As Carl McHugh prepares for Sunday’s Capital One League Cup final against Swansea City at Wembley the Bradford City defender will have been delighted to have got a second chance.
McHugh had played on loan for the curiously named Swindon Supermarine in Wiltshire on seven occasions and then 12 times for Dundalk in the Airtricity League but on a another temporary move, to Barnet the January before last, disaster struck.
“I returned from a loan with Dundalk and had a problem with one of my stomach muscles,” the 20-year-old says. “That kept me out for about two months but when it healed I was loaned out to Barnet. But on the first day I was there, we were training and I twisted my knee and tore my cartilage and meniscus. I needed an operation and was out for the rest of the season. That was the end of Barnet.”
With the opportunity to impress taken from him, that was the end of Reading, too. The club, though, had tutored him for three years and although they cut their ties they promised to try and find McHugh alternative employment.
McHugh, in the meantime, returned home to the banks of the sweeping Gweebarra River with his fingers crossed. The local GAA club at Dooey, fourth division Na Rossa, kept his feet occupied. The Na Rossa club, whom McHugh’s father Gerry now manages, was in his blood since childhood, as was the only soccer club he had ever represented at home, Dungloe Town.
“It was a bad time for me after I got released by Reading,” McHugh says of last summer. “Immediately after it happened I took a bit of time to come to terms with it. I was lucky to have good people around me and that kept me going. I always had a bit of belief in myself and they kept me motivated. I always hoped that if I got a chance somewhere then maybe I would be able to take it.”
“Reading were brilliant. They really tried to get me somewhere and organised the trial with Bradford. Phil Parkinson was the manager there and I knew him from Reading, where he had been an established player for years.”
McHugh, thanks to Reading’s intervention, was invited by Parkinson for a trial at Carton House in Maynooth on Bradford’s summer tour of Ireland. It’s the same hotel that put a roof over Christiano Ronaldo’s head a few years back and also the place Jim McGuinness used to prepare Donegal’s Gaelic footballers for last year’s All-Ireland final against Mayo.
“I was training with Bradford at Carton House in Maynooth and then played a match against Wexford Youths,” McHugh adds of the opportunity that came his way. “I did reasonably well over the week and they called me back and I was offered the contract. It was a massive relief.”
McHugh felt his way into the League Two side’s first team. With only a one-year contract he hoped to make a considerable impact at a club that was rubbing shoulders with those in the Premier League just 12 years ago before suffering the sharpest of falls.
A few eyebrows were raised when Bradford defeated top-flight Wigan Athletic in the last 16 of the League Cup. With the Yorkshire club still in desperate financial straits they were delighted to see their name come out of the draw drum just before Arsenal’s.
While Arsene Wenger was bemoaning the size of the dressingrooms at Valley Parade – now called the Coral Windows Stadium - across the hallway Parkinson and his team were scratching their heads.
Expecting Wenger to select an experimental starting XI, primarily made up of fringe players with one or two of experience to steady matters, Parkinson began to write the opposition team on the whiteboard in Bradford’s, slightly bigger, home dressingroom. Arsenal’s starting team was almost as strong as it could’ve been. That, though, didn’t alter Bradford’s remit.
“It didn’t really matter who they played as few people really gave us a chance and our plan was to have a go and see what happened,” McHugh says of that December night.
Garry Thompson put the underdogs in front on 16 minutes and they held out until three minute from time before Tomas Vermaelen levelled two minutes from time.
However, Bradford forced penalties, something often considered a lottery but one that they had become comfortable buying a ticket for. They would win their fourth shoot-out of the season to send ripples of shock through the football world.
Aston Villa were next up in a two-legged semi-final. Paul Lambert’s team were struggling in the Premier League but Villa had an affinity with the League Cup, winning the competition on five occasions.
Bradford, on the other hand, were vying to become the first fourth flight team to reach the final since Rotherham United, who had reached the competition’s first ever final in 1962.
