Dan the Man – Former Down star Danny Hughes looks back on his career

IN this week’s feature interview Shaun Casey chats to Down’s Danny Hughes about life on and off the pitch

WHEN the Danny Hughes story is retold, the 2010 season is the instant stand-out chapter. The Saval man was inspirational in helping Down storm to a sixth ever All-Ireland final.

Folklore would suggest that Down don’t lose All-Ireland finals, but all good things come to an end. Still, despite defeat on the biggest day of the year against Cork, Hughes experienced a fantastic campaign.

He played with an unbelievable drive and desire that summer and was eventually nominated for Footballer of the Year. But behind the scenes he suffered a torrid time, making his on-field impact all the more admirable.

His Mum was suffering from cancer at the time, but like her son, determination was never an issue. Despite her ill health, she continued to support Down throughout the season.

“My Mum had an operation in February to get a few tumours removed from her liver and she was going through treatment, it was a very worrying time for all of us.

“She had actually come out okay and she was getting chemo right through the summer and she could go to every game, Mum never missed a game,” Hughes explains.

“She never missed a game anyway, Mum and Dad, they travelled to every game even when we were at our low points in Division Three. They bumped into a lot of loyal supporters, there’s a Down supporters’ club there who followed us in the dark days and the good days.

“Some of those people I still see, and I still have great time and love for because they provided us support when nobody did.

“She had a wonderful year being away on the journeys we were on and the overnight stays and stuff.

“The week before the All-Ireland final she actually got word that the tumour, there was no more, there didn’t seem to be anything. So that was fantastic news going into the final and it was a bit of a weight lifted off my shoulders when that news was given to the family.

“Nobody really knew that. That was a personal thing, and I didn’t want to distract management with anything that was going on in my life.”

The loss of that All-Ireland final to Cork was ‘devastating’ but life hits harder than any sporting defeat ever will. A month later, the cancer returned, and the Hughes family eventually lost their Mum before the end of the year.

“That ruined me more than any All-Ireland final loss to be honest,” recalled Hughes.

“She went for treatment again and we thought hopefully this isn’t terminal and they said it was. It was the worst possible news you could get.

“I was absolutely devastated, as all of us were, and we thought maybe we’d get time with Mum, but we didn’t, she died within the month.

“Football was a release. We went on a team holiday, and I was in two minds whether to go or not, but Mum said, you make sure you’re on the team holiday. We went to New York, and it was fantastic, I really enjoyed it.

“I came home and the All-Stars trip to Kuala Lumpur was on, and Mum was in hospital, and I decided I wasn’t going.

“I know my Mum wanted me to go but I couldn’t go because when I came home from America, I was only away a week, the change in my Mum in a week was scary.

“I remember coming in through the door from the team holiday and I literally met her at the door going to hospital.

“She was going in and she was in awful, awful pain. I threw my bag down and I went to the hospital with her, and I’ll never forget it, they were sorting her out and stuff and I was sleeping on the chair. I just wanted to be there.

“I decided not to go to Kuala Lumpur, I wanted to spend time with my Mum. You do miss out on stuff like that, and I know the boys had a great time, but I don’t regret not going. It was precious time that I spent with my Mum.”

Hughes’ performances that year drove Down to the All-Ireland final and ended with a well-deserved All-Star award. A dream come through for him and his Mum.

ALL-STAR… Danny Hughes (right) was one of four Down players to pick up an All-Star in 2010, pictured with Martin Clarke, Brendan McVeigh and Benny Coulter

“It was always my dream to win an All-Star and I’m not going to lie. It’s a fantastic honour but I wouldn’t have got All-Stars without my club, without my mother and father, and obviously the other Down players.

“I was receiving that All-Star nearly on behalf of my Mum, because when I came home after it was announced, my Mum was crying in the kitchen with just sheer joy. I was holding her, and I was a wee bit inconsolable as well.

“It was something that she never forgot, and I was actually going to send the All-Star in the coffin with her, because it was a thank you from me to her as well for everything she done.”

