IT WAS EVIDENT from early in his tenure that life under Martin McHugh would be very different for Cavan’s footballers.
In 1994, McHugh took over a side that was mid-table in Division Three and hadn’t won a game in the Ulster Championship since 1987.
In one of his early games as manager, Cavan lost to Roscommon in Division Three.
The man from Midwest Radio was capturing the scene to his listeners.
‘Martin McHugh is in such bad humour, he’s training the team out on the field here after the game.’
There were few who were familiar with the idea of a warm-down in those days.
McHugh recruited Joe Doonan – who trained the five-time World Cross-Country medallist Catherina McKiernan – as his team trainer.
Donal Donohue and Derek McDonnell, who played for Cavan against McHugh’s Donegal in 1983, were on board as were Mickey ‘The Pound’ Reilly and Dr Paddy Rudden.
“There weren’t too many outside managers at that time,” says McHugh.
“I tried to take the level up all the time.”
Not long after his appointment, McHugh was attending the 1994 Cavan SFC final between Gowna and Mullahoran and had a lightbulb moment as he analysed the game for Northern Sound.
He noticed a woman nearby taking studious notes of the game and wondered of her role.
Collette O’Reilly was collating stats for Gowna.
“She was just writing stats down with a pen and paper and, remember no-one was on about stats as much in 1994, I asked her if he’d come in with us in Cavan,” McHugh recalls.
“The stats were simple stuff: How many times a fella was in possession; did he keep the ball or kick it away? She always had it right. At a team meeting one night, some of the players questioned the stats. We checked back on the tape and she was spot on. She did it all in real time, never off a tape.”
ON the night of his appointment as Cavan manager at the Lakeland Hotel, McHugh was given a standing ovation.
Having launched an unsuccessful bid to become Donegal manager that autumn, it was apparent that McHugh, one of the stars of Donegal’s All-Ireland win just two years previously, wanted to turn his hand to management.
Cavan were at a pretty low ebb when PJ Carroll stepped away and they liked the attraction of McHugh. Brendan Keeney, the Cavan Chairman, called him to a meeting. They hit it off and all it required was the rubber stamp from Cavan’s clubs.
McHugh traveled to Cavan in the company of his great friend and mentor Barry Campbell from Kilcar.
“Cavan reminded me of my club, Kilcar. Football was what life was about,” McHugh says.
“I realised how big a GAA county that Cavan was. I was excited about it.
“I liked the idea of working with them as a football county. I’m not even sure they were a sleeping giant at that stage. It all happened so quickly and I had a decision to make. I got the job.
“I didn’t really know what kind of team they had or what their set-up was like.”
As he entered the room, full of eager club delegates, Johnny Joe Brady, the Mullahoran Chairman, reached out to shake his hand. Earlier that year, McHugh took a training session for the Dreadnoughts and he was glad to see a familiar face.
He says: “I didn’t know anyone else in the room. They put a lot of trust in me, the people of Cavan.”
As his appointment was confirmed, the audience rose to acclaim their new manager.
As he says now, 25 years on: “I was an untried young manager. I’ll never forget them giving me a standing ovation.
“I was just learning the ropes. I went out to Breffni Park the following day. It was this fine big stadium. I was looking around the place thinking: ‘This is mine. I’m the man here now’. I was excited.”
WHEN Brian McEniff stepped down as the Donegal manager in 1994, McHugh was seen as the heir apparent.
For many, it was a no-brainer. For most, it was natural.
McHugh had the likes of Michael McLoone, Michael Oliver McIntyre and Eamonn Harvey on a backroom team. He even went as far as speaking to promising Killybegs starlet Declan Boyle about committing to the county’s colours.
“Naively, maybe, I thought I was going to get the job,” McHugh says.
“I’d loved to have managed Donegal. We had serious quality players at the time.
“Everyone knows Donegal was the job I wanted.”
McHugh firmly believes there was another All-Ireland in Donegal.
His mind was set on a player-manager role initially, but when PJ McGowan was handed the baton, McHugh’s inter-county boots weren’t to be laced again.
He says: “When I went for the Donegal and didn’t get it, it would have been too awkward for me to keep playing. If I wasn’t playing well, people would’ve said: ‘He doesn’t want to play for PJ’. If I did play well, there’d have been pressure, too.”
AFTER his appointment, McHugh spoke at length to the previous manager, Carroll, and also to Eugene McGee, who had a spell as Cavan manager.
“Some of the Cavan players, Stephen King and these boys, were as old as I was,” McHugh recalls.
“They weren’t too far behind me, but I got a serious commitment from the players.”
Monaghan had beaten Cavan in each of the previous two Championships. McHugh’s Cavan won promotion to Division Two in the spring of ’95 and it was the beginning of the journey. A 2-11 to 0-8 win over Antrim in June ’95 represented Cavan’s first Ulster SFC win since 1987 and a two-point win over their old foes, Monaghan.
As luck would have it, Monaghan lay in wait in the semi-final of ’95 and Fintan Cahill’s goal earned the Breffni a 1-9 to 0-10 win.
“Beating Monaghan in the semi-finals was unbelievable. Monaghan was always the big one for Cavan.”
Tyrone had too much for them in the final, but the year had gone as well as could be expected.
”Being in the final was always going to stand to us,” McHugh says.
“There wasn’t much expectation. There was no success.
“I called a press conference before the Championship. I was used to that stuff from Donegal.
“Damien O’Reilly, who is now with RTÉ and Owen McConnon, now with the BBC, were the press in Cavan at the time. 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.’”
MCHUGH also managed Cavan’s Under-21 team and they were pipped by Donegal – managed by his former team-mate Donal Reid in the Ulster final of 1995.
