won Ulster. Kerry quelled their magic in an All-Ireland semi-final.

McHugh had taken some time out the previous winter to recharge the batteries. It was all becoming too much and in the wake of the Kerry defeat he stepped away.

"I was just gone," he says.

"I needed time out. I don't know how mangers keep it going now. It was just mentally draining. In a way, I'm sorry that I didn't stay on. We could have built again, but I just didn't have the energy."

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