Danny Hughes not fazed by Down expectancy
In the nine years he has spent as a key forward with Down, Danny Hughes has turned in many accomplished performances.
But it’s doubtful if he has ever scaled the heights he reached when helping to carry the Mournemen over the imposing obstacle that Kildare formed in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.
The work-rate, creativity and scoring touch which the Saval clubman offered underpinned Down’s victory to such an extent that already his role against Cork in next month’s All-Ireland final is being viewed as pivotal to Down’s hopes of success.
But the modest Hughes, rather too accustomed to false dawns in the red and black jersey over the course of recent years, is at pains to emphasise that he believes the team ethic is essentially the key to his county’s stunning progress this year.
“When we were beaten by Tyrone in the Ulster Championship earlier in the summer myself and Benny Coulter were having a conversation the next day and we were agreeing that it was going to be the same old story all over again — a Down team doing their best but not good enough to make any real impact,” explains Hughes. “But the whole squad’s outlook changed after we had a team meeting a couple of days later and then when we began to make headway through the qualifiers our self-belief improved appreciably.”
If that superb six-point win over Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals suggested that this was very much a ‘new’ Down side then Hughes is adamant that the courage and staying power the players revealed against Kildare on Sunday provided further evidence of the earthy virtues which have now been married to the more traditional Mourne flair and panache.
“Down sides have always been noted for their skill and artistry but let’s be honest we have rolled over the past when the heat came on. It’s not too hard to pick out the low points in recent years — defeats against Wexford, Sligo and Longford in particular stand out — but now there is a resilience and tenacity within the team that is really standing to us particularly when we find ourselves coming under strong pressure,” states Hughes.
It was his tracking back, intelligent use of space, clever counter probes and slick opportunism that helped to cement Down’s periods of dominance against Kildare but Hughes insists that every member of the starting team and the substitutes played their part to the full.
“An awful lot of hard graft went into beating Kildare,” he reflects.
“Everyone is playing for each other, there are certainly no prima donnas in this team — you can be very sure that James McCartan would just not stand for that.
“You are expected to get stuck in, win the ball and then use it.
“I think the way James set the team out against Kildare proved hugely effective. Every player knew his role and what was expected from him — I think that was the key to our victory.
“Maybe we got a rub of the green but were happy to take that because in the past we have known what it is like to be on the wrong end of refereeing decisions.”
The reference to by Hughes to the part played by the substitutes further highlights the important function that players on the bench are fulfilling in Down’s Championship odyssey.
Ronan Murtagh, for the fourth game in succession, was pitched into the action in the second-half and once again the Ballyholland clubman got his name on the score-sheet.
“It was a tremendous experience to get game time in a match like that. The intensity was immense but the players all showed great courage,” says Murtagh. “We knew going into the game that Kieran McGeeney would have Kildare well fired up and that’s exactly how it was.
“Obviously I would love a starting place in the All Ireland final but I’m certainly very happy to be part of this great Down squad. Competition for places is obviously keener than ever but I’m sure that’s exactly what James McCartan wants.”