Carl McHugh was stuck in the middle of one of football’s biggest fairytales but he still remembered where he had come from.
Moments after his Bradford City side had caused one of the biggest shocks in the history of the League Cup by beating an Aston Villa side 62 places and several million pounds ahead of them in football’s pecking order, the Lettermacaward native was seen joining in the celebrations with his Donegal flag, which had been passed down to him from the stands by his mother Mary.
“I just saw the flag in the crowd and got them to throw it down,” McHugh told the Donegal Democrat yesterday. “That was the highlight of the night for me. Back in Bradford they might have thought it was the Irish flag, but they know now that it is the Donegal flag.”
The Yorkshire club’s 4-3 aggregate win means a first cup final appearance since 1911, when Bradford defeated Newcastle United 1-0 in a replayed FA Cup final at Old Trafford after a 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace.
Bradford are the first side from England’s fourth tier to reach the League Cup final since Rochdale lost the two-legged final in the second ever staging of the competition, 1962, against Norwich City.
Last week in the first leg of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy northern area semi-final, Bradford, who are currently in 10th place in League Two, lost 4-1 at Crewe Alexandra. However, they were not to be denied in the League Cup.
They had already accounted for Premier League sides Wigan Athletic and Arsenal before being paired with Villa in the semi-finals. At Valley Parade in the first leg a fortnight ago, 19-year-old McHugh scored his side’s third goal with a bullet header past Lifford native Shay Given in a 3-1 home win.
At Villa Park on Tuesday night, Bradford’s modest team, with a combined cost of just £7,500, took their two-goal lead to the former European Cup winners.
Paul Lambert’s team dominated the first half and Christian Benteke reduced the deficit when he steered a half-volley past Bradford goalkeeper Matt Duke, who had an excellent first half for the visitors.
After the break, though, Phil Parkinson’s team were much more comfortable and got back on terms on the night when James Hanson headed home on 55 minutes following a corner from Gary Jones. It made the aggregate score 4-2, with all four of Bradford’s goals over the two games coming from corners.
Andreas Weimann scored a late goal for Villa to give the scant consolation of the 2-1 win on the night but the glory was all Bradford’s.
McHugh, who has since been promoted to the Irish U-21 squad for next month’s friendly against Holland at Tallaght Stadium, even embraced match referee Phil Dowd when he blew for full-time.
“The game itself, towards the end, it was tight and nerve-wrecking,” McHugh said of the latter stages of Tuesday’s game. “I really felt calm and wanted to go out and enjoy it and I think I did that. Obviously in the last 10 minutes, it was tense and it was good to hear the final whistle.
“When we cleared that ball, I was just staring at the referee. I can’t remember anything. The emotions just took over.”
Bradford can now look forward to the Wembley final against the winners of last night’s second semi-final between Swansea and Chelsea, with the Welsh club having won the first leg 2-0 at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago.
In the meantime, McHugh and his Bradford teammates were due to fly out to Tenerife yesterday for a four-day break to recharge the batteries.
“It will be brilliant to get away together,” said McHugh, who felt having last weekend off after their League Two fixture at Port Vale was postponed due to a frozen Vale Park pitch, certainly helped on Tuesday night in Birmingham.
“Having last weekend free was a massive help. It gave us time to prepare and Villa had a tough derby game against West Brom. I think we are in the final on merit. We knew it was going to be tough at times in the second leg. We did well to get in at half-time 1-0 down. Our goal changed the game completely and we did well to see the game out.”
With the call-up to the U-21s following the result of his life, McHugh is walking on air. Asked if he would welcome a call from Mr Trapattoni, McHugh replied: “There’s a long way to go for that.”
Maybe, it won’t be that long.