The GAA club championships have seen some sensational results and landmarks in the past few weeks, from Kiladangan's smash-and-grab job in Tipperary to Dungannon's 64-year famine-ending win in Tyrone.

But the club rightly caters for all tiers and intermediate level in Leitrim this autumn one of the most positive and resilient characters in the GAA world resurfaced.

Martin McHugh is well known in his native county. He was in goal when John O’Mahony’s side triumphed in the 1994 Connacht SFC title.

Fifteen years on from that famous win, Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It was a long and arduous road back from that point. He underwent two operations and three months of intense chemotherapy to recover, losing all his hair and suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. He found life extremely tough.

McHugh’s battle wasn’t finished there, however. In 2015, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer – a diagnosis that was thankfully made early. A few months later he had another operation to remove his prostate. 

"It was 15 years on from when we won the Connacht title and it couldn’t have been a greater contrast," he tells RTE Sport. "I was down in myself, I felt I was losing myself. I had little to keep me going."

One winter’s night he got a phone call from a coach asking if he would come up for a session with Kilnaleck in Cavan. When he took the call, McHugh was in bed and could hardly stand, but immediately he agreed to do it.

On the evening in question he got dressed, drove up the road and took the session. As he entered the football field, he felt a new wave of energy surge through him.

"Jesus, it just hit me as I went in the gate," he said. "This was what I had to live for. I got a pep in my step going to coach a team I didn't even know well. It gave me a new lease of life and I had something to aim for."

McHugh ran the team ragged that night. More for himself than the players. Just to have a bit of devilment.

"I said, 'lads, I have no hair on my head and I'm sick as a dog. I have no football and I think I might be dying. And here are ye whining and crying about football?'"

In 2002, the well-known goalkeeper had transferred from his native Aughnasheelin to Clonguish where he stayed until 2013.

Midway through his spell there, while he underwent treatment for testicular cancer, the Clonguish management asked him to address the players who they felt were not committing fully as the business end of the 2009 campaign loomed.

"I went in one night and read them," he recalls. "I said, 'lads, I have no hair on my head and I’m sick as a dog. I have no football and I think I might be dying. And here are ye whining and crying about football?'"

The team got back on track to reach the county final. McHugh togged out as sub keeper, hoped to come on for the last few seconds but, with the game going to the wire, he didn’t get on.

At the break they trailed to Dromard and there was a blame game in the dressing room. McHugh lost it again and let fly at the team, reminding them that their worries were small.

They won by a point and captain Paul Barden summoned him up to the podium to help lift the Connolly Cup.

In 2014, he transferred back home to Aughnasheelin, seemingly to finish out his career, but life took another unexpected twist and he had to deal with the second cancer diagnosis a year later.

McHugh recalls that once he got over the initial shock of that news, he was quickly able to muster the resolve to fight on.

In 2017, he was fully recovered and back in goals when the club won the Leitrim intermediate championship, beating Leitrim Gaels. That year he played with lads half his age, whose fathers he had soldiered with 30 years ago. When the final whistle sounded, he fell to his knees and cried, overcome by the road he had taken.

Three years on, McHugh, is now a grandfather who turns 50 next month. He has just recently completed the 2020 club championship campaign with Aughnasheelin and bought a new pair of football boots a few weeks back which he hopes to try out in competitive action next year.

"The point I want to make is this," he says. "I don’t know if I could have kept going if it wasn’t for football and the GAA. I don’t think I could," he states.

"I love it so much. It gave me a purpose and something to get better for.

"Personally, I wouldn’t hold an inter-county championship this winter, I think we have bigger things at play this year, but I can see why people want it too.

"Many are struggling with Covid-19, they get new messages every day of the week and they are scared. I suppose having a GAA season would give them some bit of normality."

"I might not be fit, but I can still land the ball into a man's chest from 50 yards."

McHugh is working on the front line at Sligo General Hospital as a healthcare assistant and says he gets great solace from helping patients talk about their worries or healthcare concerns, particularly if they have received a diagnosis of a serious illness.

"I love my job and I know I don’t have much time left on the football field, but I will soak up every second God gives me. I might not be fit, but I can still land the ball into a man’s chest from 50 yards.

"I treat every day as a special one and I don’t look back. I would just say to people out there who are struggling to deal with Covid, or who are worried, to hang in there. Talk to friends. Brighter days will be ahead. The inter-county series will give people plenty to talk about and, for so many of us, the GAA is worth living for alone."