How Reading reject Carl McHugh went from also-ran to Wembley with giantkillers Bradford City. By Liam Mackey
Shay Given: McHugh’s fellow Donegal man showed his class by making sure his Villa shirt got to the Bantams defender.
The sight of a Donegal flag fluttering onto the Villa Park pitch capped a surreal night for Bradford City’s Carl McHugh on Tuesday as the League Two giantkillers progressed to the final of the Capital One Cup.
Though the Bantams went down 2-1 at the home of the Premier League side, a famous 3-1 first-leg win — in which McHugh claimed a superb goal — was enough to book them a place in the final against either Swansea or Chelsea.
And, for the 19-year-old Donegal native, the historic achievement marks a stunning turnaround in his personal fortunes, after he was let go by Reading in the summer and feared for his future in the game. Little wonder then that so enthused was his mother Mary by Tuesday night’s victory that she launched the county flag onto the pitch at the final whistle.
McHugh was watched by 20 family members and friends in Birmingham but they had a bit of wait in the icy cold to congratulate their hero — struggling to provide a sample for the drug testers, McHugh was the last Bradford player to exit Villa Park, a full two hours after the game.
The man who hails from the picturesque village of Lettermacaward has no hesitation about describing his experience since joining Bradford in October as the stuff that dreams are made of.
“It seems ridiculous,” the defender says. “It’s like a fairytale for me because of the year I have had with all the knockbacks. First, I suffered a knee injury and then I was released by Reading and I was like any other player as I didn’t have a club. Bradford gave me chance, although I didn’t play for a long time after signing. But we then had a few injuries and I got in just before the Wigan game and since then I’ve kept my place and have done all right. So to get this far is really Roy of the Rovers stuff and to get to Wembley is simply great. I could never have dreamed it would be possible.”
Summing up the second leg against Villa as “just a complete blur”, he says: “My memory was when the referee was about to blow the whistle. I just watched him and I swear it took him three years to blow the whistle.”
In a memorable image, the ecstatic teenager was pictured spontaneously hugging whistler Phil Dowd in celebration before draping himself in the Donegal colours.
“It was a great moment and the celebrations with the fans and then meeting up with my family was also special,” he says. “As the match finished I saw my mum, Mary, throw the Donegal flag onto the pitch and that was a good moment for me. There will now be a lot of them looking for Wembley tickets!”
Although acutely conscious of the momentous stakes for the League Two side on Tuesday, McHugh says he did his best to keep his feet on the ground.
“Once you begin playing you blank out the atmosphere and just focus on the game and your own job,” he reflects. “It’s after the game when you appreciate the support of the fans.”
One measure of Bradford’s achievement is the contrasting opposition they face next time out.
“It’s now back to earth with a home game against Wycombe on Saturday,” McHugh points out. “The league is still our main priority as we want to get out of this division as it is the aspiration of every player to play in a higher league.
“But the cup success is important as it gives the players ambitions that we can compete with Premier League sides and that gives me the self-belief that some day maybe I can play at this level by doing the right things.”
McHugh’s only previous visit to Wembley was a watching brief when Reading were beaten by Swansea in the Championship play-off two seasons ago.
“When I was playing for Ireland U15s and U16s I went for trials with Reading,” McHugh explains. “I was signed on a three-year contract when I was 16. To be fair, Reading were brilliant for me. The upbringing I got was fantastic. I could not have wished for anything better. Even when I was released they were very helpful as they arranged my trial with Bradford because of [Bantams manager] Phil Parkinson’s connections with Reading.
“It has worked out really well. Al events have proved it was the right time to get away from the academy and the reserves and play in the real games and try and cut my teeth.
“I’ve had a few difficult moments but you have to learn quickly or you will get left behind. League Two is a brutal league, especially in my position as you have to be up for it. So reaching the final is an unbelievable achievement especially the path we have taken beating teams like Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa along the way.”
McHugh now hopes that his suddenly high profile could pave the way for further recognition by his country.
“Obviously I would like to get back on the international scene,” he says. “It would be massive to get into the U21 side. It would be huge for me as I’ve played in the U19s. But if you do everything right at club level that will take care of itself. I’m certainly putting myself in the shop window with the live games on Sky television. It’s great exposure.”
They won’t all have been celebrating in Donegal, however, Shay Given having found himself on the receiving end of one of English football’s great upsets. But, even after McHugh had put one past him in the first leg, the veteran keeper showed considerable generosity of spirit to his fellow Donegal man.
“After the first leg, I just shook Shay’s hand and asked him for his jersey,” says McHugh. “I didn’t want to be trying to speak to him after the game because he was obviously disappointed. But he was a top man. He left the shirt into our dressing room. He gave it to our kit man to pass on to me. Scoring past Shay in a League Cup semi-final is something that nobody can ever take away from me. It still feels surreal.”
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