Bradford City’s semi-final goal hero, Carl McHugh revealed the secret of his glory header… Irish tea and crisps.
One of this season’s additions to the Bradford City squad was young Irish defender Carl McHugh. Hailing from the small village of Lettermacaward in Donegal on the North West coast of Ireland, McHugh was thrust into the world of professional football signing for Reading at just 16 years of age. It wasn’t all plain sailing, as he quickly found that the life of a professional footballer was not as glamorous as many thought if he was to become successful. This change was not just environmental but a massive change in lifestyle as well, living without any family or hometown friends and not seeing either for months at a time.
Despite choosing “soccer” as a profession, Gaelic football was his first love, playing for his village team and school from the age of 5, it wasn’t until he was about 11 that he started playing “soccer”. It was clear that he had a future playing football professionally. After moving to Reading he switched positions, formally playing in midfield they quickly saw his potential skill in defence as he said himself “it suits my game better to play at the back”.
After his contract with Reading expired, his Academy Manager put him in contact with former Reading player and Bradford City’s Manager Phil Parkinson, and after a two week trial which included the games in Ireland, he officially signed just before the Gillingham match. Carl was surprised at just how competitive the football was in League 2, but was confident that he’d joined the right team. “I was surprised by the quality of players that Bradford have, there’s some really good players that should be playing at a higher level. Most of the squad could definitely play in the higher divisions” As for the club, McHugh was delighted to sign, “I really enjoy it, it’s such a big club and the support is fantastic. This club should not be in League 2 and hopefully this year we can take them up the Leagues.”
After a warm welcome from the club and the fans, McHugh found it easy to settle in the area. Sharing a house with several of his team mates has helped to develop the camaraderie within the squad and helps him avoid any home sickness. “You’re never lonely, there’s always a few lads in the house, so it keeps you busy. I still miss home but when you’ve got so many games you find that you don’t have time to miss it too much, your focusing on the next game. When you’ve three games a week, time just flies by” He did however admit missing traditional Irish Lions tea bags and Tayto crisps, a little taste of home and his stocks are often replenished when his family come over to see him play.
His parents and friends made their first trip for the Arsenal game and he admitted that once the game had finished he couldn’t wait to join them. His father had been so nervous in the closing stages that he couldn’t watch.
Carl remembered the build-up to the Arsenal game starting with watching the draw with team mate Nahki Wells “It was really exciting just to say that we were getting to play a team like Arsenal, it was brilliant”
At that time, Carl was in and out of the team, but in football, ones man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity and the horrific injury to John Egan saw McHugh presented with his chance. It’s not the way he wanted his selection to happen but he took it. “I played the Torquay game and I did pretty well in that. I wasn’t sure but I was hopeful that I might keep my place against Arsenal. I found out on the Monday that I was going to start the game and I was delighted.”
Whilst most fans were a little fearful when they saw that Arsenal starting line-up, it wasn’t so for the Bradford players. “Honestly everyone was delighted when we saw their team, we were in shock at first and then we thought well this is what we wanted to be playing some of the best players in the world. We thought it would be better to beat the full arsenal team not the reserves. It gave everyone a boost in a way, they were showing us respect, they weren’t taking us lightly, and I think it gave everyone a lift before the game. We didn’t fear them, we were looking forward to it.” That match will go down in many supporters minds as the greatest of recent years and despite receiving plaudits for his own efforts on the night, he was eager to point out that it was a complete team performance and no single player could be singled out. “We were so disciplined and everybody stuck to their job we dug in together and even after we conceded, nobody let their heads drop. It was massive that we managed to get through another half hour after conceding”.
Carl gave an insight to the training and tactics before the match but the Manager had stressed that the main things were the work rate, that everyone stuck together, worked hard, kept a good shape and this showed what a disciplined performance can do. Thankfully that’s what happened and the team had the luck on the night that was needed against a team like Arsenal.
