By Jason McKeown
Carl McHugh’s two years at Valley Parade has seen the young defender become hugely popular amongst Bradford City supporters – and it is due to that affection that most of us will conclude that his free transfer move to Plymouth Argyle is ultimately for the best.
McHugh’s impressive development needs to be continued. But at City – and thanks to the colossal presence of Andrew Davies – his career is in danger of stalling. At 21-years-old and with so much potential, McHugh needs to be playing first team football week in week out. Stepping down a division to an ambitious Argyle outfit will offer him that opportunity.
One step back, but one that is necessary to ultimately move many steps forward.
For McHugh has ably demonstrated his vast potential, and should be destined for a long and successful professional career. On his day he would not look out of place in the Championship. That is something for him to ultimately aspire to over the next few years. At Plymouth he can continue to learn his trade. Make mistakes and improve. Most of all, he can build his confidence further.
He leaves Valley Parade having contributed some wonderful memories. Signed from Reading during that fruitful 2012 summer recruitment drive, the then 19-year-old was seen very much as a squad player who would only feature in the cups. My first viewing of him was at Hartlepool in the JPT, in his less comfortable position of left back. Decent, steady, but nothing spectacular.
Then, on the eve of the Wigan game during the League Cup adventure, Phil Parkinson was robbed of his two centre halves to injury and we all expected a weakened back line to be no match for the Premier League team’s might. Yet McHugh – and Rory McArdle – were sensational on that memorable October night at the DW. For such a young performer, it was some coming of age.
He was then a prominent figure in the games against Arsenal and Aston Villa home and away. That first leg semi final against Villa included that stunning third goal past his boyhood hero Shay Given. How we celebrated that moment. Who could also forget this image?
McHugh started the Wembley final against Swansea, but then his progress slowed with Davies’ return to fitness. Whilst McHugh was such a star performer when defending against Premier League teams who kept the ball on the ground, reading the game superbly, he struggled at times with the physical nature of League Two. Still, it was some first season for the youngster.
2013/14 must have proven more frustrating for McHugh. Starting on the sidelines once more, this time when the chance came to replace a once-again-injured-Davies he was overlooked. Matthew Bates blocked his route to the team, and it was only after James Meredith suffered an injury and there was no left back available that opportunities for him came about. McHugh gave his all at left back, but struggled whenever up against a pacy winger. A positional switching of Bates for McHugh helped him, but soon after Davies was back.
That was always the problem for the left-sided centre back – his direct competition happened to be the best defender at the club. Parkinson tried them both together in the home game against Crewe, Davies moved to right-sided centre back. The three goals conceded underlined how badly it worked. It was either Davies or McHugh. Not and.
Yet there was one last great McHugh moment to enjoy. Port Vale home in February, City had won just one in 21 and were under mounting pressure. McHugh, playing at left back and brave as ever, headed home a last minute winner to save this season. Just like Aston Villa home 13 months prior, what celebrations. He deserved that.
With Davies contracted for another year and seemingly content with life at City, the way forward is blocked for McHugh. A hugely promising career will go backwards if he stays around another 12 months, waiting for Davies’ next injury.
It is a huge shame that McHugh must leave, as he could have been a mainstay at City for many years in other circumstances. But it in his best interests to move on right now; and for that we let him go with sadness but thanks. We will watch his career with interest, always rooting for him.
McHugh has not been the most celebrated figures of the last two seasons, but he was certainly one of the most widely loved.