Saturday 24 March 2018

Lack of belief never a black-and-white issue

Rugby tempted him but Pat Hughes has become a main player for Sligo's footballers

Pat Hughes, Sligo, following a press conference at the Radisson Hotel, Sligo (David Maher / Sportsfile)
Pat Hughes, Sligo, following a press conference at the Radisson Hotel, Sligo (David Maher / Sportsfile)
Pat Hughes in action against Roscommon

Damian Lawlor

Being a Sligo footballer is not always easy, but it does remind you that if the bad times weren't so bad then neither would the good times be so good.

They don't tend to do middle ground. From winning their first Connacht title in 32 years in quite thrilling fashion under Tommy Breheny in 2007, they fell to London six years later.

Pat Hughes missed that famous Connacht title win, but he was there for the London game. They lost by a point and Hughes rasped a rocket off the crossbar which could have saved their blushes.

The Geevagh man has had decent times in his career, in both Gaelic football and rugby, but it's the dark times that seem to linger. In terms of dog days, he thinks Ruislip will never be topped. At least he hopes it won't.

"It was a difficult summer," Hughes sighs. "I remember sitting in Heathrow and we were looking up at the board and looking at all these holiday destinations and we were saying, 'Is there anywhere we can go to except home?' No, it wasn't an easy one to return to at all. Oh Jesus, it was one of the lowest points in Sligo football history, I'd say.

"It's one that we don't like looking back on at all. But it was probably a big learning curve for us as well. We took a lot away from that. It is a place we never wanted to go back to."

The qualifiers pitted them against Derry at Owenbeg. Not the draw you want if you are out for redemption. Derry won and it signalled an ignominious end to Kevin Walsh's time as Sligo manager.

With little coming through the production lines, it was difficult to see a way forward for Hughes and his team-mates. They were destined to be journeymen, also-rans to Mayo, Galway and Roscommon. And yet, instead of looking on, they take centre-stage in today's Connacht final.

In the semi-final, everything was pointing towards a Roscommon win. John Evans' side had gained back-to-back promotions, they were up to Division 1 for 2016, they had a game behind them coming in to play Sligo. The country looked on in surprise as Sligo took a big scalp.

"I am not surprised that people were shocked about it, but I don't think there was anyone inside our circle who was shocked at all," says Hughes.

"We knew what we were capable of. I know Roscommon had a good League campaign, but from the break in the League onwards we had got a couple of very good results too, and some big scores. We had been going well, a couple of very good wins in challenge games. Everything was going well and we knew we had the ability to beat Roscommon, so it was not a shock for us. But it is very easy to see why, for people on the outside looking in, it appeared differently."

They had done their homework and they were focused. Finding Hughes at full-forward with high, diagonal ball was the cornerstone to their success. He proved a huge thorn in the Roscommon side and was the foil for much of Adrian Marren's tally of 1-7.

Niall Carew's homework and approach was clearly evident. Fresh faces like Niall Murphy had been blooded in the League. They played in-form Tipperary and Westmeath in challenge games - against Tipp, David Kelly was motoring so well they actually took him off to keep him fresh.

"I suppose the first day you meet a manager, no matter what anybody says, the first impressions last," says Hughes. "And meeting Niall, Ronan (Sweeney) and the boys the first day, you knew there was something there. They had a belief in the squad." That in itself instilled belief in the team, confidence that had been sadly lacking.

"I was also very impressed by Niall's knowledge of Sligo football. He was talking about games he was involved in when he was with Kildare (Carew was a selector with Kieran McGeeney) and referring back to incidents that happened in Sligo/Kildare games from five years back.

"He mentioned our Connacht final against Mayo and games against Galway and it was very evident that day he had his research done on us. He knew what he was getting involved in and said he would not be here if he did not have real belief in us.

"It instilled confidence in us because there was a core group of players here who believed, even though we were in a bit of a lull, that we had the ability to push on - and it was great to see that there was a manager who had the same belief in us."

It was timely, too. This is Hughes' fifth season and he knows the years are flying by. Having made his Championship debut in 2012 against New York, he saw his early promise disrupted by injury. But breaking through he was still only 19 and thought that Connacht finals would be regular outings for him. Having forsaken a promising rugby career for Gaelic football, he certainly hoped they would.

"I firmly believed that, had we got over London in Ruislip that year, we would have been contesting another Connacht final against Mayo, and no one could tell what could have happened that day. It just wasn't to be.

"But we had young lads coming through at the time - lads that are established players at this stage, and I knew that we had something. Unfortunately, that was Kevin's (Walsh) last day and there was a lack of continuity then.

"It wasn't an easy appointment for the county board looking for a new manager - us coming back as being that historic team that lost out in Ruislip. Pat (Flanagan) came in late last year and we never really got going at all. But I think most of us really knew in the back of our mind that we still had plenty in us, and we knew we'd be back contesting Connacht finals."

They still got to the last 12 under Flanagan after availing of a kind qualifier draw which swerved around the big guns and put them at the door of both Wicklow and Limerick instead. Yet, the perception remains that Sligo have gone as far as they can go. That, after today, they will revert to the qualifiers and quietly bow out next time around.

Hughes is simply focused on this afternoon. No matter what happens, he won't panic. His father, John, played a couple of League games in the 1980s for the county and they will have discussed his role together ahead of this final.

John was steeped in Gaelic football but the son, however, could have taken a different route. Conan O'Donnell is the latest Sligo youngster to break onto the national underage rugby scene, but Hughes was certainly capable of making an impression had he chosen to.

"I played with Connacht up as far as under-20. I gave it up then when the Black and Whites came calling," he smiles.

He fast made a name for himself at out-half, playing in the under-20 academy when the likes of Robbie Henshaw were coming through with the under-18s.

"When we were in the academy we would live in Galway during the summer and when I had holidays from school. I played with Sligo RFC and the school (Sligo Grammar School) and we won the Connacht schools final one year and lost the following year. So, I suppose that's where they saw me."

Any regrets about not following through?

"No, I'm quite happy in the position I am in now, looking forward to a Connacht final. There was appeal to have a professional lifestyle, I suppose. When we were with the under-20s and were in the academy you were living as close to a professional lifestyle as possible.

"But, because we were in the academy, they were getting away without paying us. It is a very appealing lifestyle. It was a very tough decision to leave it behind at the time. I could have stayed but, at that time, I was going to college and I was looking down the tracks - three years in the academy there and you could have been left in the lurch after that. Then you would have no college education."

He stepped out of the bubble, went to college and qualified as a schoolteacher in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, and is now based at St Mary's, Rathfarnam. Dublin is home to five other Sligo players at the moment, with a few more students gone back home for the summer. They usually meet in Dublin, train there, and travel down during the week, as well every Tuesday night.

Those late nights and the sacrifices will all be worth it if they can cause another shock and beat Mayo today. Hughes can still taste the sweet flavour of the '07 win any time he thinks back. He was sitting on the concrete steps in Hyde Park until the final whistle when, in his own words, he "ran like a lunatic across the pitch".

"I remember it well," he smiles. "It made a massive impact, I was 16 watching these lads. This was a massive historic event. I would have heard my parents talking about the 1975 team and the legends they were. So it was huge to see it happen. I know we have been in the doldrums for the past few years but that kick-started a good run."

Very few give them a chance of repeating those heroics this afternoon.

"Mayo would have gained a lot of experience since," he admits. "You cannot underestimate the experience you gain from competing in Division 1 of the League and been involved in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals, and playing against Kerry, Dublin and Donegal year in, year out.

"They would have gained a lot of experience which we wouldn't have. Maybe they are not as hungry as they were in 2012 and hunger is certainly something that we don't lack. We have had a couple of dark years."

A win today would see them escape the darkness again.

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