As the game went to penalties McHugh had confidence in the team that they’d get the penalties “because we’ve done it all year”. Despite the nerves of the situation, he was ready to take a penalty if it had gone to sudden death but that was avoided as Vermaelen hit the post. “It was just crazy and a bit of a blur looking back on it. I’ve watched it back recently and it looks like I didn’t know where I was. I was a bit dazed but it was brilliant.”
Nights such as this are fantastic for players and fans alike but McHugh remains grounded. “It was a brilliant game but you’ve still got the rest of the league and you move on quickly. In the summer you can look back on it more when the season is over and appreciate what we did but for now you just have to keep your focus on the League because it’s such an important time of the year. The squad has a real desire to get promoted, the cups have been great but promotions what we want to achieve at the end of the season and that’s what we will be judged on. There’s a real desire and we are trying our best and everyone’s giving everything they can to get the club where it should be and hopefully if we keep our focus we won’t be far away.”
The reward for the win against Arsenal was a semi-final against Aston Villa. McHugh was delighted with the draw, “I feel that’s the best we could have got for the fans and the club and probably our best chance to make it to the Wembley final. Obviously we are still massive underdogs and it’s played over two legs which minimises our chances of getting a result but it’s still a big occasion and brilliant to play against a massive club and play in a stadium like Villa Park, as its one of the best stadiums in Britain. That would be brilliant and a good reward for everyone involved in the club after everything we’ve done this year.”
McHugh again made the starting line-up against Villa after missing a few matches due to illness and put in a solid performance in the heart of defence. He topped off the night with a fantastic headed goal in the dying stages of the match to give City a 3:1 lead to take into the away leg. That goal was made even sweeter by the fact his childhood hero, Shay Given was in the Villa nets, a real career benchmark for the young defender.
He, like the rest of team are so grateful for the support they receive from the fans and just like the Arsenal game, the atmosphere was electric at Valley Parade and McHugh like the rest of the squad were “really looking forward to it”. With a sizable following for the away leg, the support from the Bradford fans at Villa Park will create an equally exciting night. Wembley is almost in touching distance but McHugh is not complacent, he, like the whole squad know it will be a tough match and they will have to play at their best against a Villa team desperate to make amends for the first leg.
Since his move from Donegal at the age of 16, McHugh has had many ups and downs, and found it tough. It’s sometimes easy to forget that behind every professional footballer is a normal lad trying to make his way in the game. “Coming from a little quiet area to a big town as Reading was a massive change in lifestyle away from family and friends. I got used to it but the first year was really tough”.
His fortunes have improved this season at Bradford City “You still have bad days where you want to pack it in, but something inside you tells you to just keep going, keep plugging away. It’s not what people make it out to be, no way as glamorous. There’s a lot of hard times you’ve got to get through to become any way successful. The last few months I’ve managed to get a few more games and broken into the team, you feel a bit more worthwhile, you see yourself getting a few rewards for the hard work you put in.”
So where does he see himself and what are his ambitions? Well having played for the Republic of Ireland at u17 and u19s he is hoping that his performances may get him noticed and break into the u21s and maybe, just maybe, make the full team. “Obviously this is a dream growing up as a kid. If that could happen it would be the highlight of my career, but that looks like a long way off. Hopefully if I keep doing well for Bradford I’ll get chance for the under 21s this year or next year and this is a massive dream of mine like every time I’ve played for Ireland before. But if you do well with your club everything else will fall in after that.”
Carl McHugh is hoping he is fortunate enough to be in the team for the return leg against Aston Villa with Bradford in the driving seat for a Wembley Cup Final place. If he make the starting line-up, he will have his usual pre-match meal of scrambled eggs and beans, bless himself as he enters the pitch and hope that the gift given to him by his Nan, which goes everywhere with him, brings him and the team good fortune.
Whatever the starting line-up against Aston Villa, whatever the result, things are looking up for the young lad from Donegal and with Bradford City we all hope to see him meet his own and the clubs ambitions.