Leitrim legend Martin McHugh was 'Born to Save'
By John Harrington
Two weeks ago, former Leitrim goalkeeper, Martin McHugh, published his autobiography ‘Born to Save’.
It could just have easily been titled ‘Lives to Save’, because at the age of 51 the 1994 Connacht Championship winner is still playing club football with Aughnasheelin after recovering from two bouts of cancer.
Those off the field experiences form a big part of his well-written memoir and go a long way to explaining why he’s still as enthusiastic about lacing up his boots as ever.
At his lowest ebb he was sure death was on the horizon and he was ready to welcome it. So now he lives life to the full and nothing is more fulfilling than playing the sport he loves.
“My partner Linda says to me every year, 'you know you're a year older, not a year younger. What are you going playing with young lads for?’” McHugh said to GAA.ie.
“For me, it just gives me a new sense of life and opportunity to just get out and do something. Be involved. Because the easiest thing for anybody to do after being through what I had been through is to sit down and relax but that's not me, I can't sit down. I want to be out there involved training or coaching or even playing a small bit.
“Right now I'm the second-choice 'keeper with my home club Aughnasheelin and we’re in the middle of the championship. Who knows, the first choice 'keeper could get injured or get a black card so it's important that I'm on stand-by and ready to go if needed.”
His first bout of cancer struck in 2009. Back then, McHugh was living in Newtownforbes in Longford and playing for the local club Clonguish when he found a lump in his groin that was eventually diagnosed as testicular cancer.
The road to recovery was a tough one, and he credits Gaelic football with giving him a vital energy boost when it was needed most.
“At my lowest point after my third round of chemo I was so sick. It's very hard to explain how sick I was. I had diarrhea, I was puking, I had mouth ulcers, I was just so, so low in energy that I didn't want anyone near me. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I was thinking, just give me the keys to the pearly gates of heaven.
"Then I got this phone-call from a club in Cavan, Crosserlough, I’d helped the year before. It was the manager seeing how I was.
Then I asked what else he was ringing me and he wouldn't say so I asked him again and he said, ‘we have training tonight’. I said, ‘Okay, what time is it at?’ He said, ‘eight o'clock’. I said, ‘I'll be there at half seven after I’ve a few hours kip.’
“He asked was I sure and I said I was, it'll give me something to do. I knew I was probably pushing the boat a bit and I was starting to have second thoughts when I hopped in the car.
“But, when I got to the pitch, and put on my gear and walked onto the pitch I wasn't thinking of cancer or how sick I was anymore. I wasn't thinking of dying. I said to myself, 'this is where I want to be'.
“When I got home that night after that training session I had a good night's sleep and decided I'd go down to see my club-mates in Clonguish.
"I went down there and enjoyed that night as well even though I had to give the players a bit of a talking to beacuse they were going through a phase of poor attitude and lazy excuses not to train. So I gave them a bit of a pep talk.”
That pep talk must have done his team-mates some good because Clonguish made it all the way to the County Final. McHugh was still too ill to play on the big day, but once again was a vocal presence in the dressing-room.
“I togged out for the day. I knew I wasn't going to be able to play, there wasn't a hope. But I said to Stephen Watters who was playing in goal that if we're winning this game by 10 points fake an injury, I'll run on to the field, wave to the crowd, and I'll be happy!
“But as it turned out it was a very competitive match and we struggled a bit in the first half. I gave an unmerciful speech at half-time because the blame game was on.
“We won the game by a point and Paul Barden grabbed me by the shoulder and brought me up to lift the cup with him. To this day I'll always say it was that moment, lifting the cup with him, and facing the home support with the team behind me that I knew there and then I would beat cancer.”
McHugh found himself back in the fight in 2015 when he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, but thankfully it was caught early and he made a quick recovery after having the prostrate removed.
At low moments he’s never been short of people to boost his spirits and offer an encouraging word. McHugh has given an awful lot to Gaelic Football over the course of his life, but what he’s gained in return is a network of friends who have always been there for him.
None better than the men he won that famous Connacht title with in 1994, Leitrim’s first for 67 years.
It was telling that, at the launch of his book two weeks ago, the guest of honour was John O’Mahony, who managed Leitrim to that success and still has a great relationship with a group of players who remain a band of brothers to this day.
“John O'Mahony said to us once in the middle of it all that there's one thing that would unite us forever, and that was a medal in the back pocket,” says McHugh.
“And every time you'd come across a former team-mate you'd know you were part of a band of brothers because you'd be reminded of what you'd been through as a team and as a unit.
“You start off a season and you're just a bunch of players just trying to play for Leitrim. But with the training we did on and off the field, I don't think any county player would do it nowadays. Laps upon laps together just really turned us into a band of brothers because nothing could break the unity that we have now.
“We had our reunion a couple of years ago, we were guests of honour at one of the Connacht Finals and all the players were there.
“A few lads have a few pounds put on and a few lads have a few grey hairs, but we all knew that you did this and you did that. And there were huge things that happened behind the scenes that nobody knows about that also bonds you together.”
It won’t come as a major shock to hear that McHugh is the only member of that ’94 panel still playing competitive club football. 28 years later, his appetite for the game remains undiminished.
“Somebody said to me why are you still at it? And I just keep saying I just love the game so much. I know my body is a few pounds heavier, maybe a few stones at this stage, but I still love the game.
“There was a time I was able to do a lap of a pitch under a minute and now it might take me a minute and a half to do it.
“But the fact is that I'm still able to do it and tog out with young lads. I think sometimes they look up to me because I've been through it all on and off the field and sometimes that can be their inspiration. They're thinking, well, if he can do it, then why can't I do it?
“We won a championship in 2017 with Aughnasheelin which was great. I was playing that day and it was a huge achievement. I'd put that medal up as one of the top ones I've won.
“If you can still do it, you should keep doing it, because you'll be long enough outside the wire looking in.”
‘Martin McHugh: Born to Save’ by Jason Byrne is published by Hero Books and is available in all good bookstores (and also on Amazon as an ebook €9.99, paperback €20 and hardback €25)