The Rocky Road to Bradford
By Damien Wilkinson
It’s around 4.15pm on Saturday 24 November, 2012, at a wet Memorial Stadium, and Carl McHugh has just equalised for Bradford City at Bristol Rovers, with a powerful header to make the score 2-2. Whilst the match eventually finished 3-3, and despite McHugh’s valiant attempts to restrain Nathan Doyle and prevent him collecting a late red-card in a case of ‘hand-bags’ towards the end, he managed to make the headlines in a number of the following day’s papers, including the Donegal Democrat, his local hometown publication, probably not too used to reporting Bradford City’s progress!
Indeed, you probably need to go back to the late 1950s, and early 1960s, and former City player John McCole, to find an ex-player of note from the County Donegal area. McCole, had two spells at City, scoring an impressive 47 goals in 88 league matches (in addition to 45 goals in 78 matches at Leeds!)
As a relative unknown newcomer into the City squad, essentially brought in as a squad player during the 2012/2013 close season, how did the 19 year old McHugh find himself here?
Born on 5 February 1993, McHugh grew up in Toome, in the gloriously named, Lettermacaward, County Donegal (conveniently shortened to “Leitir” by locals), which is located in the upper North West of Ireland, and has a population of around a thousand. McHugh’s nearest club of note, and apparently the club he followed, was Finn Harps, based in Ballybofey.
McHugh worked his way up through the footballing ladder, and participation in the Kennedy Cup (an annual competition played between under 13 Leagues in Limerick University each June, when teams representing all 32 Leagues compete over an entire week) when he was 12, led to subsequent trials at Liverpool, Celtic, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town, Norwich City and Southampton. The local paper even quipped that McHugh has had more trials than many a magistrate! McHugh was accompanied on his Celtic trial by Paddy McBrearty, now a Gaelic football sensation, who remains close friends with McHugh.
A spell at local club Dungloe Town FC, provided McHugh with a stepping stone (coincidentally the Gaelic version of Dungloe means grey stepping stone!), leading to him signing a three year scholarship with Reading’s academy, when he was 16. The strong Irish contingent there (Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Noel and Stephen Hunt) helping him settle in, together with Brian Murphy, a young player from Wexford, who joined around the same time as McHugh, and shared digs with him.
Loan spells at Swindon Supermarine FC, in the Southern League Premier division (who currently play in Southern League Division One South & West) and more closer to home, League of Ireland Premier division outfit, Dundalk FC, led to 7 and 12 league appearances respectively (with McHugh notching a couple of goals for the Swindon club, and playing in 4 FAI Cup matches for Dundalk). McHugh signed a one year professional contract with Reading, shortly before the loan move to Dundalk.
McHugh has also represented his country, appearing 5 times for both Republic of Ireland under 17’s and under 19’s sides, in addition to captaining Ireland at both under 16 and under 17 levels, and playing for the under 15 side.
As part of his pre-season recruitment, Phil Parkinson, swooped to sign McHugh in August 2012, who had become a free agent, and he was handed the 16 squad number. McHugh had linked up with City during the summer mini-tour of Ireland, and played in the match against Wexford Youths, coming on as a second half substitute. Whilst he missed the second match against Bray with a slight hamstring injury, he had clearly impressed Parkinson enough.
As a left footed player, who can play either centre half or left back, his signing was seen as a further addition to add versatility and cover to Parkinson’s squad.
McHugh made his City debut in the Capital One Second Round 2-1 triumph away at Watford on 28 August, playing the whole match in the left back berth. Despite a number of appearances on the bench, McHugh finally made his league debut, making an appearance as a half time substitute, following injury to Andrew Davies, in City’s extremely disappointing 1-0 loss away at Burton Albion, on 27 October, compounded by Luke Oliver’s injury and Ricky Ravenhill’s red-card.
Since then McHugh has made six league and six cup appearances with the third equalising goal against Northampton in the FA Cup replay, forcing the tie to penalties, in addition to his goal at Bristol Rovers. McHugh certainly put in a shift in the Cup matches against Wigan, playing the entire match and a key part in keeping a clean sheet, and Arsenal. These experiences will no doubt stand him in good stead.
Given the injury situation at City this season, in particular the long term loss of both Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies, compounded by the subsequent injury to John Egan, McHugh has been thrust into the limelight, possibly sooner than Phil Parkinson, might have originally expected. That McHugh has so far responded extremely well to the challenge, offers much grounds for optimism.
The key thing over the rest of the season will be to try to avoid not pushing the player too much, whilst allowing his development to progress at the right pace. This would seem to ring true in light of the recent loan capture of centre back Curtis Good, and you feel Parkinson may seek to shuffle the centre back ‘pack’ over the coming games to accommodate this, injuries permitting.
Playing alongside Rory McArdle, and hopefully not before too long, Andrew Davies, will undoubtedly aid McHugh’s development, given their experience and ability to help McHugh ‘read’ the game. There are some parallels with former City defender, Mark Bower, both in terms of build and ability to operate on the left side, and in the rough and tumble of League Two, McHugh will no doubt need his own “Wetherall” to operate alongside.
Let’s trust we can look forward to his progression in parallel with that of a resurgent City side.
It would also be good to think that the scribes at the Donegal Democrat will be kept busy with further reports from West Yorkshire.