Unexpected date at Wembley the icing on the cake for grateful McHugh
SOCCER ANGLES:Joining Bradford City has resulted in a dream opportunity for the Donegal man
Such were the levels of interest and expectation when Bradford City headed to Watford for their League Cup second round tie last August just 280 of the club’s supporters made the journey. Tomorrow at Wembley Donegal’s Carl McHugh will have almost half that number of friends and family sitting in the stands.
For a club whose last significant cup-winning team lost a couple of its members in first World War trenches, the trip to Wembley is, as you would imagine, quite a big thing.
For McHugh, whose chance of playing at anything like this level looked like it might have passed when he was released by Reading last year, it still feels like an out and out miracle. Quiet-spoken and utterly unassuming, the Ireland under-21 international sounds like someone still slightly stunned by the scale of the turnaround in his fortunes.
Having joined Reading as a 16-year-old, his only opportunities to play first-team football over the next three years came during loan spells at Swindon Supermarine and Dundalk.
His cause wasn’t helped by some injury problems and the end of last season always looked like being crunch time for the Donegal man but Reading’s promotion back to the Premier League might actually have sealed his fate.
Brian McDermott and Eamonn Dolan said they would recommend him to others, though, and they were as good their word. Bradford boss Phil Parkinson is a former Reading skipper and, within a matter of weeks, McHugh showed him enough in a trial game against Wexford Youths to get asked over for a week. That, in turn, led to a one-year deal and 20 odd games later, several of which were part of this cup run, he is in talks about extending his stay. He is, unsurprisingly, relieved at the way it has all panned out.
“It’s all a big relief for me because it was a very worrying time, a very uncertain time. You’re in the same position as hundreds of other footballers who are out of contract. It was no different for me.
“It’s what you wanted to do ever since you were young, it’s your dream and you think that all of a sudden it’s been taken away from you. The way it is I don’t think you can ever feel comfortable again. But then the way football is I don’t think you can be comfortable. After what happened you don’t ever want that to happen again.
“It just goes to show,” he continues, “12 of us got released and I think I’m the only one that got a football league club. Some of them were better footballers than me, I can guarantee you that, but it’s just that little bit of luck, it mightn’t have happened but you just have to keep going, to believe in yourself, in your ability and in the fact that if you get a chance you’ll take it. That’s the way it is, it’s a brutal game.”
Proof that his luck had turned came early in the season when injuries to others presented him with first-team chance.
There have been quite a few highlights since but scoring the goal against Shay Given that probably put the semi-final beyond Aston Villa stands out for the 20-year-old.
“It’s been great; a great few months lately,” he says; “just brilliant. It’s still very surreal, to be honest. Scoring the goal was pretty weird but I wouldn’t be one for reading the papers a wild lot or looking into it all too much.
“It has been crazy but there have been league games every three days or so too so once the game is over you enjoy it for a day or two and then you just have to come down and concentrate because if you don’t play well in the league games, if your form begins to drop, then you won’t play in the cup games, At the moment I’m having a great time but you can’t get too carried away.”
But in his home town of Lettermacaward in Donegal people are getting carried away, by all accounts, and McHugh has been kept busy arranging tickets for those who will be flying over.
There is competition for places and the team’s form has been pretty poor of late but, after being rested for the defeat by Wimbledon at the weekend, the defender is hopeful his contribution over the last few months will be enough to ensure he gets to start in front of his travelling support.
“It’s a really tough league, physically,” he says, “very demanding, especially when you’re playing centre half but I think I’ve done pretty well. There have been a few games where I may have struggled against certain players but you just have to try to learn from it, pick up bits and pieces and get on with it. It’s very tough and the whole Saturday, Tuesday night thing is very demanding too but I’m loving it. All I want to do is to play as many games as I can and it’s been great.”
Few of those games have been against teams of Swansea’s quality, although Bradford have accounted for Arsenal, Wigan and Villa on the way to the final. There’s a little bit of McHugh who wishes it was Chelsea who had made it through the other semi but Michael Laudrup’s side might, he hopes, be fractionally less formidable on such a big stage and winning the game rather than savouring the occasion is, he insists, the aim now.
“I’ve taken an interest in them all season because they’ve been doing so well. I think the brand of football they play is terrific. They outpassed Arsenal in one of the games that I was watching and it’s not often you see that, I think Barcelona is about the only other team I’ve seen do that.”
Bradford have done rather well against sides that like to pass the ball, though, as McHugh cautions: “Well, so far, but I don’t want to jinx it.”
Bradford may just miss out on high note Swansea’s quality to tell on big stage
Following on from their internet sensation: There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama Limerick’s Corrigan Brothers have produced Bradford City’s cup final song.
Ingeniously, it’s titled: There’s no one as Wembley as Bradford City and the highlight is a chorus that goes: “Toor a loo toor a loo toor a litty,” then, yes, you’ve guessed it: “There’s no one as Wembley as Bradford City.”
It’s doubtful the Bradford faithful will be belting out the above out at the final whistle tomorrow but if they’re to be singing at all then their team will need to be as well organised and downright fortunate as they were at key points in the run of seven games it took them to become the first ever side from what used to be known as the English fourth division to reach a Wembley final of one the two main cup competitions.
Against Notts County and Arsenal they benefited from opponents missing sitters while a late equaliser saved them at Watford and Aston Villa had 11 shots on target during a semi-final first leg that the top flight outfit lost 3-1.
City come into the final desperately short on form with just two wins from their last 15 outings. But Phil Parkinson, who has displayed a knack for making his men very hard to break down against ostensibly better sides, has players coming back into contention, although experienced striker Andy Gray is cup-tied.
In any case, he’d probably settle happily for the whole shebang being decided on penalties as Bradford have won their last nine shoot-outs in all competitions. His opposite number, Michael Laudrup, will bring back the many stars he rested for the heavy defeat by Liverpool last week, with Michu the one that is most likely to be a cause of concern for Carl McHugh and co.
Unless you count the Welsh one, the Premier League outfit have even less cup pedigree than their opponents tomorrow but really, they should have the quality to see them through on this occasion.