MARTIN McHugh believes some of the indirect lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, regarding GAA fixtures, could have a seismic effect on how we roll out our games in the future.
The Donegal legend, an All-Ireland winner with his county back in 1992, says that our clubs have been left behind in the last decade or so as the inter-county game powered forward towards what is now an unsustainable level.
McHugh feels the big casualty in that aggressive pursuit has been the clubs. Despite all the heavy silverware that decorates his Kilcar home, he says his club Senior Championship medals remain his most prized possessions.
“The clubs are the bedrock. It’s where you start out and it’s where you finish. I’ve been lucky enough to have won some big things over the years but my club championship medals with Kilcar still go down as my greatest achievement.
“I think we’ll eventually go back to a place where the clubs are the big thing, where they’re on that real pedestal once again.
“County players want to play for their club and supporters want to go watch their clubs, with their best players out there on the field.
“If, down the road, we can do that it’d be great. TG4 show so many great club games and there is talk that BBC are going to start doing it too.
“It has the potential to be every bit as big as the county where we’d see massive crowds back at club games. I believe it will happen. What I’d like to see is the four SFC semi-finalists in Donegal and elsewhere move into the Ulster Club.
“The two beaten semi-finalists would go through to the first round, the beaten finalists go through to the second round and the winners come in at the third round.
“You’d play your home games at your home venues. The interaction and the sides that would be coming to Donegal, you’d have supporters coming from all around to watch that.
“Imagine one of the real big-hitters coming down to play Naomh Conaill in Glenties or Eunan’s in Letterkenny. We’d all be paying in to see that. The potential that is there is huge.
“For me, the club championships are brilliant competitions. I remember watching my own club Kilcar beat Scotstown. I was so proud of them. I believe with a bit of vision and effort that’s the level we can take it to.
“I do feel the hierarchy are beginning to realise themselves that they can’t afford to kill the goose that is laying the golden egg. And it’ very important that we don’t kill the clubs.
“In years to come, I’d like us to be in a place where the clubs are viewed like the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools and that the county is like the international teams that join up every so often but not at the expense of their clubs.”
Meanwhile, McHugh says the appointment of Karl Lacey as the county’s Head of Academy Development is a significant move.
Back in the ‘90s McHugh himself headed up the Donegal School of Excellence. It was visionary initiative that was probably a little ahead of its time.
Indeed, a young Lacey was on the very first u-14 squad McHugh would take. And the likes of Eamon McGee, Christy Toye, Colm McFadden and Paul Durcan were all part of the 1999 u-16 side that lifted a Connacht title (Ted Webb Cup).
McHugh believes Lacey is the ideal fit for such a role as Donegal look to nurture and develop their underage structures in the coming years.
The four-time All-Star and former Footballer of the Year is now tasked with aiding the development of players and coaches at club and academy squad level.
Looking back at the School of Excellence initiative at the time, McHugh explains that the prosperity of the clubs in the county was also at the fulcrum of that project.
He explained: “John McConnell was chairman at the time and he was the man behind that. I was involved with it and came on board. I’d the Donegal (u-16) side in 1998.
“We hammered everyone in the Ted Webb Cup so they threw us out! They wouldn’t let us play any more in it! Barry Dunnion was captain of that team.
“Michael Maguire from Glen was centre-back. We’d also Colm McFadden and Christy Toye. Conal Molloy from Kilybegs was there as well. Conall Dunne played with us.
“Paul Durcan. It’s a funny story but he was playing out the field at the time. He was a very handy full-forward. As usual at that time we didn’t have many goalkeepers in the county.
“John Joe O’Shea, one of our selectors, said to me that Paul had played in goals at certain times at underage and that we should have a look at him there. Paul had been doing well enough at the trials out the field at the time. But we stuck him in and he was brilliant!”
He added: “I’d selectors that time from every division. Michael McMenamin looked after Inishowen. Liam McElhinney was in charge of his area. (Michael) Murphy senior was in charge of the Letterkenny area and John Joe O’Shea, myself and Barry Campbell were in the south and west of the county.
“The big thing about it, and the main reason it was set up, was to look after the smaller clubs. The bigger clubs were fine at the time.
“We had and we still have competition here from other sports so it is very important to make sure all clubs are looked after.
“All the clubs sent players for trials. And the aim was for those players coming back from those trials to have improved, even if they didn’t make squads.
“We had lads that did catch the eye and did make our side. Niall McVeigh from Pettigo was on the team. Shaun McMullan from Malin was there.
“And I remember Colm, Christy and Michael Maguire went on to play for the minors soon after and they made it all the way to the Ulster final.
“So we had some good success out of it with some great players going on to bigger and better things. Another reason it was set up was that our colleges here weren’t strong at the time.
“The north had a huge advantage with the MacRory Cup.
“When we were put out of the Ted Webb, myself and John McConnell came up with the idea of starting our own competition, an Ulster competition. It wasn’t long after the Omagh bombing.
“We decided to call it the Buncrana Cup in memory of the people that died that day from the area.”
Lacey, along with Aaron Kyles, Donegal Games Development Manager, are now set to take the lead on the design of all the county’s academy programmes.
“The aim is to nurture emerging talent in the county – directly with academy squads and indirectly by providing support to clubs,” a Donegal GAA statement explained.
McHugh says the inclusive wording of the above statement, which seems to suggest that clubs will be on board in a significant capacity, is also a very positive development.
“It’s a fantastic appointment,” he said on the elevation of Lacey to his new role. “When it broke there last week I happened to ask Ryan what’s Karl like in that sense. He said, ‘dad, he sets very high standards.’
“And that was enough for me. I’ve no doubt Karl is going to set very high standards in this role. It’s a very positive development. He’s not going to ask for anything he wouldn’t do himself.
“There is that tie up with Letterkenny IT as well. They’ve started to make a mark at Sigerson level too with Michael Murphy involved. So I feel we’re definitely on the right road.”