That summer started just as any other. Down were knocked out of the Ulster Championship by Tyrone and faced another year battling through the Qualifiers.

A Mick O’Dwyer-inspired Wicklow ended their run in 2009, but 2010 was different. With Down icon James McCartan now in charge, they started to develop some momentum.

“In 2009 we weren’t far away, and I think Ross Carr understood that we weren’t far away and to be fair he had done a fair bit of work to get Marty Clarke to commit to coming home.

“Paddy Tally stayed on, and Ross had introduced him into the panel in 2009 and of course that made a big difference.

“In 2008 we beat Tyrone and Tyrone would go on to win the All-Ireland. We had the potential to beat anybody but unfortunately, we didn’t have the consistency.

“We were unlucky, and we needed a bigger panel of quality players, and we found those quality players in 2010.

“Kalum King came in, Mark Poland came in, Conor Maginn came in and obviously Marty’s four or five points a game, that was major.

“That’s what changed. The wee bit of continuity with Paddy Tally staying on was key as well, he knew what we were dealing with. A lot of those things did change in 2010.”

Wins over Longford, Offaly and Sligo sent the Mourne men through to the last eight, where they faced the daunting and exciting challenge of Kerry.

Down have famously never lost to the Kingdom in championship football and with Jack O’Connor’s side minus Paul Galvin and Tomas Ó Sé, Down grabbed their chance to continue that legend.

“We knew going into that game that we could do the business. They had ‘Gooch’ (Colm Cooper) and (Kieran) Donaghy inside and they were All-Ireland winners and all the rest, but we knew we had a really good side, and we could beat them.

“I always felt when we won a game, my fear was that it was all for nothing if you didn’t win the next one and it was a fear that drove me. It wasn’t the winning it was the fear of losing that drove me.

“I know there’s this aura around Down teams that they go to Croke Park, and they never lose. But Down were beat in plenty of semi-finals of the All-Ireland down through the years, they just happened never to be beat in an All-Ireland final.

“I was never under any illusions, you have to earn a final, you have to earn a championship, you have to earn an All-Ireland and no matter who anybody is, there’s no easy All-Ireland titles.”

Hughes didn’t experience his best game that day, mostly because he had to keep a watchful eye on roaming wing half-back Killian Young. But that performance helped flick a switch.

“I played okay, but I knew there was a lot more in me. That drove me on as well. Killian Young was marking me that day and a really, really good player, so I had to be careful and watch him.

“I was quite cautious because I knew Killian Young could get up the field and actually, he did score a goal that was disallowed, but sometimes I felt I needed to change my mindset and impose my game more.”

Hughes went on to score five points in the next two games, the two biggest games of all. Both his scores against Kildare were essential as Down defeated the Lilywhites by that same margin.

The fingertips of Kalum King denied Kildare a last-gasp goal and McCartan’s men were now preparing for an All-Ireland final. Hughes handed the ticket-scramble responsibility to his Dad and brothers and set his sights on creating history.

Down don’t lose All-Ireland finals. Pressure. Expectation. Excitement. Everything was pointing to another historic outing for the men who first carried Sam Maguire across the border.

But it wasn’t to be. Cork edged an enthralling battle by one point.

“I was devastated for me, for my family, for the Down fans, I was devastated,” Hughes said.

“You feel like curling up into a ball and hiding away from it, but knowing me as a person, I’d have been saying, right what about next year, how do we follow it up next year (if Down won).

“That’s the type of person I am, I’m obsessive. Sometimes you look back now, and think did I enjoy it enough? I don’t know.

“Of course, we never won the All-Ireland and that’s something I’ll always regret and something we should have done and there’s a mixture of every feeling in there.”

Growing up, those All-Ireland winning sides of the ‘90s inspired Hughes to go on and represent his county. They’ll fuelled a burning ambition to pull on the famous red and black jersey, a dream that seemed out of reach during his younger days.

Football was in his genes. His father and uncles all played for Saval while Peter Loughran, his uncle on his Mum’s side, represented Armagh in the 1977 All-Ireland final.

