FROM football’s scrapheap to Wembley in the space of less than a year.
Carl McHugh admits to still pinching himself to make sure he is not dreaming about how being shown the door by Reading last May has led to a Cup run that neither he nor any of his Bradford City team-mates are likely to ever forget.
But that has been the story of the past year for the 20-year-old Donegal-born defender, whose only previous experience of first-team football in England before his Bantams debut last August had come sporting the colours of Swindon Supermarine in the Evo-Stik Southern Division.
“It has been a crazy year, that’s for sure,” said the quietly-spoken Irishman during the build-up to tomorrow’s Wembley date with Swansea City.
“Being released by a club is awful. I won’t lie to you about that. I was devastated, and especially with the way things had gone because I got an injury at a really bad time that effectively took things out of my hands.
“Reading, though, were good to me and they also gave me a good education. So, I don’t have a bad word to say about them. But I do admit that when I was told about being released, I did wonder if that was it for me.
“I wondered if I would have to go back to Ireland and my chances of playing in English football had gone.
“It was a difficult time, but my family and friends were great. They kept me motivated and made sure I kept my head up. They’d say, ‘Even in the bad times, you have to stay positive’. I did and, thankfully, things have worked out well for me.”
Just how well will be evident shortly before 4pm tomorrow when McHugh walks out at a packed Wembley. A grand total of 111 family and friends, who have all flown over from Ireland, will be cheering his every stride from the stands ahead of Bradford’s first appearance in a major final since 1911.
Most of the Donegal contingent will never have been to Wembley before so McHugh has been telling them all about the national stadium from his one visit as a spectator.
“I was at Wembley when Reading were beaten by Swansea in the (2011 Championship) play-off final,” he says. “I was a scholar with Reading so I was just watching in the stand that day, but it was still an unbelievable experience.
“The crowd was so noisy. To be fair, it seemed a million miles from where I was at the time, but this run that we’ve had at Bradford just shows what can happen in football.
“I think my family and friends back home are even more surprised than me. I’ve got so many of them coming over for the final and that means a lot.
“Everyone over there has watched me develop from a young lad playing Gaelic football for the local club. I switched to soccer when I was 15 and then, finally, came over to England. It is great to repay that support.”
McHugh’s fortunes, like those of City, have certainly taken on the look of a fairytale since his debut in the Capital One Cup second-round win at Watford on August 28.
The chief reason for his bow was manager Phil Parkinson wanting to rotate his squad and it was another two months and 10 games before the Irish defender got another chance, again in cup combat as City went to Hartlepool United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and emerged with a penalty shoot-out triumph.
By the fourth week in October, those two cup outings were the extent of McHugh’s game time in Bradford colours. Injury, however, was soon to change all that as the Bantams lost both Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver during the 1-0 defeat at Burton Albion.
Both first choice centre -backs were facing lengthy spells on the sideline – Davies only returned 11 days ago, while Oliver is out until August – and that meant City heading to Premier League Wigan Athletic in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup with a makeshift backline including McHugh. As the 20-year-old admits, it was a turning point in his career.
“The Wigan game was a big one for me,” he says. “Maybe the biggest of my career, in fact, because I was thrown in at the deep end with the injuries and had to make sure I didn’t sink.
“If we had lost that game 5-0 then things could have turned out very differently. But, instead, things went really well and we got through. Everything has gone from that night and my confidence soared as a result.”
Sixteen further appearances have followed along with his first three goals in senior football. One of those, the 88th-minute header at home to Aston Villa in the semi-final first leg, played a pivotal role in City reaching Wembley to further justify Parkinson’s faith last summer.
“My move to Bradford came about because of the manager’s links to Reading,” says McHugh of Parkinson, who spent 11 years with the Royals and made more than 350 appearances.
“Eamonn Dolan (Reading’s Academy manager) and Steve Shorey were really good with me when I got released. They promised to help me get a club and organised the trial with Bradford.
“The club was on tour in Ireland so I went along to County Kildare and played against Wexford Youths. That went well and after that I was invited over here for two weeks.
“Things continued to go well and I signed the day before the season, which, obviously, I was delighted about.
“Since then, things have gone a bit crazy for me. But great as well and I am really enjoying it. When I came on trial at Bradford in the summer, I just wanted a chance to play football somewhere.
“I needed to reignite my career after what had happened last year. The gaffer gave me that chance and I will always be grateful for that. But now I want to kick on.
“Being released by Reading, you do have your doubts and think about what the future will bring. But I promised myself that I would work hard and then, hopefully, things would go well.
“There have obviously been times this season when I wasn’t playing. I was in the reserves instead, but the gaffer told me to work hard and wait for my chance.
“My debut was Watford away in the League Cup and it seems a long time ago. I’ll admit that I thought making my debut was as good as it was going to get.
“That was a massive result – and to beat a Championship team on their own ground when making your debut, that is the stuff of dreams.
“Looking back now, though, it doesn’t seem as big because things have escalated from there and now we are looking forward to Wembley. I have to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming.”
Come 4pm tomorrow, City at Wembley will be a reality and McHugh, for one, believes the Yorkshire club can spring one last surprise to cap a dream Cup run.
“I watched Reading get promotion last year and that made me want success,” he says.
“When you see something like that then it makes you crave it more. The scenes I witnessed at Reading last year were brilliant and I remember thinking I’d love to be a proper part of something like that.
“That is why the Cup wins we have had this season have been so special. All that has happened has made all the disappointment and upset at being released by Reading worth it.
“If I was still at Reading then I wouldn’t be playing any football. And I wouldn’t have had this incredible experience. I couldn’t have dreamed of anything like this happening a year ago.”