By Jason McKeown
It was nine months ago that I was in the McCall Suite of Valley Parade for the 2012/13 player of the year awards, thrilled to be sat next to Phil Parkinson. As he patiently put up with me quizzing him about anything and everything, the Bradford City manager’s views on Carl McHugh left a big impression on me. “He will do anything you ask of him for the good of the team,” Parkinson offered, before pointing over to a nearby wall. “If you ask him to run through that, for the good of the team, he will do it.”
There was something fitting about the Irishman proving to be Tuesday night’s match winner which saw the Bantams halt a difficult slide of poor results. McHugh was brought into the team late in place of the injured Matthew Bates, and was asked to play a left back role that – after a torrid first half at Bramall Lane in that position – he must still have nightmares about. McHugh has endured the “difficult second season” syndrome and barely featured before Christmas. Even in his more regular centre back position, his performances of late had been mixed.
Yet McHugh overcame any personal hesitation and damaged confidence to perform impressively at left back. Early jitters, when he and Andrew Davies contested the same ball, were brushed away, and he let no one down in what is evidently not his best position. There was a determination and assurance about his play that was mirrored by all the players in claret and amber – on the evidence of Tuesday’s performance, you would not have known this team was under pressure and winless in 13 matches.
That is to the players’ huge credit, and it also reflects fantastically on their manager Parkinson (who, for all the arguments of the last seven days and supporter calls to be sacked, received a fantastic ovation before kick off from a sizeable chunk of the crowd). There was a steeliness and a resolve about the side to not let this season sink any further. To turn around the poor results. Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones were magnificent in the centre; Adam Reach and Kyle Bennett both enjoyed their best games in a City shirt on the flanks; Rory McArdle recovered from his own disappointing form to once again be a rock at the back; James Hanson and Aaron Mclean proved industrious up front.
But eyes were still drawn to McHugh, even before his stoppage time contribution. Midway through the second half, Bennett was replaced by Garry Thompson and Reach was instructed to play narrower. The onus was on McHugh to overlap the on-loan Middlesbrough player and provide a wide threat. You could see Carl’s initial hesitancy to join the attacks, but from the dugout Parkinson kept urging him to get forward. A message that spoke volumes.
For McHugh, like everyone else in the team, had performed well on the night – but still, Parkinson wanted and demanded more. This was not going to be an evening of City reflecting on a good team performance but more dropped points. McHugh hardly looked comfortable as he ran up the pitch with the ball or made himself an option for others in possession, but he contributed positively nonetheless. He was out of his comfort zone but doing everything he could for the good of the team. How richly deserved that his effort and endeavour was to be rewarded in such memorable fashion. As fellow Width of a Post writer Mark Scully commented after the game, the young defender’s header and resultant wild stadium celebrations was a true I-was-there moment.
There is a contrast to be pondered between McHugh’s bravery and the man he replaced in the team. On the morning of the match, the Telegraph & Argus featured an interview with Matthew Bates that led on the angle he was unhappy filling in at left back. “It’s not a position I’ve played or particularly enjoy, if I’m being honest,” he admitted. The tone of the piece arguably not helped by the journalistic licence applied by Simon Parker (“Matthew Bates is no fan of his position”).
Whilst not doubting Bates has a right to feel disappointed at being shunted from his favourite position, his frustrations simply should not be relayed so publically and it sends out the wrong message. As a player who has yet to win over all supporters, to relay dissatisfaction at having to play out of position does little to aid his reputation. And besides, when everyone is fit, it is highly unlikely that Bates would be in the first XI. What is to be, Matthew: left back or left back on the bench?
Carl McHugh probably isn’t overly-thrilled to be playing at left back either, but the commitment and dedication he showed to fill an unfamiliar role was hugely admirable. He truly ran through that proverbial brick wall on behalf of his team, and his short and long-term prospects at Valley Parade have been considerably boosted as a result.