Monday 22 January 2018

McHugh has chance to head in right direction

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

CARL McHUGH was front and centre on Sky Sports News yesterday, a rare position for a victim of the cull which Premier League clubs engage in at the end of each season.

The majority disappear without trace, with news of their next move usually deemed unworthy of the yellow ticker that repeatedly scrolls along the bottom of the football-dominated 24-hour sports channel.

McHugh was released by Reading last summer after coming through their academy without making a single first-team appearance. The only senior football he experienced prior to this season came in 2011, when he was initially dispatched on loan to the wonderfully named non-league side, Swindon Supermarine.

A 12-game trip to the League of Ireland was the next stage of his education, with McHugh slotting into a Dundalk side managed by Ian Foster, spending a period of that stint as a makeshift left-back.

The feedback from those experiences and his subsequent performances on the training ground weren't enough to convince the Madejski authorities that he was worth another contract; untimely injuries had also affected his prospects.

The pain which youngsters feel at that rejection offers a dramatic contrast from what McHugh has experienced over the past 48 hours.

Suddenly, everybody wants to talk to him. Bradford's unlikely charge through the League Cup has alerted Donegal to another success story, with the childhood friend of All-Ireland SFC winner Paddy McBrearty living out his own dreams by playing a central role in the quarter-final win over Arsenal and the 3-1 first-leg success over Aston Villa on Tuesday night.

His admiration for visiting netminder Shay Given had been well flagged in the preliminaries. When the Lettermacaward native rose majestically to dispatch a perfectly placed header for the third goal, few could believe what they were seeing.

After all, the only member of Phil Parkinson's side to command a transfer fee when they arrived at the club was striker James Hanson, a £7,500 capture from non-league Guiseley Town. The rest were picked up on a free or on loan, effectively discarded by others. By contrast, Paul Lambert's selection cost over £33m, and that's before you consider the substantial gulf in wage bills.

Certainly, the cash on offer at Bradford last August was modest, even by the standards of some other clubs in the same division. The Irish Independent has learned of one young Irish centre-half, previously on the books of a Premier League club, who rejected a switch to Valley Parade. He's still out of work.

McHugh seized the opportunity to join Bradford on a low-key pre-season tour of Ireland, and impressed Parkinson. Five months on he's a calm 90 minutes away from a big day out at Wembley.

Placed in front of the cameras, he tried to explain what it felt to make a headline-grabbing contribution in front of a capacity crowd. "It was surreal," he said. "The noise before the game was unbelievable. It lifts the players, gives you that extra 5pc, 10pc, just hearing the fans."

The bigger picture is that the finance from this adventure can give a club who dropped from the top flight to the fourth tier a chance to move up the ladder again. Former Leeds striker Andy Gray, who had a successful spell at Bradford in better times, rejoined yesterday, and Parkinson is expected to bring in more bodies before the end of the month to aid the promotion fight.

They have all sung from the same hymn sheet by stressing that the cup distraction cannot deflect from their main focus, but it will be a huge challenge.

The Bantams are in eighth spot in League Two, but just three points away from the automatic promotion places.

Like his employers, this is McHugh's opportunity to push back in the right direction. Capped from Ireland right through from U-15 to U-19 level, there's always been a high regard for his ability.

All he needed was a break, and a manager who had the faith to give him responsibility to grow. They are the raw materials of a story that has been told many times.

The difference is that this one could have a happy ending.

Irish Independent

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