Nahki Wells gave Bradford a first-half advantage as goalkeeper Matt Duke produced a string of outstanding saves to keep Villa, and Christian Benteke, at bay.
Fearless Bradford, 60 places and millions of pounds behind Villa in football’s pecking order, terrorised Villa and when Rory McArdle doubled their lead with a powerful header 13 minutes from time, the dream of a trip to Wembley became real.
Andreas Weimann looked to have given Lambert’s side a crucial lifeline with a scrambled late goal, before McHugh headed in Gary Jones’s corner two minutes from time past Shay Given for a 3-1 first leg lead.
McHugh had told Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler before that match that he was from Lettermacaward – “a one horse town without the horse.” Afterwards McHugh didn’t have to explain who he was. Given, who McHugh recalled was his idol as he supported Ireland as a boy in the 2002 World Cup, passed on his goalkeeping jersey.
In the return at Villa Park a fortnight later, just how strong Bradford’s Wembley dreams were would be tested in a difficult first half. Benteke cut Villa’s deficit and had it not been for Duke, the heroic goalkeeper who five years ago beat testicular cancer, then there would’ve been no advantage at all for Bradford to cling onto.
“That was the most crucial part of the whole journey,” McHugh says of the half-time break in Birmingham. “We knew going to Villa Park they were going to be charged up in the first half hour. We wanted just to see it through in any way we could and we were under serious pressure for a while.
“I always felt we needed to score at Villa Park and had we managed to do that then we would’ve been all right. That proved the case when James Hanson got the goal - it was enough to see us through. Villa lost their shape when we got that goal and that surprised me. When their moves would break down we would have good spells of possession and things had played into our hands.”
Weimann scored a late winner but one that was of scant consolation for Villa. Bradford had won 4-3 on aggregate and McHugh’s mother Mary hurled down a Donegal flag from the stand during the celebrations. “I don’t know if they knew in Bradford where Donegal was but they do now,” he said afterwards.
“I spoke to Shay after the home game in Bradford and he gave me a jersey but I didn’t really want to annoy him by talking too much after the game at Villa Park. I walked down the tunnel and got pulled for a drug test. The whole team left by the time I was finished and I was the last person left in Villa Park!
“That spoiled it a little. Shay gave me his jersey from both legs. I kept the first leg one myself and gave the other one to our goalkeeper Matt Juke - he really wanted it and nobody has done more for us on this cup run.”
The only Bradford team to have ever reached a cup final were the 1911 vintage, who drew scoreless with Newcastle United at Crystal Palace before captain Jimmy Spiers, one of eight Scottish players on the team, scored the only goal in the Old Trafford replay.
Swansea, who beat Reading in the 2011 Championship play-off final on McHugh’s only visit to Wembley, are Sunday’s opponents. The Welsh side are managed by Michael Laudrup, a former playmaker for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, and have defeated holders Liverpool and European champions Chelsea on route to the novel paired final.
“I was there as a scholar when Reading lost to Swansea in the Championship play-off final. It was a great experience to even be there to sample the atmosphere and watch it,” McHugh says of his only Wembley experience.
“Swansea certainly deserved their semi-final win over Chelsea. They kept two clean sheets against Chelsea and not too many teams are capable of that. They’ve had an unbelievable season.”
“We went into all the games against the higher division teams to have a plan and be disciplined. Everyone has their own job and you have to try and stick to your job. Sometimes you get the rub of the green. We’ve had a bit of luck but in football you earn your luck if you do the right things.”
“We know against Swansea we’re not going to have much of the ball. They’re going to have loads of it so we are going to have to make the most of set pieces. Corners have worked well for us, all four of our goals against Aston Villa came from corners.
“We know that’s where our threat lies so if we can stay tight at the back, I know they’re massive favourites but you never know.”
Last July, as he twiddled his thumbs, Carl McHugh would never have known he would be walking up Wembley Way this season. And that magic journey might just continue.