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Ryan McHugh becoming Donegal's key man

By John Campbell

This time last year Ryan McHugh was relatively unknown even if his surname hinted at possible sporting prowess.

Today the slim line Donegal forward – "you'd think he had just stepped off a school bus," maintains GAA pundit Benny Tierney – is within touching distance of his third medal in just six months as well as being a frontline candidate for an Allstar award.

He was still taking his first faltering steps within Jim McGuinness's side when his brother Mark dramatically withdrew from the squad at the start of the summer citing a loss of appetite for Gaelic football.

No such disenchantment from the bubbly Ryan, though. He simply applied himself even more diligently to securing his place in an attack that, up until his arrival, had, for the most part, been populated by veterans.

Now he is very much an established part of the Donegal side, a player who links defence and attack, has the uncanny knack of being able to turn up in the right place at the right time and who appears to defy gravity through his ability to avoid tackles and keep the ball alive.

No wonder manager McGuinness refers to him as "phenomenal" and is poised to hand the 20-year-old Kilcar wizard a key role against Kerry on Sunday week.

"Even when the big hits are going in, Ryan has the ability to summon that little shimmy that helps to take him past defenders and allows him to set up colleagues," maintains McGuinness.

In helping Donegal to win promotion to Division One and then secure a third Ulster title in four years, McHugh had already made a considerable impact even before a ball was kicked in this year's championship.

But it was when the temperature soared both on and off the pitch that McHugh came into his own, earning the man of the match award in the Ulster final win over Monaghan and in the All-Ireland semi-final eclipse of fancied Dublin. His progress and what McGuinness refers to as his "game intelligence" has even taken McHugh himself by surprise.

"There were a lot of players who played as well as I did against Monaghan but I was glad to get the award just the same," reflected McHugh. "But to get the award for the game against Dublin was quite something. I did not expect that. I thought it was a great team performance, you would have had difficulty picking out a man of the match."

A student at Sligo IT, he is convinced that Kerry will provide Donegal with "a massive test."

He said: "They are the real big guns when it comes to All-Ireland finals because of their tradition and pride. We know it's going to be a hard match but we will be ready for them."

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