Bradford City v Aston Villa: McHugh relishing prospect of the latest lesson in education process

Two years ago, Irish defender Carl McHugh was lining up in the Southern League with Swindon Supermarine.

A willowy, slip of a lad, he gained senior football experience on loan from Premier League club Reading.

Hopes of enjoying similar status with his parent club were a long way from the mind of the 18-year-old.

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He played seven times for Supermarine before being released by Reading on his return to the Madejski Stadium.

His career appeared on the verge of being over before it had even begun and he returned home to see out 2011 playing for Dundalk.

But McHugh never lost faith that his chance would come, and last summer he caught the eye of Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson while the Bantams were on a pre-season tour of Ireland. He was offered a one-year deal, but even then he was just a back-up.

Until, that was, severe injuries struck Bradford’s central defensive pairing of Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver, and all of a sudden McHugh was elevated into the first team.

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His debut came in the club’s Capital One Cup win at Watford, and already in his very brief career he has had enough highlights to make even the most gnarled of Football League journeymen green with envy.

He helped Bradford stop Wigan from scoring in the last-16 tie, and then last month he was part of the team that produced one of the greatest nights in the club’s history when they humbled Arsenal at a rocking Valley Parade.

Next up are Aston Villa in what will be only the 17th game in professional football for McHugh.

“It’s a bit different,” he laughs when asked of the contrast between the Southern League and taking Premier League scalps.

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“I went to Supermarine as a second-year scholar. It was my first experience in men’s football. I was only used to reserves and youth team so it was worlds apart.

“It was really good, I enjoyed it a lot. Then I went to Dundalk in Ireland. Both were a massive help to me.”

McHugh accepts he is a long way from being the finished article.

He recalls a game for City in November when Northampton striker Clive Platt – 6ft 4ins and 13 stone of burly striker – gave him a lesson in the man’s game.

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Later that match, Adebayo Akinfenwa came off the bench to give the 5ft 11ins defender a few more bumps and bruises.

“That was a tough one for me, I’d never come across players that physical in the youth teams or reserves,” recalls McHugh.

“Clive Platt was massive. You’re going to get that but you just have to learn as much as you can from it. I’m still relatively inexperienced so you just have to try and make the most out of the time you get on the pitch and hope that if you come up against it in the future you’ll fare better.”

That opportunity could come sooner than he thought if Paul Lambert fields his Belgian ‘beast’ Christian Benteke tonight.

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“Benteke has been fantastic in the Premier League and he’s a different proposition to some of the forwards Arsenal had. We’ll just have to try and deal with him as best we can,” says McHugh.

“They’ve got loads of top players and it doesn’t matter who you’re up against, they’re all top class.”

Underpinning the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a young man eager to embrace his big chance is a resolve to use every lesson to his benefit.

“I’ve had a few tough times over the years, but you just have to think that when you get the chance you’ll be good enough to take it and thankfully I’ve done pretty well,” he says.

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“In a way there’s no time to learn because it’s a really ruthless game so you have to improve or get left behind.

“I’m under no illusions about that. I’ve got a lot of improving to do to become the player I want to be.”

McHugh is grateful for the support of his family who helped him through the tough times, and he was delighted to share with them the magic of that memorable night against Arsenal.

They will not be at Valley Parade tonight, though, as like the rest of the country they did not expect Bradford to progress.

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“Having my friends and family over made it even more special for me,” he said.

“That Arsenal game is all a bit of a blur really. After the game I was in a bit of a daze.

“In the build-up you’re just focused on putting in a performance and you have to try and blank everything out.

“You just have to worry about your own job for the team, and that’s what we’ll have to do again against Villa.

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“You have to enjoy playing against top-class players, it’s a great experience for all of us, and in front of a packed house again it will be brilliant.”

Bradford have doubts over James Meredith (ill) and James Hanson and Stephen Darby who are suffering from knocks.

City have extended the loan deal of England Under-19 international Blair Turgot for another month and he is available tonight.

Last six games: Bradford DDWLDL; Aston Villa WLLLDW.

Last time: Bradford 0 Aston Villa 3; February 3, 2001; Premier League.

Referee: H Webb (Rotherham).