When Donegal’s latest football hero, Carl McHugh, steps out with his Bradford City team-mates at Wembley for the Capital One League Cup final against Swansea City tomorrow, he’ll have more than just another act of glorious giantkilling on his mind. For this greatest day in his still fledgling career already represents a kind of second coming for the 20-year-old defender, another chance to make a mark which, less than 12 months ago, appeared highly unlikely.
Last summer, McHugh, a native of Lettermacaward, Co Donegal, was at a crossroads in life. Having just been released from the Reading academy, he was out of luck and running out of options.
“I returned from a loan with Dundalk and had a problem with one of my stomach muscles,” the 20-year-old recalls. “That kept me out for about two months. I was then loaned to Barnet. But on the first day I was there, we were training and I twisted my knee and tore my cartilage and meniscus. I needed an operation and was out for the rest of the season. That was the end of Barnet.”
With the opportunity to impress taken from him, that was the end of Reading, too. The club, though, had tutored him for three years and, although they cut their ties, they promised to try and find alternative employment.
In the meantime, McHugh returned to Donegal to the banks of the sweeping Gweebarra River. The local GAA club at Dooey, fourth division Na Rossa — famous for being the stomping ground of Donegal’s 1992 All-Ireland winning flame-haired forward Declan Bonner — kept his feet occupied as he kept his fingers crossed. “It was a bad time for me after I got released by Reading,” McHugh admits. “Immediately after it happened I took a bit of time to come to terms with it. I was lucky to have good people around me and that kept me going. I always had a bit of belief in myself and they kept me motivated. ”
Opportunity finally knocked when McHugh was invited by Bradford manager Phil Parkinson for a trial at Carton House in Maynooth during the summer tour of Ireland.
“I was training with Bradford in Kildare and then played a match against Wexford Youths,” McHugh recalls. “I did reasonably well over the week and they called me back and I was offered a contract. It was a massive relief.”
Back in England, McHugh felt his way into the League Two side’s first team. With only a one-year contract, he was anxious to make an impact at a storied club that had been rubbing shoulders with those in the Premier League just 12 years ago. And by December people began to sit up and take notice of Bradford as, against all odds, they beat both Wigan and Arsenal in the Capital One Cup, the Bantams winning their fourth shoot-out of the season against Arsene Wenger’s side to send shockwaves through the football world.
Aston Villa were next up in a two-legged semi-final. Paul Lambert’s team were struggling in the Premier League but Villa had an affinity with the League Cup, having won the competition on five occasions. Bradford, on the other hand, were vying to become the first fourth-flight team to reach the final since Rochdale in what was the competition’s first ever final in 1962.
Nahki Wells gave Bradford a first-half advantage as goalkeeper Matt Duke, who survived testicular cancer just five years ago, produced a string of outstanding saves. Bradford, 60 places and millions of pounds behind Villa in football’s pecking order, terrorised the Premier League side with Rory McArdle doubling their lead. Andreas Weimann looked to have given Lambert’s side a lifeline with a scrambled late goal, before McHugh wrote his name in lights by heading Gary Jones’s corner past Shay Given for a 3-1 first leg lead.
McHugh had told Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler before that match that he was from Lettermacaward – “a one-horse town without the horse.”
Afterwards McHugh didn’t have to explain who he was. Given, who McHugh recalled was his idol when he supported Ireland as a boy during the 2002 World Cup, passed on his goalkeeping jersey.
In the return at Villa Park a fortnight later, Weimann scored a late winner but one that was of scant consolation for Villa. Bradford had won 4-3 on aggregate and McHugh’s mother, Mary, hurled a Donegal flag from the stand onto the pitch during the celebrations.
“I don’t know if they knew in Bradford where Donegal was but they do now,” her son said afterwards. “I spoke to Shay after the home game in Bradford and he gave me a jersey but I didn’t really want to annoy him by talking too much after the game at Villa Park. Shay gave me his jersey from both legs. I kept the first leg one myself and gave the other one to our goalkeeper Matt Juke — he really wanted it and nobody has done more for us on this cup run.”
Not surprisingly, Bradford’s astonishing run has seen McHugh saddled with a hefty ticket order of 114 for tomorrow’s final.
“It’s been ridiculous but, to be fair, it’s mum and dad that have been organising and it’s them I feel sorry for,” he smiled.
McHugh respects Swansea but, as serial giantkillers, he doesn’t think Bradford need to fear anyone now.
“Swansea certainly deserved their semi-final win over Chelsea,” he says. “They kept two clean sheets against Chelsea and not too many teams are capable of that.
“But we went into all the games against the higher division teams with a plan and to be disciplined. Everyone has their own job and you have to try and stick to it. Sometimes you get the rub of the green. They’re massive favourites — but you never know.”
Last July, McHugh could never have known that his journey would take him to Wembley. And with so much magic in the fairytale to date, no-one should rule out another happy ending tomorrow.