Still lining out with Aughnasheelin, Martin McHugh launches his autobiography "Born to Save" on Sunday Picture: Willie Donnellan
John Connolly chats with Martin McHugh ahead of the launch of his autobiography “Born to Save” next Sunday, September 11, in The Landmark Hotel and finds the former Leitrim keeper just as engaging and entertaining as he always has been as he looks back over a storied career and life
The title of his biography may be the apt “Born to Save” but had the story of Martin McHugh’s remarkable life, both as a goalkeeper with Leitrim, Aughnasheelin and Clonguish, had been called “Born to Talk”, not too many people would disagree!
Martin has always had an outgoing personality, just what you need in that most lonely of positions between the sticks, and if “Born to Save”, written in conjunction with Jason Byrne of the Irish Sun, is half as entertaining and riveting as the man himself is in person, then it is going to be a good read.
The Observer met up with Martin for a quick chat and the minutes flew by but the first question for the Aughnasheelin native had to be why did he decide to write his story, the first autobiography from Leitrim’s famed 1994 Connacht Senior Championship winning team?
Recalling how his return to football after surviving two bouts of cancer generated a lot of interest and interviews with the national press, it was a chat with RTE’s Damian Lawlor that got the ball rolling: “One of the interviews was with Damian Lawlor for RTE sport. After the interview, he said it was such a great interview, we could have talked for hours, would you like to do a book?
“I said I’d love to do a book and he knew a fella who’d love to do my story called Liam Hayes. Damian said ‘He’ll ring you in a few days and you can take it from there’. Sure enough, within two days, Liam rang me and we took off from there. He knows my story, he knows my life and we ended up talking with Jason Byrne from the Irish Sun who did a piece on me a few years ago and it all took off from there.”
It is a story that culminates in a Connacht title in 1994 but it had very humble and maybe unusual origins as Martin decided to line out for the girls team in the school yard games in Aughnasheelin National School so that he could get more action in goal.
“The book is really about my life, growing up at home and how I got into the GAA and all that. I started playing in the old school yard with the boys against the girls. I was only nine or ten years old playing football in the school yard and I was in goals then.
“There were times when I was getting much activity in goals so I decided to play with the girls and even then I was very competitive - I remember tearing the arse of my trousers trying to save a shot from the lads and it took over from there.”
Martin McHugh marches behind Declan Darcy in the 1994 Connacht SFC Final parade Picture: Willie Donnellan
That start in primary school led to much greater success down through the years: “With the club, I started down in the old field in Aughnasheelin where Pat Cull was the manager who asked ‘who have we got for goals’ and all the fingers pointed to me. That’s where it started off.
“In the book, we talk about playing with the men’s team, playing junior football at a young age but I always had protection from the full-back line and my father on the sideline. It took off then with underage football with the county and obviously the U21s with PJ Carroll, we spoke a lot about that.
“Then the big one in 94 - we all know what happened in 1994 - but the book is about what I had to do and what I had to achieve to be number one in Leitrim and there is a good story behind that.”
Goalkeepers are often portrayed as some sort of weird, wacky brigade but I’ll let Martin himself describe the three qualities needed to make a goalkeeper: “Being a goalkeeper you’d want to have thick skin, a thick head and you’d want to be mad! I’m all that!”
Seriously, Martin agrees that there is much more to it than that: “You have to have a grá to be a goalkeeper but it is a great position to be in because you can be the hero and you can be the villain. You need the full package from making saves to having a good kickout and trying to keep a clean sheet and even when your team wins, that’s hard enough.
“When I was growing up, I just raised my own standard every time in regard to kick outs and making saves. Obviously playing in goals for over 40 years now, there are lots of mistakes over those years but it is one position I would never change.
“For me, growing up at home, there was a lot of hard graft at home before you even went near football. There were times you’d be working on the farm, bringing home the turf, making bales of hay before you could go training so that when you’re at training, it is just a release to get away from farm work for a while. That made me physically tough.”
That position has changed beyond all recognition over the last 15 years with the impact Stephen Cluxton, Rory Beggan and others more recently like Ethan Raftery have had on the game and Martin himself wonders if he would have prospered in this new world: “The funny thing is that when I started off playing, I was always told at all times, stay on your line. One or two times, I’d come off my line for a ball and miss it and managers over the years would give out to me 'stay on your effing line'.
