By Andrew Baxter
Tuesday 8 January, 2013, on a cold night at Valley Parade. It’s nearing the end of the game, and Bradford City are two minutes away from pulling off one of the greatest cup wins in recent memory. Gary Jones whips in another inch-perfect cross, and a 19-year-old from County Donegal in Ireland meets it with a thumping header. It rockets past the Aston Villa keeper, Shay Given, and into the back of the net.
When Carl McHugh’s name is mentioned, it is this goal that stands out for me; the first thing that comes to mind, and is an example of the talent and potential that he possesses.
A left-footed centre back, who can play at left-back, McHugh’s versatility, and matureness for someone so (relatively) young has been impressive. His main attribute, however, is his willingness to do anything for the team. As has been previously mentioned, Parkinson says that McHugh will “do anything you ask of him for the good of the team”. Whether that be to play at left-back (a position he is comfortable, but not naturally suited to), or to constantly overlap and create space for the winger in front of him, McHugh will do it. There may be stronger defenders, quicker defenders, technically better defenders, but McHugh’s attitude and work ethic is unquestionable.
In comparison to Oliver McBurnie, who is being drip-fed into the first team, with a gradual increase in his workload, McHugh was thrusted straight into the limelight. His first two starts for the Bantams were both away from home, at Championship free-scorers Watford, and (then) Premiership outfit Wigan. Despite having no previous Football League experience, City conceded just once in 210 minutes during those games; an impressive statistic, considering the inexperience of McHugh.
McHugh went from being a free agent and pre-season trialist, to playing out of his skin against Arsenal, in just over four months. Keeping the likes of Jack Wilshere, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla quiet is a feat to be applauded for any defender, never mind a 19-year-old with a handful of first-team appearances to his name.
Last season also saw McHugh play the full 90 minutes in a League Cup final; an achievement he never could possibly have dreamed of when he was released by Reading in June 2012. Despite McHugh having a (relatively) poor game, and City conceding five, the experience of playing in a major domestic cup final has matured the Irishman, and this experience is now evident in his play.
McHugh’s distribution is impressive, and has improved from when he first came to the club. Rather than going direct, and pumping the ball upfield, McHugh looks for the midfield, and tends to pass it into feet – allowing City to carve out chances. Even when playing at left back, McHugh looks for the winger, or for one of the two central midfielders, rather than hitting a hopeful ball down the pitch.
McHugh’s contributions from set-pieces are also very handy, especially in a team that has had periods of struggling to score. A return of four in 38 games may not sound spectacular, but his ability to chip in with crucial goals is very useful. For example, his goal in the last minute of the FA Cup tie at home to Northampton last season took the game to penalties, which City consequently won. Another example is from a week last Tuesday, when McHugh’s injury-time winner was the difference between the two sides.
It is important to note, however, that McHugh’s contract expires in June, along with several other first-team players. With McHugh being largely a peripheral figure in the squad until mid-December, he must do all he can whilst he has his run in the team to persuade Phil Parkinson that he is worth retaining.
The remaining 14 games, therefore, could essentially be an extended trial in a bid to retain his place in the squad for next season. With fellow defenders Rory McArdle and Matthew Bates also out of contract, as well as Andrew Davies and Matt Taylor having deals that will run to June 2015, is having five centre backs at the club simply too expensive, and unnecessary?
If I was Phil Parkinson, I would certainly keep hold of McHugh. Whilst he may not be the strongest or quickest defender to put on the claret and amber shirt, McHugh’s determination and maturity makes him a great player to have in the squad. The cliché “old head on young shoulders” is over-used, but appropriate for McHugh. He has only just turned 21, remember, and is eight years younger than Andrew Davies, and five and a half years younger than Rory McArdle.
There have been better defenders at Valley Parade, but in terms of courage and commitment to the team, there are very few who can match McHugh.