Hughes’ brother Johnny also played county football for London and the two actually marked each other in their 2009 qualifier meeting.

“Some of my first memories were my father meeting people along the street and we would have been following him with a football, and it was always ‘Are you going to play with Down?’ and that’s always the way it was.

“That was my dream from when I can remember and obviously ’91 and ’94 really solidified that and that was all I wanted to do.

“I remember running out on to Croke Park when we won (in ‘91), and it was just unbelievable. Even going to see them in Newry when they came home and all that kind of stuff. I remember some of the victorious past pupils of the Abbey Grammar coming and being honoured in the assembly hall (in ’94).”

IDOLS…Danny was inspired by the Down players on the 1990s, men like Mickey Linden

His height was the biggest stumbling block early on. He didn’t make the county minor team three years in a row and missed out when Down claimed Ulster and All-Ireland Minor success in 1999.

“I played colleges’ football with the Abbey, but I was always very small. I went to Down minor trials when I was 16, 17 and 18 and didn’t get on the panel. I would have been scarred by that and I was lucky enough that I was a late bloomer, a late growth spurt.

“When I went to my first year of college, I really started to train hard, done a wee bit of reading and research into strength and conditioning and I just worked away by myself.

“I was playing with my club, from a club situation, from the coaching I got there and the time I worked away myself, I would say my club influences and coaching, I made myself into a footballer.

“I was hugely jealous and a lot of my good friends, Ronan Sexton, Mickey Walsh, Gary Morgan, Gary Digney from my own club, they were on the (minor) panel, and I wasn’t.

“I maybe thought I was good enough for it even though I was small, the management maybe felt otherwise and that’s fine, that was their decision. Obviously, I was biased, I thought I was good enough skill-wise to get there.

“Unfortunately, the boys that were on the panel were much more developed than I was and as a result they got their place, and I didn’t. I was hugely jealous but on the flip side of that it made me what I was. It physiologically prepared me for making sure that I didn’t miss out the next time.”

He’d eventually break onto the Down senior team, led by one of those 90’s heroes Paddy O’Rourke. After finishing out the u-21 campaign, Hughes received the call up.

He was an unused sub as Down were inches away from lifting the Anglo Celt. An inspirational Tyrone comeback saw Mickey Harte’s men earn a draw and the Red Hands won easily in the replay.

“I would always go back to the Ulster final; I was a sub leading up to that. I felt they could have put me in, I was flying in training, I really do believe that.

“At that stage I felt I was good enough to go into the team or definitely come on as a sub, but you had the iconic players like Mickey Linden and James McCartan there and they had the experience of championship football.

“I was only a young cub so that’s the way it is. I think you have to prove yourself before you can make any major arguments and those boys were proven and I wasn’t.”

Walking into a dressing room with legends like Linden and McCartan was ‘intimidating’ and Hughes wanted to earn their respect.

“It was intimidating and there’s always a wee nagging voice in the back of your head saying ‘I hope I don’t get found out here, I hope I don’t make a complete fool of myself.’ They were icons, they had All-Stars, they had All-Ireland medals.

“At that time, you just went in and it’s about keeping your head down and your mouth shut and that’s really the way it was, you had to earn their respect.

“I always felt that you had to earn the respect of your fellow peers and I done that my working really, really hard, committing yourself to the panel, committing yourself to training and that’s the way I went in.

“I felt you had to justify your position on the panel and on the team any time you went out in training or whenever else. That was always in my head, I don’t know if it was because of the scarring, I got in ’99, but I always felt I had to justify being there.”

Over the next eight years, Hughes turned into Down’s ‘Mr Consistency’. From his debut against Donegal in the 2003 Qualifiers, right up to the 2010 All-Ireland final, he featured in 31 of Down’s 32 championship games

The one blotch on his record was a 2007 Qualifier against Meath, when he suffered a broken hand and missed the game.

“We were only getting a game or two games a year maybe, our Qualifier record was quite poor but my scoring from play would have been good. I know people would say 2010 was a fantastic year but actually I would always go back, I had some great years before that.