“As the game has progressed, the role of the goalkeeper, especially over the last ten or 15 years, has changed. Your kickout strategy is so important. Now you have these fly keepers coming out the field, supporting the half-back line, supporting the midfield and even the forwards and I think you really want to have some engine on you to do all that.
“A few times, a keeper has done that, the ball is given away and you have an open goal. Personally, I’d bring in a rule that a keeper can do what he wants but only inside the 21 yard line.
“Now if I was going to start playing in goals now with all that, I don’t know. My skill level with soloing the ball wasn’t great anywhere. I’d just put the ball down and hoof it long.”
Naturally, any talk of his career comes back to 94 and if you’re talking about 1994, it is hard to avoid mention of Leitrim’s horrendous start to their first Connacht Final in 27 years when the ball slipped between the hands of the keeper and full-back Seamus Quinn inside the first minute for a Mayo goal!
But that goal also revealed the brilliance of John O’Mahony according to Martin: “It is a game that had the full package. You make mistakes and then you make saves in the middle of the game. Another high ball came across the square that I dived on, it spilled from me, I dived on it again, jumped up and ran into a Mayo player, rolled over again and got a handy free out.
“John was a great man for working on the mistakes because the next ball is so important. That came to the fore in the first 30 seconds of the game - I called for it but it went through Seamus Quinn’s hands and my hands into the back of the net. But straight away after it, I said to Seamus ‘come on, let’s get it going’ and sure enough, Mayo didn’t score for the rest of the first half.”
Martin McHugh saves a Mayo penalty in the 1994 Connacht SFC Final Picture: Willie Donnellan
Martin’s eventful day continued in the second half when he saved a penalty but Mayo scored from the rebound and it led to another O’Mahony teaching moment: “I was so annoyed but my next kick out after that went over the sideline. And at the next meeting we had, Johnno emphasised it was a great save but asked what happened with the kick out?
“I just told him I was so pissed off with the goal but he emphasised it was so important to concentrate on every kick out.”
The Connacht Final sits atop his list of career highlights but a moment in 2009 when winning the Longford Senior title with Clonguish also ranks right up there for Martin when asked about his favourite match: “Obviously the Connacht Final we won but on a club level, 2009 when I was with Clonguish and we won the County Final. Paul Barden brought me up to lift the cup with him and I think it was that moment I realised that I had cancer.”
In an attempt to get him to grade the greats he had faced in the game over a lengthy club and county career, Martin was asked a few quick fire questions but typically of a keeper, his response to the question of who his toughest opponent was will raise a few smiles!
“Any forward who tried to get a goal on me always knew they were going to be carried out if they came in near me!” declared Martin before adding “Going back playing county football, the Joe Brollys, the Peter Canavans - I came across Joe Brolly up in Derry and him taking a rasper of a shot and I saved it and he said ‘how the eff did you save that?’”
“In club football, the great Padraig Davis of Fr Manning Gaels, Don Connellan of Roscommon and the save I made before halftime against them in 1994 but I can’t really name any one individual - there were so many good forwards out there that it was a pleasure saving shots off them.”
If he had a chance to make a “dream signing” for any team he was on, Martin didn’t hesitate in his answer: “There are so many good players out there but there was one man I played with for Clonguish, Paul Barden - the man is an absolute warrior, a legend and playing with him, the man would score straight from my kickouts. He was an absolute legend but the man never got recognised for an All Star and he was that good.”
Now it gets tricky - who was the best player Leitrim ever produced? “Obviously you have a lot of lads from the 1994 era, nowadays you have Keith Beirne, Emlyn Mulligan in the past, Declan Maxwell another man and you have the legends like Packie McGarty back in the day, Olly Honeyman, all these lads who never got their just rewards of a Connacht medal.
“I think that what makes our team in 1994 so unique is that we might not have been as brilliant as the legends of the past but we won it because we grafted it out. Don’t forget Seamus Quinn, you have Declan Darcy, Mickey Quinn so long playing the game that he got his reward in the end, George Dugdale, Liam Conlon.
“The lads on that 94 team were all great players and the training we did in 94, I’d say if you asked the Leitrim team now to do what we did, they'd either quit or be laughed at because we did miles and miles and miles of running. The sand-dunes in Strandhill and running in the Forest Park, no Leitrim team would do what we did, it wasn’t just one session, it was months and months of sessions where you wouldn’t see a ball.”
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