Cavan returned to the Ulster U21 final in 1996. They put Donegal to the sword after a replay and overcame an Armagh side that included the McEntees, Diarmuid Marsden and Oisin McConville in the semi-final.
In the Ulster final, David McCann goaled as Cavan defeated Derry 1-11 to 1-5.
When Meath were beaten in a cracking semi-final, Cavan were back in an All-Ireland final again.
Two of the aristocrats.
They had dipped, though, with Kerry reaching back to 1986 for the last time they held Sam Maguire.
Cavan’s hunger was by now a famine.
A crowd of 35,000 turned up to Thurles and Kerry pipped Cavan by 1-17 to 2-10.
Jason Reilly netted earlier and a goal ten minutes from the end Mickey Graham – now the Cavan senior manager – had them in front, but Kerry, with the likes of Mike Frank Russell, Dara Ó Cinneide, Darragh Ó Sé and Eamonn Fitzmaurice in row, got their noses ahead.
“We should have won that,” McHugh says now. “There was a stage in the second half when Jason Reilly – he had fierce upper-body strength – held off Mike McCarthy to catch a lineball and Pat Casserly, the referee, gave a free out.”
THE blocks were building steadily in Cavan by now.
Conquering Ulster at Under-21 level was crucial to their development. The likes of Dermot McCabe, Larry Reilly, Mickey Graham, Anthony Forde and Jason Reilly were emerging as senior players.
Cavan also got promotion to Division One in ’96.
They were back with the big guns for the League.
McHugh had a ritual of playing Dublin in an early-season challenge every year.
“They had won the All-Ireland in ’95 and we gave them a good run,” he says.
“We knew that we were close enough. The team was building well. We had that Under-21 team coming and we had Damian O’Reilly, Stephen King, Bernard Morris and Ciaran Brady…some great leaders, and Fintan Cahill. Ronan Carolan was a great free taker.
He’d avoided the moment, but it finally arrived on June 22, 1997 – 22 years ago this weekend.
Cavan v Donegal in the Ulster semi-final.
“It was an awkward game for me,” McHugh says.
“The Cavan players took over and took control that week. It was something that I probably didn’t want to happen, facing Donegal in the Championship.”
His close friends Noel Hegarty and John Joe Doherty were still lining out for Donegal, though it was a small mercy that his brother, James, had retired.
Cavan won 2-16 to 2-10.
McHugh says: “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.”
It was an afternoon that would provide a big turning point for Cavan.
Damian O’Reilly was struggling with an injury.
Donal Donohoe suggested to McHugh that, rather than take him off, that O’Reilly be stationed at full-forward.
“We put him in and he caused Donegal a lot of bother,” McHugh says,
O’Reilly would remain there for the Ulster final.
DERRY, the All-Ireland champions four years previously in 1993, had the upper hand on Cavan in League meetings and were fancied to win the Ulster final.
McHugh ran into his first road block unexpectedly in the car park at St Tiernach’s Park.
He’d spent a lot of time away from his family. His wife, Patrice, cradling their three-year-old son, Ryan, was waiting as he got off the bus.
‘I can’t get in with Ryan’.
The Ulster Council man in the fluorescent bib was having none of the ticketless toddler.
McHugh called for Brendan O’Neill, a Donegal native who was involved in the Ulster Council. Patrice and Ryan took their seats in the stand.
County Board Chairman Brendan Keeney was concerned his manager had become distracted.
Nothing could’ve been further from the truth.
“There was no panic and the dressing room was relaxed,” McHugh say.
“We were ready in 97. Derry were such a strong team at that time. We met them in two Leagues and they beat us the two times.”
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. Damian O’Reilly collected a ball above Johnny McBride and off-loaded to Jason Reilly. The shot, the goal, 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,” he says now, reflecting on that moment when time stood still.
“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.”
A MONTH later, Ciaran Brady twigged that McHugh’s time was up.
They were digesting an All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry in The Meadowview Inn. It was unusual for McHugh to socialise with his players.
Brady copped that the end was nigh.
‘You’re leaving, Martin.’
McHugh batted his notions away, insisting that he hadn’t made up his mind.
Brady was insistent.
‘You’re having a drink with the players. You’re leaving’.
Sure enough, McHugh had managed Cavan for the last time.
The previous winter, he also took some time out of the job.
“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.
“I just had my mind made up. The children were young, there was the traveling and I had my own work, with Martin Donnelly, to look after too. I enjoyed my time in Cavan immensely.”
ON SUNDAY, McHugh will head up the Hill in Clones again, past the Sacred Heart Church and into St Tiernach’s Park.
The same Ryan McHugh will make a similar journey, but should not have difficulty with the stewards this time. He was a GAA All-Star last year and his older brother, Mark, was an All-Star in 2012 when Donegal won the All-Ireland.
Mickey Graham, a corner-forward for McHugh in ’97, and Dermot McCabe, his midfield general, are at the helm in Cavan now.
“Mickey was as good a corner-forward as you’d come up against,” McHugh says.
“His movement was unreal. It’s funny that him and McCabe are together now. They worked really well together. They were two great football brains. You could see management in them.”
Cavan are yearning for success now, just as they were in 1997.
“As long as Donegal don’t think that the Ulster final is already played,” McHugh says.
“I think it’ll be very close and tight, but I think Donegal will get over the line.”
They remember McHugh in Cavan as fondly as he does them.
A couple of years back, he was in Shercock and popped into a local eatery for some lunch.
As he went to pay, the waitress smiled.
‘The bossman said that’s for ’97!’Tags: