'They were asking questions that I couldn't answer,' admits McHugh of his concussion hell
Donegal star back at full tilt after enforced 10-week absence
For the last few weeks, the lines of communication between Ryan McHugh and Rory Gallagher have fallen silent.
The pair are firm friends, stretching back to when Gallagher would call to the house for a teenage McHugh and they'd head to the pitch together for a kick-around. They've remained close since, even through Gallagher's departure from Donegal.
But with Sunday's Ulster Championship opener which pitches the pair against each other coming into view, the phone buzzes a little less. It just has to.
"When Rory was playing with St Gall's, they were getting ready for an All-Ireland club that time, I'd have been 15, 16, and wasn't even a thought for Donegal, but I remember going in and kicking ball with him that time," McHugh recalls ahead of Sunday's clash with Gallagher's Fermanagh in Brewster Park on Sunday.
"It was great, I remember him giving me tips, and in fairness Rory has been great for me, as a mentor, a coach, has definitely brought me on as a footballer, and hopefully I can get one over him again this year."
McHugh scored a brilliant individual goal when the sides met in last year's Ulster final but the year ended on a sour note for the Kilcar man.
A blow to the head in a challenge game with the club meant he was stood down for 10 weeks. That followed on from knocks against Kildare, Dublin and Tyrone in the league. Eventually, enough was enough and he was pulled from action on medical grounds.
"I'd played three games in a row and it wasn't until about a week and a half later, at training one night, I'd trained a couple of sessions before that, but I felt dizzy and lost a wee bit of vision.
"I went straight over to Kevin (Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran). He pulled me straight out and assessed me and I got a scan the next day and it showed what I had. So I was out for six to eight weeks or something like that. The second one was a bit different, it was a bang to the head I got against St Vincent's of Dublin in a challenge match for the club. That one I actually can't remember everything, which is worrying.
"You're in the dressing-room afterwards, when you come back around to yourself, you're in the dressing-room and I remember our physio at that stage was asking me questions and I couldn't answer them. I knew, I felt myself I should know these answers and I wasn't fit to answer them. Which was worrying. But thank God as time has gone by it has come back to me."
It was a frustrating time, not least because it's an injury that comes with no physical signs of damage.
"If you pull your hamstring or break your leg you can see the impact but if you looked at me at that time you would have thought there was not much wrong with me. I suppose that is the hard part with concussion - when you look at the person you think there's not a lot wrong with them. But I suppose I just went on medical advice, I had to."
He couldn't play any part in Kilcar's title defence and the winter offered plenty of time for introspection. A talented ball-carrier, McHugh admits he's thought about changing the way he plays to avoid more knocks.
"I was actually doing an interview on that recently and I was talking to dad about maybe changing the way I play my game. Again, as I keep saying, it's easy to say that sitting around a table, when you're talking about stuff or chatting, it's easy to say, 'Yeah, I mightn't carry the ball as much or I might kick it more, try to change a wee bit', but when you're in the heat of a championship battle, when you're going into Brewster Park, in the heat of a championship battle, if there's a ball between two people then it's extremely hard to pull out of that ball.
"If you're told, 'Run', it's extremely hard not to take the ball and go, if you think you need to score or stuff like that. I think there are aspects of my game that I definitely can change, maybe kick the ball a wee bit more, maybe try to run without the ball more than run with the ball. So I think that's definitely something I can look at."
McHugh is back at full tilt, as is his clubmate Paddy McBrearty after a knee injury. The return to action of Michael Murphy coincided with a sharp upturn in league form that eventually saw them win the Division 2 final. Donegal didn't make it out of the 'Super 8s' last year but are many people's tip to be in the shake-up for ultimate honours this year.
"You go to training, you got to the gym, you do everything you do as a Gaelic footballer to be the best that you can be. I always say to people, when people chat about Donegal, I think Donegal have really, really top footballers, they have exciting footballers, a good mix between youth and experience. How far are we away? Time will tell."