“You would have had niggles and stuff, but you just got on with it. I never wanted to miss training and I trained very, very hard. I would always say that I was very fit, I always kept myself well, I trained very hard, I lifted weights.

“No hamstring trouble, no knee trouble. I had one wee operation in the closed season at the end of 2004 because I damaged ligaments in my ankle but nothing other than that.”

That all changed post 2010. Knee and hamstring injuries became a problem and Hughes couldn’t perform at the level he had become accustomed to. During the years 2011-2013, Down played 13 games in the championship. Hughes featured in just six.

“First of all, I got tendonitis in my knee, and I never had any knee trouble, then I tore my hamstring, I never had a torn hamstring in my life, but it was the same side I had tendonitis.

“We went down in 2012 to play Sligo away down the country prior to the Ulster final and I hurt my lower stomachgroin area all of a sudden. I tore muscles around there and I never recovered from that.

“That was more or less the end of me, I had to go for an operation. I was coming back from that; I had struggled to come back. I went in the off season in 2012 and I struggled to get back fit. They told me in was a 12-week programme and it almost took me 12 months.”

All those years ago, Hughes, who won a Railway Cup with Ulster in 2009, missed out on a chance to represent Down in an Ulster final, but that opportunity reappeared in 2012.

They were beaten by Jim McGuinness’ all-conquering Donegal and that proved to be the last we’d see of Hughes in the white heat of championship action.

Injury problems and dealing with the grief of losing his mum were getting him down. He needed a break.

Eventually Hughes, who’s only silverware with Down was a 2008 McKenna Cup medal, entered retirement, although it wasn’t his decision.

“I actually wanted to take a bit of time out just to get myself fit. I wasn’t really in a great place, dealing with the death for a year and a half or two years, still trying to cope with that.

“I was building a house at home so I just wanted a wee bit of time out from the pressures of doing preseason, because I’d done pre-season for 10 plus years so I felt I could buy myself a wee bit of time.

“And I did for a couple of months but then James (McCartan) decided in early 2014 that I had retired. I felt bitter about that. I felt I was f**ked over because that was my decision to make, and he made it for me.”

That ‘bitter’ feeling has since dissolved, and Hughes learned a lot from the situation.

“I think I have let it go, but I always thought the guys like Anthony Rainbow, even James himself, Mickey Linden boys like that, they were allowed to call their own time.

“I wasn’t afforded that, and I just felt at the time that the dedication and the fact of the journey I went through from when I went into the panel, I deserved to make up my own mind and I wasn’t given that. I think I’ve let it go.

“I had told James that I wasn’t going back for the simple reason that I wasn’t mentally in a good place. I was struggling, I definitely was struggling. I was struggling with the pressures of building a house, I was struggling with the pressures of dealing with the death of my Mum.

“I had real, real bad anxiety and I needed one less pressure. I told the county doctor that and James was aware of it at the time. If someone’s physical and mental health aren’t right, I think they should be supported.

“That conversation (about retiring) was never had with me. If that’s the decision of the management, that’s fine, but I hadn’t made that decision. I just wanted to go back and play a wee bit of club football, less pressure, and go from there.

“I wouldn’t do that on any player, that’s one thing I’ve learned. I’ve learned more about dealing with people and managing people from what happened to me.”

Now, Hughes is back where he loves most. In Saval. He’ll patrol the sideline this season, wearing the bainisteoir bib, hoping to inspire the next generation.

That’s where it all began.

“My club Saval. We had very, very humble beginnings. I remember changing out of huts in Saval and you would have seen the opposition team that were togging out through the holes of the hut wall.

“At that time, it was a council field, and it has since become our own field and we have fantastic facilities there now. There wasn’t too much glamour, but we loved it, as long as you were given a ball.”

Through all the ups and downs, that’s what sums Hughes up the most. Just as it has always been, football remains ingrained in his veins, and he’ll continue to strive to be the best he can.

READ MORE – Five-time All-Ireland winner and Kerry legend Aidan O’Mahony looks at some of his battles with Ulster teams over this 155-game senior career. Click here…

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